It Pays to Be Fat

Employers may punish women who are obese with lower wages, but not all women are paying a penalty. Single women who are obese earn higher wages because they invest more in unobservable job skills. Why? Because heavy women have to plan on never having a husband to help pay the bills.


There is a perception that obese women are discriminated against in the job market far more than obese men. You may want to argue that the source of this differential treatment of men and women has to do with social norms that reward beauty in women while valuing other attributes in men. A new economics paper, using data from the UK, finds that the weight discrimination we observe in the labor market has its source in an entirely different market – the marriage market.*

After controlling for all other attributes that contribute to wages (an individual’s job experience, firm size, region in which they reside, occupation, sector, full or part-time employment, health, education, age, and whether or not they have young children) the author finds that married men and single women both have a wage rate that is positively related to the their Body Mass Index (BMI) – the heavier they are, the higher the wage they are paid. Single men and married women have the opposite experience – they are penalized for their weight -- the heavier they are, the lower the wage they are paid.

There is an economic argument for why married men are paid a wage premium for their weight. Being overweight does not disadvantage men in the marriage market in the way that it disadvantages women. In fact, the results of this analysis are that heavy men are just as likely to be married as are other men. Being married though gives men a big advantage in the labor market – married men are paid more in general. That does not explain why the heavier they are the more they are paid. The explanation for that observation is that while being obese may not prevent men from marrying, it does encourage them to work harder to compensate their wives for the fact that they don’t look like the guy in Old Spice ads.

The argument for why there is no wage penalty for unmarried heavy women is different. Being overweight for a woman seriously disadvantages her in the marriage market, and there is plenty of evidence of that in the data. I can think of two reasons why, despite weight-discrimination, heavy women do not experience a wage penalty. The first is that heavy women recognize that they may not marry or have the advantage of living in a dual income household. They therefore invest more in their jobs so that they get closer to that standard of living they might have had they married.

The second reason is that women might, mistakenly, believe that a higher income will improve their performance on the marriage market and respond by increasing their investment in their on-the-job performance. I say “mistakenly” because all the evidence suggests that men care very little about the income level of a potential marriage partner; women, unlike men, cannot compensate future spouses for falling short on the cultural standard of beauty.

So, there you have it. A new cause for public outcry – slender, single women are under-rewarded in their employment. They should get together with the single, overweight men and demand fair treatment. I doubt it would improve their wages, but it could make for an interesting dating scene.

* Brown, Heather (July 2011). “Marriage, BMI and Wages: A Double Selection Approach.”  Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 58 (3).

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