How much does physical appearance, specifically weight, influence women's first impressions of each other? A new survey released Thursday by Glamour magazine sought to answer that question. The poll, conducted on the magazine's behalf by Rebecca Puhl, Ph.D. at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, asked 1,800 women ages 18 to 40 to envision a female stranger who was either "overweight" or "thin," then choose one of a pair of words to describe her -- the examples Glamour's article on the survey gave were ambitious or lazy. "Neither" was always an option, wrote contributing editor Shaun Dreisbach, but fewer than half of participants took it.
The results showed that participants were six times more likely to call an unnamed overweight woman "slow" than they were to apply that label to a thin woman. They were seven times more likely to call the heavier woman "undisciplined," nine times more likely to call her "sloppy," and 11 times more likely to call her "lazy" than they would the thin woman they envisioned.
When they pictured a thin woman, those who took the survey also assumed she possessed a host of negative traits. They were twice as likely to deem her "bitchy," "mean" or "controlling" as they were an overweight woman. They were four times more likely to call the thin woman "vain" or "self-centered" and eight times more likely to think her "conceited" or "superficial" than they were a heavy woman.
In perhaps the best indication of the pervasiveness of weight stereotyping among women, Puhl found that heavy women were just as likely as thin women to describe and overweight woman as "sloppy," and slender women were just as likely as heavy women to assume a thin woman would be mean.
Dreisbach summed up the findings, "The overwhelming conclusion? All women are now judged by their size."
While that could be an overstatement -- the attitudes of the 2,000 women surveyed probably don't represent the attitudes of every woman on the planet -- the survey does support the already substantial evidence that weight negatively affects how women are perceived, in some cases hurting them financially as well as emotionally.
Earlier this week, a study out of the University of Manchester found that obese women had more trouble getting a job, lower starting salaries and fewer leadership opportunities than average-weight women. The study seemed to confirm previous data indicating that being any heavier than 70 pounds under the average weight, gaining any weight at all or having a baby face (chubbier cheeks, less pronounced cheekbones) could lead to lower wages and reduced career opportunity.
In an essay published in the Guardian Thursday on the Manchester University study, Susie Orbach, author of "Fat Is A Feminst Issue," offered an astute assessment of what's causing this level of weight-based judgment and discrimination:
Fat shaming is a new and vicious sport ... Children and their parents are being shamed for looking different than the thousands of Photoshopped pictures we see weekly on our screens ... No wonder society has a thing about fat.
The paradox of consumer culture is that we should and must consume -- our economy depends on it -- but we should at the same time do so discreetly and expensively. Fat challenges this idea. Fat dares to show. Fat is disdained because it is read as greed and an inability to choose or say no...
We value holding back and then assign to fat people the contempt we can feel for our own longings.
But the negative attitudes toward thin women that the Glamour poll revealed also rang true for both experts and individual women the magazine interviewed. Dreisbach pointed out that historically art has often depicted allegorical figures of evil and various vices as slender females. Explaining why thin women are viewed negatively today, Amy Farrell, Ph.D., a professor of women's and gender studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., and author of "Fat Shame," told Glamour, "Not only is a skinny woman assumed to be tight with her calories and, therefore, tight with her emotions ... she's also pushed away as someone who is not sharing in the same struggles as the rest of us."
Even the one positive quality many participants immediately attributed to the overweight woman they pictured -- that she was "giving" -- has negative implications for thin women, psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke told Glamour. "It just fits into the stereotype that thin women are not that way."
All of which seems to at least somewhat validate the heavily criticized claim Daily Mail columnist Samantha Brick made in April that women had snubbed her throughout her life simply because she is physically attractive (which in Western culture almost always involves being thin).
It's tempting to read the Glamour survey the way Brick read her own experiences, as evidence that women are prone to judging other women and inherently competitive with one another. But Orbach's explanation makes a lot more sense. The fact that heavy women thought negatively of heavy women and thin women immediately associated unfavorable personality traits with thin women suggests that this is not about warring factions among women, the fat versus the thin.
The problem, the enemy, here is the belief system we've developed around weight. The new survey offers more evidence of its hold on women and its ability to divide and isolate and exhaust us. But it also challenges us to somehow detach ourselves from what Orbach called our "thing about fat." And then to do something really amazing with all the energy we no longer let that "thing" consume.