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8 December 2023

A POUND FOR A POUND? The Economics of Being Thin


It is rational, economically speaking, for ambitious women to be thin. Across the developed world, the richer women are, the thinner they are likely to be. The opposite tends to be true for men, so this gap is decidedly gendered. No surprises there. Female body positivity is pushed in all aspects of modern society, so at this point, if we are too vain, it’s practically anti-feminist. Smart women are urged to rid themselves of vanity just as we managed to supersede a life defined by procreation and washing up. Yet, whilst social attitudes may have shifted slightly, the labour market’s feedback on body shape suggests that the economic realities haven’t quite caught up with our attempts for change. It is the ultimate antiquity of modern feminism: being skinny means being successful.


Research across the Western World concludes that overweight women have considerably lower salaries and less opportunity for promotion: 




  • Losing 65 lbs could raise an obese woman’s salary just as much as it would if she were to gain a master’s degree (The Economist).


Weight vs Wealth: A Discrimination


The obesity epidemic prevalent in higher-income countries holds a direct relation to wealth. Obesity is a prominent feature of poverty. It is harder to access healthy food, there’s less time and freedom to exercise, and there’s a lack of educational means to gain knowledge about healthy eating habits. Fundamentally, whilst these issues all prevail, the skewed relationship between income and weight in developed countries is fuelled almost entirely by women. Looking at the data, this economic lapse does not apply to men, so there is no doubt that this issue partially relies on social perception. Jennifer Shinall, assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School and author of ‘Occupational Characteristics and the Obesity Wage Penalty’ discovered that ‘what is going on is being driven by the employer side of the equation; by employer preferences’, leaving another possible explanation where the causality is reversed: being thin helps women become rich. 


As for why this discrimination occurs, it is possible that obese employees may incur higher costs for companies. Expenses such as health insurance and occupational-led anti-obesity schemes come into play, yet none of these explanations justify the blindingly obvious gender gap. Studies suggest that wage penalties for obese women have a direct correlation to withstanding social biases based on cultural impressions of obesity as a synonym for laziness, or a lack of self-control. Shinall puts it plainly in her research findings: employers ‘don’t want an obese woman to be the face of their company or the person their clients interact with’. Cue Katie Hopkins, who urges fat people to stand in the mirror, and ‘do something about it’. 


The Age-Old Curse of Female Body Image


Discrimination against larger women still persists despite obesity numbers rising. Where we might expect the rising ‘norm’ of overweight people to even out the wage penalty, in fact, the stigma is only heightened, as ‘the increasing rarity of thinness had led to its rising premium’. Between 2007 and 2016, data has been analysed from over 4 million implicit bias tests run at Harvard where people were asked to link association words like good and bad to individuals of differing race, gender, sexual orientation or weight. The results show a positive discrimination towards attitudes regarding race and sex, representing important shifts in social belief. It recorded that unfavourable perceptions of homosexual people have fallen by a third. Weight was the only variable with a downward slope; attitudes toward obesity have become increasingly more negative. 


Female bodily ideals have long plagued the lives of women, where we once sought after voluptuous curves, apparently that’s so Renaissance – and the new fashion is that which author and journalist Tom Wolfe pertains to a ‘social x-ray’. His works centre on the stories and lifestyles of the economic and intellectual elites of New York City, claiming women ought to be so slight, they should only exist in 2D. The 90s supermodel set continued to fuck everything up as they ignited the heroine chic ideal with infected the minds of so many – as Kate Moss put it plainly; ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’. Disguised under modern-day mantras of *wellness*, we are now bombarded with no-low-sugar-fat-free this and that, so are we really escaping the social burden or just disguising it with fancy new wording? As Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror writes, ‘the psychological parasite of the ideal woman has evolved to survive in an ecosystem that pretends to resist her’. As studies tell us, overweight men are sturdy, perhaps stronger and better suited to positions of power and authority, whereas overweight women are fat, and we just have to deal with it.


The Future of Female Success


The disturbing data makes it difficult to justify that women can truly measure their success based on education, intelligence and merit without considering their figure. Where young girls would feel the weight of a snide comment at school and gawk at unrealistic magazine covers, we now get to add the pressure of genuine systematic discrimination in employment: failing to lose weight will, quite literally, cost you. Forbes refers to an economic glass ceiling in place for obese women, very quietly prohibiting occupational advancement in pursuit of a tired cultural ideal. Pretty privilege reigns on, so must we add losing weight to the list of useful financial returns after a simple pathway of school, potentially university, even higher education and debt? All in the name of success – eh?


On a lighter note, these studies do uncover stark data and publicly condemn social attitudes. Clearly, ingrained cultural biases towards thinner women continue to create bleak financial and occupational repercussions for the overweight female population. It is important for employers to be exposed to these preconceptions and promote a conscious disassociation. In America, Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act (which helped flight attendants get rid of legal occupational weight limits) looks at sex discrimination issues through the treatment of men and women under the same circumstances. In a time where the fate of being female is on the up, these ingrained gender issues are hopefully hanging on for dear life, until the clock swings back, and we’re allowed to be 3D again.

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