MINNEAPOLIS - It's an endless cultural lesson that's been drilled into our heads since we were tots, watching cartoons such as The Flintstones and playing with Barbie and Ken dolls:
If you are a woman, you should be extremely thin; if you are a man, you should be big and strong.
And while we've grown accustomed to studies reporting that such stereotypes play out in the workplace - overweight women, for example, have a harder time ascending the career staircase - a recent study has found that a worker's girth can have an appreciable impact on the size of his or her paycheck.
The study found that thin women are paid significantly more than their average-size counterparts, while heavier women make less. Skinnier-than-average men, on the other hand, cash smaller paychecks than their average-weight peers.
Experts say it's just another sign that as a society, we've internalized unrealistic, media-driven physical ideals and brought them into the workplace.
"Employers don't purposely think of these things when they're evaluating a person," said Teresa Rothausen-Vange, a management professor at the University of St. Thomas, who was not involved in the research.
"But research has shown that if you have two resumés, if all other qualifications make the candidates equal, the more physically attractive one - whether it's a skinny woman or a muscle-y man - will have the leg up."
The pounds - whether more or less - add up in terms of dollars, according to the study, "When It Comes to Pay, Do the Thin Win? The Effect of Weight on Pay for Men and Women," published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in the fall.
Being thin paid off in a big way for women, earning them about $16,000 more a year, on average. But thin men made about $8,000 less than their male coworkers.
The researchers, Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable, say that much of the problem is the result of subconscious decisions based on entrenched social stereotypes.
Their report cites studies in which obese individuals were identified as "undisciplined, dishonest, and less likely to do productive work." Conversely, the researchers point out that employers and fellow employees associate values of self-discipline, thrift, hard work, and positivity with thin individuals.
The qualities that govern attractiveness aren't stagnant; they might change slightly over time as different trends fade in and out. An Inquirer article in April reported that the "metrosexual" look that was popular for a few years was being replaced by a brawnier, more traditional man.
"The preference is just changing a little bit," Rothausen-Vange said. "And it's influencing everything, all the way to performance evaluation."
Currently, no state or federal laws protect workers from being discriminated against based on their size. But about five years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began recognizing overweight workers' claims for discrimination if they were backed with some legitimate emotional, genetic, or physiological reasoning that brought the claim under the umbrella of the Americans With Disabilities Act, employment attorney Marshall Tanick said.
Nationally, there have been few claims, he said. Some cases have simply not been very solid, he said, and some employees have been too embarrassed to follow through with a case. In addition, discrimination cases are generally tough to win, because so much is subjective.