People often ignore the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Instead, they make assumptions about strangers based on how they look, including their body weight. Heavier-weight people face discrimination in the workplace, health care, and education. Despite this, anti-fat stereotypes are not widely studied in social psychology. In our research we wanted to know more about these harmful assumptions and their consequences for heavier-weight people. 

What If People Form Beliefs about Strangers' Minds Based on their Bodies?

We showed people images of people dressed in athletic clothes, with faces cropped out to remove possibly distracting information, and asked observers to make judgments about each one. We showed images of computer-generated bodies varying in weight, which we said were based on real people's bodies. In other studies, we showed images of real people who had (unbeknownst to observers) undergone a weight loss program and were pictured both before and after weight loss. Observers rated the extent to which each person possessed different mental capacities, such as thinking, planning, and remembering (agency), or feeling things like pain and pleasure (experience).

Indeed, mental capacities were inferred from body weight. As the computer-generated bodies increased in weight, they were rated as lower in mental agency. However, people rated all bodies as similarly capable of experience, regardless of weight. We found the same results with real bodies pictured before or after weight loss—people rated the same body as less capable of agency, but just as capable of experience, when they were pictured at a heavier weight versus at a lighter weight.

Why Do People Use Body Weight to Infer Mental Capacity?

We asked additional questions to figure this out. First, we asked how disgusted they felt by each body. Previous research shows that feelings of disgust can motivate stereotyping and dehumanization. Second, we asked about the physical capacity of each body. We thought people might conflate physical agency with mental agency, believing that those who appear less physically able to act might be judged as less mentally able to act as well. In fact, both feelings of disgust and perceived physical capacity were linked to the weight-mind distortion. People believed heavier-weight bodies were more disgusting and less physically capable than lighter-weight bodies, which related to the belief that heavier-weight bodies were also less capable of mental agency.

Does This Contribute to Workplace Discrimination Against Heavier-Weight People?

We tested whether people judge heavier-weight bodies as less suited for career roles requiring agentic skills. In one study, we provided several "agentic roles" (such as a judge) and "experiential roles" (such as a fabric softness tester), and asked observers to judge how suited heavier- and lighter-weight people would be for each role. In another study, we told observers that each pictured person worked in one of two career roles (social work or guidance counseling) and provided descriptions of both roles. However, we varied the descriptions of the roles to seem either more agentic or experiential. For instance, some people read that social workers are complex thinkers and thoughtful planners, suggesting that social workers must be highly agentic. Conversely, other people read that social workers have complex feelings and empathy, suggesting that social workers must be highly experiential. We then asked people to guess who was a social worker and who was a guidance counselor.

As we feared, observers assigned people to different roles depending on their weight. They believed heavier-weight people were less suited for agentic roles than lighter-weight people, and were also less likely to believe heavier-weight people worked in a given career when it was described as highly agentic. Thus, heavier-weight people were deemed less worthy for societal roles requiring mental sophistication.

People mistakenly use others' bodies as a window into their minds. However, a person's weight should not be used as a cue to how effectively they can think, plan, or remember. In a weight-focused culture, researching these harmful stereotypes may provide tools to intervene on the erroneous body-mind link.

For Further Reading

Sim, M., Almaraz, S. M., & Hugenberg, K. (2022). Bodies and minds: Heavier-weight targets are de-mentalized as lacking in mental agency. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 48(9), 1367-1381.

Crandall, C. S., D'Anello, S., Sakalli, N., Lazarus, E., Nejtardt, G. W., & Feather, N. T. (2001). An attribution-value model of prejudice: Anti-fat attitudes in six nations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(1), 30-37.

Waytz, A., Gray, K., Epley, N., & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Causes and consequences of mind perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(8), 383-388.

Mattea Sim is a researcher at Indiana University and studies the way in which people stereotype others based on their faces, bodies, and social identities.