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Weight Bias and the White House

Posted Sep 07 2008 8:37pm

by Rebecca Puhl

In the ongoing discussions about the presidential race, it appears that weight bias has entered the conversation. Last month I noticed a posting on The Huffington Post that asked the question, would you vote for Obama if he was obese?

The author, Irene Rubaum-Keller, writes: “When it comes to Obama, he has many things going for him. The fact that he is young and fit, certainly play into his appeal…But what if he was fat and everything else about him was the same? Would he have even gotten the nomination? If he did get the nomination, would he beat McCain?”

Well, if we look to the science on this issue, the answer for most people would probably be “no.” Experimental studies that examine weight bias in hiring practices consistently show that obese job candidates are less likely to be hired and are attributed more negative characteristics than thinner candidates, even when their level of education, credentials, and relevant work experiences are identical. Typically, these studies randomly assign participants to one of several experimental conditions where they are presented with a picture of a job applicant (who is portrayed as being either thin or obese) as well as a summary of the applicant’s qualifications. Participants are then asked a series of questions about the applicant, and make recommendations about hiring the person.

The level of stigma is especially striking in several of these studies which demonstrate that thin, unqualified applicants are still regarded more favorably than qualified overweight applicants who had appropriate credentials and education, and that overweight candidates receive lower starting salary recommendations than thin applicants, even when their resumes are identical.

So, despite the qualifications of our presidential candidates, if either of them were obese, it is possible that weight bias could trump their ideas, experience, and integrity. That’s quite a sad reflection of our current societal attitudes. And it’s an indication that, perhaps, an important priority for the next administration is to enact legislation to prohibit weight-based discrimination in employment. You never know – it could end up protecting some people in the White House.

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