The following are some of the more common stereotypes. Learn them to be aware, then educate yourself and others to set things straight.
- Thin vs. Fat (overweight or obese)
More often than not, it's the overweight or obese people who get the brunt of negative stereotyping. There's a stigma attached to all that extra bulk and it haunts them from as early as childhood. Studies show obese kids are often victims of ridicule or rejection in school. (Obesity Research, 2001) One study conducted in the 1960s (and replicated in recent years) had school kids rank six photos of other kids who have different physical traits or disabilities as to who they would like most to have as a friend. Majority of the children ranked obese kids last, along with those in crutches, in a wheelchair, with amputated legs, or with facial disfigurement. In 1985, one woman in America was even kicked out a year before she graduated from nursing school in the US because she was obese, even though her academic performance was exemplary. (She sued the school all the way to the US Supreme Court and won.) On the other extreme, underweight individuals also get a lot of teasing and rough treatment. It's those in between-the slender, "healthy-looking" individuals-who tend to look attractive to most people in general. All these stereotypes stem from the perception that overly fat or extremely thin people are weak, lazy, and untidy. Studies like the one we mentioned only serve to emphasize the fact that there is a situation that needs to be addressed.
- Tall vs. Short
Business professor Timothy Judge of the University of Florida reviewed studies from the US and Great Britain that tracked participants from childhood to adulthood. In those studies, he found that height was more important than gender in predicting income. Taller women got higher paychecks (and also began their careers with higher paychecks). He also calculated that "each inch in height corresponds to $789 extra in pay each year, even when gender, weight, and age are taken into account. An extra six inches, for example, results in an extra $4,734 in annual income." (Psychology Today, 2003)
Many well-respected leaders also tend to be tall (heads of state, CEOs, etc.). The term "looking up to our leaders" may actually have been meant literally. In America, where the average height for males is 5'9", taller candidates have won every presidential election in the last 25 years. (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are 6'2", Ronald Reagan was 6'1".) Psychology Today magazine quotes Professor Judge as saying that "the connection between height and success is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Taller people are perceived as more competent and authoritative, Judge theorizes, so they are more likely to develop the high self-esteem that can lead to a job that brings a bigger paycheck."
- Pretty vs. Plain (or even Ugly)
There's a famous study that showed infants tend to stare at more attractive faces longer than less attractive ones. The behavior seems to be reinforced as a child grows up. American sociologist Liz Grauerholz of Purdue University studied 168 Brothers Grimm fairy tales. She says, "Women today-despite increasing independence for many-still tend to value beauty and appearance. Why is it that attractive women and men are socially rewarded more than unattractive people? From early childhood, girls are read fairy tales about princesses who achieve vast riches simply because their beauty makes them special. That's a powerful message that can inhibit young women who feel they do not meet society's expectation of what it means to be attractive." (Purdue News, 2003)
And it affects everyone-some studies suggest that attractive people are precisely that because they are perceived to be more popular, friendly and outgoing, sometimes even intelligent. Such positive attention makes the attractive people more confident, making them more attractive.
On the other hand, Psychology Today magazine describes a "twist to the beauty bias." Then graduate student Ken Podratz of Rice University found that pretty females are on the losing end when they seek jobs where appearance is irrelevant. One reason, says Podratz, could be that "physical attractiveness is correlated with perceived femininity in women... If a highly attractive female applies for a hypermasculine job such as truck driver or security guard, she is likely to be seen as less capable of meeting the physical demands of the job."
We normally don't realize that we're bombarded by stereotypes and influenced by them as we go through our lives every day. Many of them become so ingrained in our minds because we grew up with them in our culture. They become natural parts of our lives that, most times, we don't even think of questioning them. Again, not all stereotyping behavior is bad, but if it limits your view of your own potential and self worth, or your view of other people, their cultures, their uniqueness, perhaps it's time to step back and learn to deal with the world with a more open mind. You don't have to put up with the limits that stereotyping deals you and your world. You have the power to change that.