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Stigma and discrimination

Study finds overweight men face stigma

Researchers found that when the men applied for jobs or were shopping as customers in their overweight prosthetics, they experienced more types of subtle discrimination
Researchers found that participants who viewed the heavy employees’ videos reported more negative stereotypical thoughts about the employee

Men who are overweight are just as likely as overweight women to experience interpersonal discrimination when applying for a job or shopping at retail stores, according to research from Rice University and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (UNCC). Dr Enrica Ruggs, assistant professor of psychology at UNCC and colleague, Dr Mikki Hebl, professor of psychology and management, conducted two studies for the paper, ‘Weight isn’t selling: The insidious effects of weight stigmatization in retail setting’, and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“We were interested in looking at biases toward men who are heavy in employment settings,” said Ruggs. “A lot of the research that has looked at weight stigmatisation or discrimination toward heavy people has tended to focus on women. It’s perceived as more of a critical issue surrounding women, so we wanted to see if men experience some of the same types of detriments that women face.”

Enrica Ruggs

In the first study, non-overweight men went out into the field and applied for jobs at retail stores in the southern US. Then researchers had the same men apply for jobs at different stores wearing overweight prosthetics. The researchers also wanted to investigate if overweight men would be subjected to discrimination as customers, so the same men posed as customers and visited other retail stores. In both situations, the ‘actors’ were given scripts to closely follow.

“We wanted to see if there were differences in treatment they received when they were not heavy versus heavy,” explained Ruggs.

Researchers found that when the men applied for jobs or were shopping as customers in their overweight prosthetics, they experienced more types of subtle discrimination, or what the researchers call ‘interpersonal discrimination.’

“They didn’t experience ‘formal’ discrimination or illegal types of discrimination,” she said. “Before we had the actors apply for jobs, we confirmed the company was hiring. None of the overweight men were kept from applying for positions. But they did experience greater amounts of interpersonal discrimination or subtle negative behaviour toward them. Employees they interacted with would try to end the interaction early, there was less affirmative behaviour like less nodding or smiling; there was more avoidance types of behaviour like frowning and trying to get out of the interaction.”

Researchers had the actors use a scale of 0-6, with zero meaning no discrimination and six meaning extremely discriminatory.

“We have these measures on a scale and the means or averages were different compared with when they were heavy and not heavy. The overweight men rated stores at 2.3 compared with 2.0 when they were their average weight. Observers who were pretending to shop inconspicuously watched the interactions and provided independent evaluations. Their results were consistent with the actors, as they witnessed greater interpersonal discrimination when the men were heavy compared with when they were not. It may not seem like a lot, but it’s statistically significant. It suggests that men who are heavy are experiencing really negative behaviours more often than men who are not heavy. They did experience greater amounts of interpersonal discrimination or subtle negative behaviour toward them. Their chances of getting employment could be less, or if they’re shopping as customers, it has implications for their decision-making processes in terms of purchasing things.”

The second study, which was conducted in a lab setting, found the same types of subtle discrimination was taking place, this time with the customer being the discriminator. Researchers created marketing videos of five products that were generally neutral in terms of having wide appeal for a wide target market, items like luggage and coffee mugs.

The actors, in this case both men and women, were again portrayed as overweight and not overweight in the different videos that test subjects were told would be used to launch a new product to be sold online. The goal was to see how customers evaluated those employees and determine whether having heavy employees influenced customer evaluations of the products and the organisation. Participants of the study were given a questionnaire to fill out after watching the marketing videos.

Researchers found that participants who viewed the heavy employees’ videos reported more negative stereotypical thoughts about the employee. Specifically, they thought overweight representatives were less professional, their appearance was less neat and clean and they were more careless. These stereotypical thoughts in turn led to negative evaluations of the employee as well as the organisation and the products.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Ruggs. “There are these really subtle influences that can have large negative effects on heavy men in the retail settings, that’s whether they’re applying for jobs, they’re actual employees or as customers. These findings are another reminder that there is still more work to be done in terms of creating equitable workplaces for all employees, potential employees and consumers. This is something organizations can take an active role in.”

Ruggs added that customers or applicants who experience subtle biases might be less willing to spend money at the store or patronise the store again or recommend it to their friends. She said companies can do better job training on customer relations as part of the employees’ new-hire process.

“One of the problems is that people currently have very few positive images of heavy individuals excelling in work settings. Organisations can try to influence perceptions and attitudes about heavy employees by positively highlighting these employees and individuals more in overall marketing and branding efforts. It’s time to change the narrative of what is considered normal, beautiful and professional. One step is to provide better role models through the messaging that is out there, be it through media advertisements as well as through equitable hiring of employees of all sizes who interact with customers,” she concluded. 

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