Back in October, I waded into the rough waters of discussing women’s weight issues, and the discrimination that naturally follows. Again, I know that’s not much of a news flash; in a society that’s obsessed with beauty, of course overweight people, women especially (trust me, I’ve been there many a time), are going to be scrutinized and looked down upon with disgust. From what they wear to what they eat, everything they do is viewed with an eye toward absolute repulsion — because honestly, how dare they believe they’re normal. If you’re an overweight woman, your every waking move is going to be stigmatized.

In fact, rather damning character traits are regularly ascribed to overweight people, without any care as to whether those individuals are actually lazy, greedy, or devoid of self control. Ah, stereotypes. Even when they’re completely untrue, they’re so damn hard to shake.

Is it any surprise that these platitudes follow overweight women into the courtroom?

When you’ve been discriminated against because of your weight for much of your adult life, it’s no surprise at all. In this case, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity conducted a study to confirm what overweight female defendants face in our legal system each and every day. Here’s a nice summary from YaleNews:

Researchers conducted an online study with 471 adult participants. They were presented with a mock court case, including images of alleged defendants. Participants viewed one of four defendant images: a lean male, a lean female, an obese male, and an obese female. After viewing the image, participants were then asked to rate how guilty they thought the defendant was.

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.

Only the obese female defendant was penalized for her weight, a finding that is consistent with research published in the past 20 years that shows obese females face more weight-related stigma than obese males.

Yale’s hypothetical obese female defendant might not have been guilty of committing check fraud, but she was guilty of being fat — and apparently that’s more important to male jurors than actual facts. Whether that’s due to long-held misogynist or sexist views, I’m not sure, but Natasha Schvey, the lead author of the study, thinks it’s important to look at weight as a “source of sweeping social injustice.” Schvey even went to far as to note that weight-based discrimination is now on par with racial discrimination in our country.

So what is the legal community supposed to do about this problem? (And yes, it is a problem — more of a problem than our so-called obesity crisis, which Professor Paul Campos recently debunked in the New York Times.) Rather than advising your female clients to lose some weight before trial, the Yale study suggests that it’d be wise to screen out prospective jurors with anti-fat attitudes during voir dire. But even that seems like it could be an extremely difficult task, because so many people, even the overweight themselves, have some amount of bias toward fat people. This is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations.

For now, what we do know is this: the “Biggest Loser” isn’t just a TV show about weight loss anymore. It’s also what overweight female defendants become in America’s courts because of our society of unjust stereotypes.

The influence of a defendant’s body weight on perceptions of guilt [International Journal of Obesity]
Body weight and gender influence judgment in the courtroom [YaleNews]
Overweight women penalized in court – study [Thomson Reuters News & Insight]
Representing an Overweight Female Defendant? Male Jurors May Be Biased, Study Says [ABA Journal]
Our Absurd Fear of Fat [New York Times]


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