Weight Stereotyping: The Secret Way People Are Judging You Based on Your Body

“There’s a real envy and anger” toward thin women, acknowledges Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., a Cincinnati psychologist who specializes in weight and body image. “They’re [seen as] the ones who are going to get all the goodies in life. It sets up a dynamic that often turns really mean, and that can affect someone’s self-esteem and body image, and her relationships with other women.” Today, people feel free to express that meanness out loud (“She’s a bitch!”), notes Adrienne Ressler, a body-image specialist for Philadelphia’s Renfrew Center Foundation, which promotes the treatment of eating disorders, “because they secretly believe, in a twisted sort of way, that it’s a compliment. Still, it’s taking attributes like being controlling, self-centered, and vain—because they must be overconcerned with appearance to maintain a size 2!—and baselessly pinning them on the person. Bitch’ is about the worst thing you can call a woman,” she continues. “It’s all an attack.”

The snark pit

So who’s doing the judging? Almost every last one of us, it turns out. “I know I’ve done it,” admits Ashley Gold, 25, a 5’4″, 124-pound grad student in St. Louis. “A friend commented about someone’s amazing body,’ and I chimed in with That bitch!’ It’s sad and not OK, but it’s almost an automatic response: See a woman, judge her body. It’s a habit deeply ingrained in us.”

She’s right. Stereotypes of thin women as villainous go back centuries to the wicked witches of fairy tales. Case in point: Imagine Sleeping Beauty’s scrawny, skinny-fingered witch Maleficent next to Cinderella’s plump and kind Fairy Godmother. OK, that’s Disney. But even in Renaissance and baroque works, “artists like Agnolo Bronzino and Jacques Callot depicted Envy as a thin hag, often with wild, snaky locks,” notes Ellen Prokop, Ph.D., a photo archivist at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York City.

And these days the body-acceptance movement has inadvertently added another negative spin. Think about it: If “real women have curves,” as one popular mantra asserts, then a woman without curves is by extension unreal, not to be trusted. “Not only is a skinny woman assumed to be tight with her calories and, therefore, tight with her emotions,” says Amy Farrell, Ph.D., a professor of women’s and gender studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and author of Fat Shame, “she’s also pushed away as someone who is not sharing in the same struggles as the rest of us. People look at her and say, You’re not friend material; you’re alien.'”

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Historically, culture has been kinder to curvy women. For much of the past 700 years at least, a “robust” female figure “connoted health, wealth, sensuality, and fecundity,” explains Prokop. But starting about 100 years ago, when food became more plentiful in this country and Americans began chasing thinness as a sign of wealth, extra weight became linked with inferiority. So while plus-size women may still be considered warm (hence their frequent casting as cheerful, supportive rom-com sidekicks), they are also seen as ineffective. “Today the ideas that overweight women are lazy, dirty, ill-kempt, and unprofessional are stronger than ever,” says Farrell. “The so-called war on obesity has only intensified them.”

Let’s change the game

How do we stop all this weight stereotyping? First, challenge the way people judge you. If someone presumes to know your personality based on the way you look, have a ready comeback. (Ressler suggests: “I wonder why you’d make that assumption about me. You don’t even know me.”) And question the way you judge others. “If you see a thin woman and your mind leaps to stuck-up,'” Ressler advises, “take that original thought and exaggerate it as far as possible: Oh, I bet she eats only three spinach leaves a day and spends all her time on the treadmill, staring at herself in the mirror, and is mean to kittens….’ Do you see how silly that is? The most extreme thing is just as untrue as the original thought.”

Finally, hit pause the next time you find yourself sizing someone up. Every time you stop weight-judging in its tracks, you help the world see women for who they really are. Northern-King, who’s been called lazy even though she’s putting herself through school, is all for that. “No woman of any size matches on the inside what she appears to be on the outside,” she says. “And if even one girl sees things differently after reading this story, I’ll be happy.”

Shaun Dreisbach is a contributing editor for Glamour.