Shopping malls can be hostile places for overweight men, regardless of whether they’re customers or simply looking for a job.

“A lot of the research that has looked at weight stigmatization 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,” says Enrica Ruggs, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Ruggs and colleagues conducted two studies to examine behavior toward customers and job applicants who appeared overweight.

man shopping for shoes

In the first study, non-overweight men applied for jobs at retail stores in the southern United States. 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,” says Ruggs, who started the research as a graduate student at Rice University.

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,” Ruggs says. “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 behavior toward them. Employees they interacted with would try to end the interaction early, there was less affirmative behavior like less nodding or smiling; there were more avoidance types of behavior like frowning and trying to get out of the interaction.”

Stereotypical thoughts

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,” Ruggs says. “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 behaviors more often than men who are not heavy.

“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, 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 organization. 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 organization and the products.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Ruggs says. “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.”


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: David Ruth-Rice University
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