Last Updated Jun 14, 2011 10:40 AM EDT
Men and women experience opposite incentives regarding weight in the very thin to average weight range. Whereas women are punished for any weight gain, very thin women receive the most severe punishment for their first few pounds of weight gain.The researchers used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, starting in 1979, as well as from a large German study. Because socio-economic status and health (including weight) are often linked, the researchers looked not just at groups of people but at how particular individuals fared, in terms of their income, when they gained or lost weight. They found that:
- Being skinny is good for women, but bad for men. U.S. women who were 25 pounds below the average weight brought home an average of $15,572 extra each year. Men who were 25 pounds below average weight were actually worse off: They made $8,437 less than average each year.
- Over time, the weight adds up. An American woman who is average weight earns $389,000 less across a 25-year career than a woman who is 25 pounds below average weight.
- Skinny men pay the highest price. In the German study, the penalty for being a very thin man was 28 times the penalty for being a very heavy one.
- "Average" women pay too. For German women, the penalty for going from skinny to average is twice that of going from average to very heavy.
The researchers don't have definitive explanations for their findings, but they do have some ideas:
- Neither "average" women nor very thin men meet society's expectations of an ideal body type. "Both our German and American results show that once women reach an average weight, subsequent weight gains are actually penalized to a lesser extent, presumably because the social preferences for a feminine body have already been violated," write the researchers. It appears that something similar happens with men, except that in this case the social pressure is for a beefier, more muscled body type.
- Thin men are may be negatively stereotyped. In previous research, a group of men and women were shown pictures of thin men. The participants didn't have good associations with male thinness, describing the men as nervous, sneaky, afraid, sad, weak and sick. The same participants, shown pictures of more muscle-bound guys, described them as likely to be a best friend, having lots of friends, polite, happy, helpful to others, brave, healthy, smart, and neat.
- Maybe weight and performance are linked. It is possible, the researchers argue, that "employees are more able to influence others and get things accomplished when they conform to the media's ideal body form. In this sense, employees who conform to societal body expectations may perform better."
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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.