The Skinny on Obesity Discrimination at Retail
By George Anderson
Research published last month by Rice University suggests that, in some cases, the oft-used expression may need to be amended to: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. They just might not realize they’re out to get you.”
According to the study’s authors, obese shoppers often face subtle discrimination from store clerks. The clerks may not even realize what they’re doing.
The study, conducted in three parts in 152 stores at a large shopping mall in Houston, identified acts of discrimination, looked at ways to eliminate or at least reduce it and quantified the financial implications of allowing it to continue.
In the study, 10 average-weight Caucasian female students between 19 and 28 played the part of customers under different circumstances. The shoppers appeared in casual dress in two scenarios and in business attire in another two. The difference between the tests was that, in two (one casual, one business), the women wore an obesity prosthetic that made them appear to be a size 22.
Eden King, who was co-principal investigator of the study while attending Rice University as an undergrad, said, “The results of our research revealed that although customer sales personnel do not formally discriminate against obese customers, they do discriminate in subtle, interpersonal ways.”
The researchers noted the behavior of clerks including “eye contact made with the customer, friendliness, rudeness, smile, premature ending of the interaction, length of interaction time, and negative language and tone.”
Almost three-fourths of the sales clerks were women.
Ms. King said that much of the discrimination seems to arise from a perception that obesity is controllable.
Mikki Hebl, the Radoslav Tsanoff Associate Professor of Psychology and Management at Rice, said, “This is one of the first studies in our field to show the bottom-line consequences for organizations that discriminate against obese individuals. It may be time for organizations to take more proactive approaches toward eliminating discrimination toward groups that are stigmatized but not yet protected.”
Moderator’s Comment: Do you think most store employees are aware when they are treating customers differently based on appearance? Can you eliminate
more subtle forms of discrimination such as those identified by the Rice University study through employee training? –
George Anderson – Moderator