Quick Hit: Overweight women more likely to experience weight-based discrimination in court of law

A new study, including a jury and mock trial, shows that overweight women are more likely to be penalized in the court of law.

The researchers presented 471 participants with a description of a mock court case, dealing with alleged check fraud. They then showed the participant a supposed mug shot of one of four defendants — a lean male, a lean female, an obese male or an obese female. After viewing the image, the mock jurors were asked several questions about the defendant’s guilt, including whether the person intended to commit fraud and whether he or she was likely to be a repeat offender.

Male jurors found the obese female defendant to be significantly guiltier than the thin female defendant, while female jurors judged both women equally, regardless of weight. For all the jurors, a male defendant’s weight had no effect on how guilty he was perceived.

The fact that only female defendants were penalized for their weight is consistent with research over the past 20 years showing that women are more vulnerable to weight-based discrimination than men, the researchers report.

Natasha Schvey, lead author of the study, said the findings may be due to commonly held stereotypes that obese individuals are greedy, selfish or lacking in impulse control.

…stereotypes that have another layer added to them when women are the subjects. I write this post not even 3 hours after I was attacked based on my weight on a social media site (which became a brief game of Playing the Dozens. So, no harm, no foul). But so much of what people think about women is wrapped up in what we look like. Specifically, people are deciding whether or not we are worthy, or guilty, based on how much we conform to oppressive standards of beauty and femininity. In this case, we see that the implications are dangerous and unjust.

We gotta do better.

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  1. Posted January 9, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I’m saddened to see another article about scientific research without even a link to the primary source. The echo chamber of journalists writing about each other’s summaries, and not referencing the actual research, is a very unfortunate phenomenon.

    In particular this study explicitly does not “show that overweight women are more likely to be penalized in the court of law”. From p.4 “Results indicated [...] no main effects of defendant sex or weight on assessment of guilt”, and from p. 6 “This study is limited by its reliance on online questionnaire assessments, which may not reflect actual behavior in a courtroom setting”.

    It’s a serious disservice to the researchers to attribute to them conclusions that they do not assert – their actual conclusion, that male potential jurors as a group display weight bias with respect to assessments of female defendants, is important enough on its own. (As the researchers reference in their introduction, we do already know about biases in actual courtroom settings; they cite studies showing that conventionally attractive defendants are judged more leniently, male defendants receive harsher sentences, and crimes against female victims are punished more often and more harshly.)

    I completely agree, though, that we absolutely have to do better, and this study indicates that in this case, the population subgroup that has to do better is men specifically. Hopefully that’s useful information for whoever’s out there targeting education campaigns or other remedies.

    • Posted January 11, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

      Here here. Strongly seconding Sam L-L’s call for a little bit more care in reporting scientific studies.

  2. Posted January 9, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    The researchers have it backwards. It isnt the fat woman that should get leniency, it is the thin woman that should be called out on her crimes by the men despite her charmingly good looks.

  3. Posted January 10, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I know you probably used the word “overweight” because the study does, but it’s my understanding that this word implies that there are appropriate and not appropriate weights that we should be. I’ve stopped using it for its normative connotations.

    • Posted January 11, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      What term would you suggest?

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