Researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity have found the presence of a significant fat bias against female defendants in the courtroom, according to a recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity.
Yale psychologists created a mock jury scenario involving 471 study participants of various weights, according to the abstract of the study. While reviewing "a vignette describing a case of check fraud," the jurors evaluated images of one of four alleged defendants: a lean male, a lean female, an obese male or an obese female. After looking at the shots, the participants were asked to rate how guilty they thought the defendant was on a 5-point Likert scale.
The results (via a Yale news release):
Male participants rated the obese female defendant guiltier than the lean female defendant, whereas female respondents judged the two female defendants equally regardless of weight. Among all participants, there were no differences in assessment of guilt between the obese male and lean male defendants.
The study's lead author Natasha Schvey said that weight-based discrimination is at a level rivaling the current rate of racial discrimination.
"It's important to look at weight stigma not only as a public health priority but also as a source of sweeping social injustice," Schvey told Reuters.
While not particularly encouraging, Live Science notes that discrimination based on body mass index (BMI) has been documented before.
In 2011, researcher Alexandra Brewis, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, told the site that "moralizing ideas about what it means to be fat seem to have spread very quickly ... It's this moral judgment that creates prejudice and discrimination."
Furthermore, in 2008, a different study found that men were more likely to be accepting of weight-based discrimination, according to Live Science.
Slate's Katy Waldman hypothesized that there could be several related reasons for the revealed bias:
Perhaps we lean men suspect that larger women, given their history of stigmatization by people like us, are generally unhappier with their lot in life and thus more likely to engage in deviant behavior.
Perhaps we lean men are especially susceptible to the proven bias jurors hold toward physically attractive defendants (one that, it’s worth noting, declines when we engage in simulated deliberation, aka use our brains to assess the facts of a case).
In order to help alleviate the bias, the study suggests "voir dire and juror screening questionnaires," the American Bar Association Journal notes, adding that "judicial instruction" may also be part of the solution.
The study, entitled "The influence of a defendant's body weight on perceptions of guilt" was published Jan. 8.