Lose pounds, pad your paycheck?

Overweight white women suffer a significant wage penalty. Research shows it's only getting worse.

By Carol Lloyd

Published December 14, 2007 1:32AM (EST)

Are you white, obese, female? Watch your pocketbook.

It doesn't take an economic analysis to convince me that women are discriminated against based on their looks and that lookism influences their wages. Still, a recent paper from the Bureau of Labor Statistics had me eyeing my love handles nervously. Back in 2004, a longitudinal study that estimated the effect of being overweight on hourly wages, found that white women are the only race-gender group whose weight has a significant effect on their wages. This new paper shows that the wage-weight gap is only getting worse over time. With the tyranny of skinniness spreading over the land, overweight white women suffered an increasing wage penalty between 1981 and 2000. David Lembert, the author of the paper, theorized that as the obesity rates have risen, so too has the premium on thinness. But in a society where so many people qualify as overweight, does it really make sense that the stigma should swell?

What's curious is how discriminating this discrimination is. The 2004 study found that for white men their weight had no effect on their wages. And as African-American men got heavier, their wages actually rose. Black women with healthy weights earned more than their thinner counterparts and though heavy black and Latina women did experience a wage gap, it wasn't nearly as large as that of white women. So while some women and men can happily pinch an inch without fear of it decreasing their earning power, white women enjoy special treatment. Why would this be? The earlier study suggested the difference in white women's wages might be explained in terms of their own self-esteem, since according to previous research, white women's self-esteem is closely linked to their weight. But when they controlled for self-esteem, researchers found that the wage differential remained.

That leaves the most obvious explanation: gross bigotry. A free-for-all discussion in response to a posting on the New Economist blog suggests that fat discrimination isn't just something that some people express in the privacy of their homes (or their H.R. departments,) it's a self-righteous meta-theory. "It makes sense to me," writes Stephan. "Maybe this is one of the manifestations of the ways the 'natural system of society' protects us from the 'universal evil' of obesity. Fat is bad. No getting away from that. Bad things naturally are shunned in the interactions of humans at all levels. Thus fat people are left behind ..."

Just substitute any manner of other descriptives -- black, disabled, blind, homeless -- and you can't really imagine that even the random asshole flying through the blogosphere could bring themselves to press the post button. The only rhetoric that comes close to such poisonous fat bashing excretes from reactionary antigay groups who think they've aligned themselves with God. But it seems the anti-fattists don't need legitimizing from a higher power. They've already got the God of economics on their side.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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