By Terry Baynes
Jan 8 (Reuters) - The stigma against overweight people
extends to the courtroom, according to a new study by
researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
While numerous studies have documented the prevalence of
weight-based discrimination, including in employment and
healthcare, the latest study set out to examine its role in the
The researchers presented 471 participants with a
description of a mock court case, dealing with alleged check
fraud. They then showed the participant a supposed mug shot of
one of four defendants -- a lean male, a lean female, an obese
male or an obese female. After viewing the image, the mock
jurors were asked several questions about the defendant's guilt,
including whether the person intended to commit fraud and
whether he or she was likely to be a repeat offender.
Male jurors found the obese female defendant to be
significantly guiltier than the thin female defendant, while
female jurors judged both women equally, regardless of weight.
For all the jurors, a male defendant's weight had no effect on
how guilty he was perceived.
The fact that only female defendants were penalized for
their weight is consistent with research over the past 20 years
showing that women are more vulnerable to weight-based
discrimination than men, the researchers report.
Natasha Schvey, lead author of the study, said the findings
may be due to commonly held stereotypes that obese individuals
are greedy, selfish or lacking in impulse control.
"It's important to look at weight stigma not only as a
public health priority but also as a source of sweeping social
injustice," Schvey said, adding that its prevalence is now on
par with rates of racial discrimination.
The authors recommend efforts to combat weight stigma in the
legal setting, for example by screening for bias during jury
selection or by instructing jurors to not be swayed by a
Schvey also called for federal laws at the state and federal
level to protect overweight people. Unlike race and gender,
weight is not a protected category under federal
Jason Bloom, a Dallas-based jury consultant, said the
outcome of a case often turns on a defendant's "ethos," which
can include a person's appearance, clothing or demeanor.
Gender can play a role in jury selection, he said, with the
understanding that female defendants may benefit from having
more women on the jury. He said he has never heard a juror admit
to voting based on the weight of the defendant.
"That's not to say it doesn't happen," he said. "Sometimes
these biases are hidden."
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