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It pays to be thin - if you're a woman
Scripps Howard News Service


May 31, 2005

The media frenzy surrounding Danica Patrick's participation in this year's Indianapolis 500 was telling. Janet Guthrie broke the gender barrier at Indy a quarter century ago, and the race has featured a woman driver in 12 of the last 14 years, so by this point Patrick's gender in itself hardly qualified as news. Yet Patrick received far more media coverage than Lyn St. James ever did, who took part in the race seven times in the 1990s, when a woman in the Indy 500 was still novel.

The media's fascination with Patrick also flies in the face of declining coverage of the event overall: Indy car racing has suffered a massive loss of popularity over the past 15 years, especially in comparison to its NASCAR rival. Indeed, many of the stories about Patrick speculated that a victory in the 500 might "save" Indy car racing, by once again making it an economically viable sport. (Patrick finished 4th).

The reason Danica Patrick is supposed to save Indy racing is that she is, sociologically speaking, a "babe." A conventionally attractive young woman, Patrick has been the subject of feature stories in publications such as People, which normally pay as much attention to the Indianapolis 500 as they do to Mongolian yak races.

As the father of a 10-year-old girl, I find all this rather discouraging. The media message couldn't be clearer: despite the toppling of so many gender barriers, the most important thing about a woman remains her appearance. (As usual, the satirical humor magazine The Onion drives the point home perfectly with a headline: "Thin, Attractive Young Woman Accepted For Who She Is.")

Unfortunately, the effects of our cosmetic obsessions aren't limited to which female sports figures get featured in People - far from it. A new study by New York University researchers Dalton Conley and Rebecca Glauber regarding the effects of body weight on economic outcomes has produced some startling data on how, for women, it literally pays to be thin.

After controlling for all sorts of variables, Conley and Glauber found that "a one percent increase in a woman's body mass results in a .6 percentage point decrease in her family income and a .4 percentage point decrease in her occupational prestige measured 13 to 15 years later. Body mass is also associated with a reduction in a woman's likelihood of marriage, her spouse's occupational prestige, and her spouse's earnings."

Using statistics from Conley and Glauber's paper, I've calculated that each pound a woman weighs over and above our culture's stick-thin "ideal" costs her household $250 per year.

To put it another way, a woman who wears a size four dress is likely to have an annual family income $7,500 higher than that of her sister who wears a size 12, assuming they share similar levels of education, as well as other independent predictors of future income.

The punch line to Conley and Glauber's paper is all too predictable: "Men experience no negative effects of body mass on economic outcomes ... body mass does not reduce their economic status, it does not reduce their likelihood of marriage, and it does not increase their likelihood of divorce, separation, or widowhood." (Indeed, the only correlation the authors found among men between weight and economic status was that the wives of fat men were likely to earn more than those of thin men.)

I've pointed out before that much of the current hysteria about fat is being fomented by men who are both "overweight" by their own standards, and exceedingly well paid. As Danica Patrick might note: nice work if you can get it.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)

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