Weighty Verdict: Male Jurors Biased Against Heavy Women

In a mock trial, male jurors were more likely than female jurors to find women guilty if they were overweight. (Image credit: Susie Holderfield)

Justice may be blind, but jurors aren't — and a new study suggests male jurors may cast a particularly harsh eye on women who are overweight.

In a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, male jurors were more likely to find overweight women than lean women guilty in mock court cases. And lean men were the worst culprits, being more likely than overweight men to hand down a guilty verdict to an overweight woman.

"It's important to look at weight stigma not only as a public health priority, but also as a source of sweeping social injustice," study author Natasha Schvey told Reuters.

The researchers gathered 471 men and women of various body types to evaluate an alleged perpetrator of check fraud, reports the Daily Mail. The mock jurors were shown a description of the case that included one of four images of the accused: a slim man or woman, or an overweight man or woman. After viewing the image of a mock defendant, study participants had to indicate how guilty they thought the defendant was.

The female jurors displayed no prejudice toward the obese defendants of either gender, and neither men nor women judged the overweight man differently. But when the male jurors pronounced judgment on the female defendant, "BMI prejudice reared up," reported Salon.com, referring to body-mass index, the scale by which doctors evaluate body fatness and obesity.

And, according to Salon.com, "the trim male participants were worst of all, frequently labeling the fat women 'repeat offenders' with 'awareness' of their crimes."

Prejudice against obese people has been documented in other studies, and negative feelings toward the overweight are now spreading into cultures where heavy people were formerly admired. It doesn't only affect adults, either: Overweight children, who are often the target of bullying, are more likely to have depression and low self-esteem.

Additionally, there's some evidence that men are more accepting of discrimination in general than are women. A 2008 study revealed that men were more likely than women to tolerate discrimination against the obese, and more likely to accept racial profiling of black motorists.

The legal community has weighed in on the issue of juror prejudice against overweight people: "Juror screening questionnaires may be ways to evaluate weight bias," reports the American Bar Association Journal. "Judicial instruction on the issue may also be helpful."

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Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.