Want To Run For Office? You Better Start Running First

05/21/2014 03:30 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2014
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Political candidates have a lot to worry about on the campaign trail: the gaffe-to-gif pipeline, a 24/7 news cycle, debates, and, of course, attacks from their opponents. But according to a new study, maybe they should be worried about their weight, too.

Researchers at Hope College and Michigan State University found an association between the heaviness of a candidate and the number of votes garnered. If a candidate is up against someone who's noticeably less heavy, the vote-count chasm widens even further. And if you're a female candidate, forget about it -- you're either of normal weight, or not on the ballot at all.

The findings are worrying because they suggest American voters may be too biased against heavier-weight candidates to vote for the best person for the job, said lead researcher Mark Roehling, a professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at MSU.

"In an employment setting, we're worried that when you rely on bias instead of all the well-developed selection tools, you're making decisions that are not as well-informed," Roehling, who has studied workplace weight stigma in the past, told The Huffington Post. "You're passing up on human resource talent -- even in the political context."

As for people who say that an elected official's health is a national security matter (say, for a U.S. president), Roehling said that weight is too often used as a proxy for overall health, when in fact there are other ways to verify physical fitness for office.

"There's a lot of research that shows there are many people who are overweight and obese who still score very well on measures of health," Roehling said. "I'm not saying weight is never related to health, but there are better measures of health, and that's my concern."

For the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion study, Roehling and his colleagues had two groups of undergraduate students view photos of candidates who had run in the 2008 and 2012 primary and general elections for U.S. Senate. Each group evaluated either the 2008 or the 2012 crop by rating the candidates's perceived weights on a point scale: underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese. In all, the participants evaluated 190 candidates across 126 elections.

Then researchers took those weight perceptions and compared them to the actual outcomes of those elections. They found that candidates who were perceived to be slimmer had actually won more votes. And the larger the size discrepancy between the two candidates, the larger the vote count discrepancy.

On a more fundamental level, Roehling also found that the pool of candidates who make it to election date are already pre-screened when it comes to size. In no way, said Roehling, did the candidates' perceived weights reflect American size demographics; 35.1 percent of adults are obese, while 33.9 percent are overweight, according to 2011-2012 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's clear that obese individuals are basically not represented among candidates," Roehling said. "Of the 126 elections that were compared, there was only one male who was obese, and no females are obese."

However, in the simply "overweight" category, male candidates were representative of the general population, but female candidates were not. Most female candidates were rated by study participants to be a lot more slender than their male counterparts. This suggests that "weight discrimination occurred at a very early stage and at a lower threshold for women," the study said, "impeding their ability to be considered for candidacy" in the first place.

"To what extent is this due to people not willing to support [an overweight woman], versus some self-selection?" Roehling said. "Maybe obese women are saying, 'I'm not even going to put myself through that.' Either way, it's a reflection or a manifestation of what's going on in broader society."

Rebecca Puhl, another weight bias researcher and deputy director at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, praised Roehling's study and said its findings expose a new domain that isn't immune to weight bias.

"Given the prevalence and social acceptability of weight bias in our culture, it's not surprising that we see this evidence of weight bias playing out in politics," Puhl wrote in an email to HuffPost. "Experimental research has similarly found that obese political candidates receive more negative evaluations than thinner candidates -- especially if they are women." Past research has shown that overweight and obese people are more likely to earn less than normal weight people, get fewer promotions and can be fired or demoted because of their weight, even though weight wasn't an official performance metric for their positions.

Puhl wasn't involved in Roehling's study, but she has done research about weight stigma and bullying in the past. Her most recent paper, published April in the journal Obesity, found that 75 percent of the general public support laws prohibiting weight discrimination in the workplace. Puhl also found that over time, people also grew more supportive of adding body weight as a protected class in Civil Rights statutes (62 percent in 2011 to 69 percent in 2013). So far, only Michigan and a handful of cities (including Santa Cruz and San Francisco in California, Binghamton in New York, and Washington D.C.) have instituted such policies, according to Puhl's study.

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