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Recently I ran across this article in Scientific American about how certain stigmatized groups are more likely to elicit harsher punishments than other groups. In particular, the article talks about a study where participants were asked to read a paragraph about people committing acts that are commonly considered to be “impure” like watching pornography, being sloppy or cursing. The participants were then told that the people committing these acts in the story had various characteristics. The study found that when the fictional characters were described as hippies, trailer trash or obese, the judgements of the study participants were much harsher.
Now I gotta put a trigger warning here, and say that the author of the article described those three categories in a way that wasn’t particularly positive. You can skip on down to the last paragraph if you don’t want to read this part. But the study and the author suggested that those groups elicited harsher judgements because they were more likely to elicit “disgust” in the minds and bodies of the participants. The study (as well as a series of follow up studies) indicate that the study participants were also more likely to praise members of these groups for doing stuff perceived as more “pure”. For example, if a member of the stigmatized groups (fat people, trailer trash and hippies) were described as keeping a neat cubicle, they were more likely to receive a virtual “pat on the head” from the study participants. And in the study, when the person described was committing a heinous act not related to “purity” like illegally parking or not tipping a waiter, the stigma they faced was far less likely to affect the judgement of the study participants.
“The assumption people have is that we draw on values that are universal and important,” says social psychologist E. J. Masicampo of Wake Forest University, who led the study, “but something like mentioning that a person is overweight can really push that judgment around. It’s triggering these gut-level emotions.”
After the study, the researchers went on to check the results against real world situations. And to nobody’s surprise, the scales of justice were not balanced in favor of fat folks. They looked at the records of all Police Patrol stops by the NY Police between 2003 and 2014. If the stops were for a crime against “purity” (drugs, lewdness, prostitution) fat people were a lot more likely to be arrested. In fact, for every point of increase in BMI was equal to a one percent greater likelihood of arrest or summons.
None of this is news to those of us who study weight stigma. In fact, Sondra Solovay’s excellent book “Tipping the Scales of Justice” was a key work in helping us understand how fat people are treated by our justice system both on the streets and in the courtroom. And while I’m a little disturbed by some of the wording used by the researchers, I’m a lot more disturbed by the reality of this injustice. And I’m glad that this work is being done. I can only hope that this work, in conjunction with so much other work being done about the effect that all sorts of stigma have on policing, judging and jailing actually leads to real significant change in how our policemen, judges and juries are trained. It’s a big dream, but I think it’s worth having and pursuing.
Jeanette DePatie, AKA The Fat Chick