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The Weight of Success: How Thinness Dictates A Woman’s Wealth

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at St. Andrews chapter.

That women face discrimination in the workplace is, sadly, no new revelation. On average, a full time working woman will earn eighty cents for every dollar a working man makes. Women are more likely to be pushed into part-time or care roles, also lessening their ability to be promoted and reach higher salary roles. Which is all before you even consider the gender-based discrimination that many women face on a daily basis in the workplace. To put it simply, there are many discriminatory factors that will prevent and encumber women from reaching higher-paid job roles. But one I did not realise fully until recently was that how thin a woman is can define her ability to get rich.

A prominent article that came out in the Economist late last year, titled “The Economics of Thinness”, has recently been recirculating online. The article begins by recounting stories of successful women experiencing the universal experience (for women at least) of being affected by comments about their weight and how they fall short of the ‘ideal woman’. What the ‘ideal woman’ is, the article recognises, and I think is evident when looking across history, has changed significantly over time – however, the ‘ideal’ in recent decades has been defined by thinness. While many may disagree on what today’s exact ‘ideal woman’ looks like, I agree with the article, that thinness remains a defining factor of ‘success’ toward achieving the ‘dream’ life and becoming the ‘ideal woman’. 

The article describes “the fiction” that is a “clever and ambitious women, who can measure their worth in the labour market on the basis of their intelligence or education” without paying any attention to their weight. This illusion helps maintain such a fiction of ‘the ideal woman’, generating insecurities and self-hatred for those who cannot attain it. But this fiction and the illusion it upholds of an effortless, unattainable ideal threatens to be destroyed when the reality of how women’s weight interacts with their wages or income is fully grasped.

It remains true that in many wealthy countries, such as the US, UK, Germany, and South Korea, wealthy people are thinner than poorer ones. However, one may argue that thinness is a result of wealth, rather than wealth being a result of thinness – and many arguments in the past have gone along these lines. The idea is that poor people are more likely to be overweight because this is a by-product of poverty: poor people cannot afford health food, do not have the time to exercise due to having to work longer hours, have a less flexible lifestyle than the affluent, and perhaps haven’t even received an education that teaches them how to stay a healthy weight.

The problem with these explanations is that it doesn’t fit the data. The fact is that the correlation between income and weight – where lower income means higher weight – is driven almost entirely by women. As the Economist article states, “rich women are much thinner than poor women, but rich men are about as fat as poor men”. If the explanations regarding why it is harder for poorer people to stay a healthy weight were true, it would surely apply to both genders, not just women. Some may respond to this argument by saying that poorer men tend to work in more active jobs, such as construction, and therefore this explains the difference. However, I would argue many of the jobs poorer women do, such as nursing and cleaning, are also intensely physical and therefore does not explain the difference in correlation. Some may then go for the argument that the jobs that richer women hold require them to be thin, such as actors and singers – which is countered with the recognition that only a tiny percentage of women have careers in entertainment.

Therefore, it appears that the gender gap in the correlation between income and weight cannot be explained by appealing to the different job roles that men and women do. What the “Economics of Thinness” article then chooses to look at instead to explain this gender gap is if it is indeed the being thin that helps women become rich, rather than the other way round. While it is hard to calculate a gender gap for someone not employed because of their weight, there is evidence of discrimination for women on the basis of their weight in the form of a myriad of studies that show that overweight or obese women are paid less than their thinner peers, while there is little difference in wages between obese men and men of a healthy weight. Overweight and obese women are also more likely to be discriminated against in job applications and the workplace and will receive lower starting salaries than non-overweight women. What also should be recognised is the background of general discrimination against people of a larger weight. This is backed up, as the Economist article notes, by “data from the ‘implicit bias’ test run by Harvard University,” which found that while discrimination on the basis of most characteristics such as race, sexuality and gender, “weight is the exception” as “attitudes towards heavy individuals have become substantially more negative”. 

There is clearly a correlation for women between their income and weight – with a wage penalty and workplace discrimination facing larger women. So, is it, as “The Economics of Thinness” article states, “economically rational for ambitious women to try as hard as possible to be thin”? The simple answer, sadly, seems to be yes, it is.

Now, as a young woman I know how pressures to be thin can come from many different sources – with parental, social, and general health pressures being key factors in the constant feeling many women have of needing to lose weight. What the Economist article shows is yet another powerful incentive for women to get thin or it will literally cost them – money, job opportunities, career paths, promotions. Whether consciously, or unconsciously, many women equate thinness as a goal always needing to be achieved, part of the ‘dream’ life.

This seems a contradictory conclusion considering how the narrative we often see in the media is of body positivity – that women work out and eat healthy to care for their bodies and invest it themselves. But still, working in the background, I think that the idea of the thin ideal woman is still present, it just works more implicitly.

Some may argue that a financial incentive to lose weight might not be a completely bad thing – after all, being obese comes with health risks. But this relies on the assumption that people’s weight is only dependent on factors within their control and that shame is an effective motivator. Firstly, addressing the first assumption, there are many external factors, such as the effects of contraceptives, antidepressants, as well as simple genetics, that influence what weight a woman is. It’s not all about “how badly she wants to be thin”. Secondly, shame is neither an effective nor ethical motivator. Body shaming women, guilt-tripping them into striving for an ideal that is always out of reach, is unhelpful and, frankly, dangerous. It is because of this shaming that women develop such crippling insecurities as well as harmful conditions such as eating disorders and depression.As “The Economics of Thinness” notes, “the pursuit of thinness can come at the expense of other important things girls and women might want to do, like being able to focus on exams and work or enjoy food”. The obsession over thinness and the way it still implicitly sets the standards of the ‘ideal woman’ and can cost women financial freedom and career success is, in short, a tragedy. Conform and suffer the consequence of chasing an impossible ideal or rebel and face the consequence of wage penalties and workplace as well as general discrimination. How is this a choice we can, in good conscience, force women to make?

Josie Smith

St. Andrews '24

Josie is a fourth year studying philosophy. She is particularly interested in writing about health and well-being topics as well as the unique financial and business issues that women face. Josie feels so excited and grateful to be a part of an editorial that focuses on amplifying and empowering women’s voices.