It's debate season, and we all know what that means: Time for the presidential beauty contest to begin. Literally. Forget ideas and experience—every election cycle, along with scrutinizing candidates based on substance, we inevitably judge them on their looks.
"It’s shameful, of course, that physical appearance should affect something as important as who gets elected president," political journalist Michael Kinsley wrote in Vanity Fair on the topic late last year. "But the reasons for that are pretty obvious, and they pre-date democracy by several million years."
This season, while some candidates may be judged for their choice of hair-do or pantsuit, others will certainly be judged for their girth. Four years ago, a slew of media outlets questioned if New Jersey governor Chris Christie was "too fat" to even run for president. (He has since undergone lap-band surgery.) But how do voters feel about candidates' weight?
In a small new study, psychologists from the University of Missouri-Kansas City set out to answer that question—or, more specifically, to explore how society's proven bias against overweight people might affect candidates running for office. Their findings are both surprising and not surprising at all.
The study was based on previous research showing that many people view overweight individuals negatively simply for being overweight. In psychology speak this is known as a "weight bias." Everyone from teachers to healthcare professionals have been shown to exhibit weight bias on occasion, subconsciously or consciously coming to the conclusion that because a person is fat he or she may also be morally deviant, self-indulgent, or possess an unwillingness to correct their behavior.
The authors were also influenced by past research showing that when people are asked to pick candidates solely based on their looks, their responses largely resemble actual election results. In one 2007 study, for example, British participants were shown composite images of election winners and losers in pairs and asked to select the face they would vote for. Participants were significantly more likely to select the image representing the actual election winner. That's right—even if we skipped all the campaigning and selected a candidate based only on appearance, we might end up with the same winner.
For the new study, researchers recruited 54 college students to come in and assess fake political candidates. First, researchers gave participants questionnaires to establish their political knowledge, ideology, race, religion, and so on. Next, participants were divided into groups and shown hypothetical candidates who were either male-obese, female-obese, non-male obese, or non-female obese. The images were accompanied with information on the candidates' ideology, issues, and party affiliation.
When an obese candidate was shown, participants would see four versions of the candidate—very liberal, moderately liberal, moderately conservative, and very conservative—to make sure their judgement was not based on ideology.
During this stage, researchers also measured how many times a participant blinked while looking at a candidate's image. Past research has shown that a person blinks more frequently when he or she is in a negative emotional state, a condition known as "startle
Eventually, participants were asked to evaluate the candidates and share their feelings about them on a scale of 0 (cold) to 100 (warm and fuzzy). Here's where it gets interesting.
Participants rated male-obese candidates the highest—even more positively than non-obese males. Not surprisingly, however, this favorable attitude was not shown toward women.
In their self-reported evaluations, participants rated obese and non-obese women comparably—they appeared to show no bias. But when the researchers evaluated participants' eye blink tests, a different picture emerged. Researchers found that obese-female candidates were met with negative reactions despite what the participants said in their written evaluations.
"The present study raises the possibility that self-report measures may not adequately capture bias," the authors write, since "participants showed significantly greater startle amplitude (reflective of negative affect) when viewing images of the obese female candidates than they did when viewing the non-obese female candidates."
(It's worth noting that the eye-blink test showed no positive advantage for obese-male candidates versus non-obese male candidates.)
Previous research has shown that women indeed face more employment discrimination for their weight than men—but in politics, that bias may happen so early in a woman's attempted public career that she never even makes it to a vote. "If weight bias does exist against obese female candidates, it could occur so early in the election process that it prevents obese females from campaigning," explained the authors in the study.
For example, the authors point out, in a study that looked at senate candidates from 2008 to 2012, participants rated 84% of female candidates as having a “normal range” weight and only 16% as being “overweight.” In contrast, participants rated 58% of males as “normal range” and 41% as obese. It's possible that women who are overweight may not have opportunities to try and run for office, or may lack the confidence after years of being subtly discriminated against. For men, meanwhile, being overweight may work in their favor.
Or as Kinsley put it in Vanity Fair, "Imagine a woman with Chris Christie’s weight problem even considering a run for president. It will never happen, except maybe in a Melissa McCarthy movie."
At least not any time soon.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.