A Yale university study found that male jurors were more likely to render a guilty verdict to obese women than to lean women — regardless of their own weight.
Led by three Yale psychologists, the study gave 471 participants a story describing a case of check fraud. Participants were also given one of four images of the alleged defendant: a lean male, a lean female, an obese male or an obese female. After reading the story, participants were asked to rate the defendant's culpability.
In the case of lean male and obese male defendants, no weight bias emerged in jurors of either gender. But when the defendant was female, male participants — both overweight and lean — were significantly more likely to find her guilty if she was obese.
"Only the obese female defendant was penalized for her weight, a finding that is consistent with research published in the past 20 years that shows obese females face more weight-related stigma than obese males," said a statement by the Yale Rudd Center.
Additionally, lean male participants were also more likely to believe that the obese female defendant met criteria for check fraud and that she would be a repeat offender. Female jurors did not indicate a weight bias for defendants of either gender.
“According to research previously conducted at the Rudd Center, the prevalence of weight-based stigmatization is now on par with rates of racial discrimination, and has been documented across multiple domains, including employment, medical, and interpersonal settings,” said Natasha Schvey, lead author of the study. “The present study identifies yet another setting in which obese persons are vulnerable to bias and discrimination.”
Yale's Rudd Center For Food Policy and Obesity studies nutrition and obesity, including weight bias and stigma. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 35 percent of US adults are obese.
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Weight is not a protected category under federal nondiscrimination laws. The authors said the findings of the study demonstrate the extent of weight stigma and the need to extend weight bias reduction efforts to the legal setting, such as screening potential jurors for weight bias.
In an interview with Slate magazine, Schvey said stereotypes about obese people may paint them as greedy, selfish, and thus prone to defrauding checks. However, this idea does not explain why only male participants reflected those stereotypes in their answers and only with regard to obese women. More research is needed to determine why weight bias is more pronounced against women.
The study was published Jan. 8 in the International Journal of Obesity.