When it comes to cultural and social inequalities between men and women, the wage gap is one of the most widely accepted yet paradoxically ignored aspects of the gendered disparity. For over 30 years, equal pay has been the law of the land, though numerous independent studies have established that working women who clock 40 hours still make, on average, 77 cents to their male counterpart’s dollar. Furthermore, earlier this year, The Washington Post reported on some surprising findings that a person’s body size has more to do with the size of their paycheck than previously believed.
“The study found that thin women are paid significantly more than their average-size counterparts, while heavier women make less,” Amelia Rayno writes on Jan. 29. “Skinnier-than-average men, on the other hand, cash smaller paychecks than their average-weight peers.” Rayno goes on to quote Teresa Rothausen-Vange, a management professor at the University of St. Thomas, who explains that skinny men are considered “less-than-manly” while thin women make for a more attractive corporate image.
However, uncovering that the workforce is enabling and perpetuating unrealistic physical standards of attractiveness is old hat. What makes The Post’s report so shocking is contained several paragraphs down where Rayno reveals staggering results: Men on the smaller side earn $8,000 less than their more beefy male peers, a paltry amount in comparison to the women’s results. According to the study, thinner women earned more than $16,000 a year than their heavier co-workers.
Attempting to deconstruct all of the social mores that fuel the pay schism would require a blog post the length of Atlas Shrugged, but let’s examine a few of the more thought-provoking issues here. To begin with, it’s worth noting that the pay disparity between the two different male body types is still considerably less than the wage gap between men and women, particularly for women of color. This suggests that although the corporate world is hostile to people of size, men, particularly white men, have a leg up on the female competition.
That certainly seems to be supported by a study completed by Michigan State University researchers in April of 2009, which examined a control group of 1,000 bosses from companies in the United States. The study, published in the British Journal Equal Opportunity International, went on to conclude that being “overweight” didn’t appear to hurt men’s chances for professional advancement unless they were considered “obese,” while women were hindered by being considered “overweight” and “obese.”
Although the study validates what factivists have been saying regarding discrimination in the work place, it also exposes a flaw in the methodology of such information-gathering. The Michigan State University researchers carried out their study by asking medical professionals to rate the executives as overweight or obese based on the Body Mass Index, commonly referred to as the BMI, a formula that has been debunked in recent years for being grossly inaccurate. The results are made even more suspect due to the fact that the medical professionals only had photographs of the executives to go on, challenging the veracity of how objective the study actually was.
This isn’t to dispute that there is an obvious phobia towards persons of size because the instances of fat discrimination appear to be on the rise, but rather to illustrate how wily the problem is. Much like the Supreme Court’s standard on pornography, nobody can define what being healthy looks like as a universal precedent, but plenty of people think they have been granted the magical power to recognize it on sight. There is no standardized rubric with which to visually judge whether someone is “overweight,” but that doesn’t seem to deter some people from trying.
Although these findings affirm that employers are likely to rely on their own prejudices of weight to determine an employee’s worth, they also signal a strong need for political change to challenge the dominant, aesthetic narrative. Until such reform happens, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the pay gap may snowball into a pay canyon.