This month a team of Yale psychologists released a study indicating that male jurors—but not female jurors—were more likely to hand a guilty verdict to obese women than to slender women. The researchers corralled a group of 471 pretend peers of varying body sizes and described to them a case of check fraud. They also presented them with one of four images—either a large guy, a lean guy, a large woman, or a lean woman—and identified the person in the photograph as the defendant. Participants rated the pretend-defendant’s guilt on a five-point scale. No fat bias emerged when the female pretend peers evaluated the female pretend defendants or when either men or women assessed the guilt of the men. But when the male pretend peers pronounced judgment on the female pretend defendants, BMI prejudice reared up. Jesus wept. The justice system and our basic faith in male decency took another hit.
The study offers further depressing insights. Not only did the male pretend jurors prove “significantly more likely” to find the obese female defendants—rather than the slim ones—guilty, but the trim male participants were worst of all, frequently labeling the fat women “repeat offenders” with “awareness” of their crimes. And because the effect disappeared when the photographs depicted a man, the hypothesis that subjects were simply layering class-based assumptions—such as “poor people are more often overweight” and “poor people commit more crime”—on top of one another falls a bit short. (On the other hand, as one of the researchers, Dr. Natasha Schvey, explained to me over the phone, fat women are more likely to be perceived as coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than fat men. Somehow I don’t find that consoling.)
“What’s going on?” I asked her. Schvey suggested that stereotypes about obese people paint them as greedy, selfish, and thus prone to defrauding checks. My runner-up theories below:
Perhaps we (especially we lean men) associate heavier women (but not heavier men) with impaired impulse control, since obviously all female people (but not all male people) want desperately to be thin and are only not so when they can’t regulate their Cinnabon cravings.
Perhaps we lean men imagine that a nebulous fog of guilt surrounds all fat women, because fat—whether or not it is in fact unhealthy—is morally wrong.
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).
Or perhaps there’s another explanation! Lean men, weigh in! Why are you like this? Actually, never mind, don’t tell me. Just get yourself out of jury duty.