Looks matter a lot. One study found beautiful people are more successful, happier and more financially fulfilled earning on average $250,000 extra during their careers. On the other extreme, having an appearance that deviates from the arbitrary ideal leads to less opportunities in life. One recent research that supports this unwritten rule of contemporary, ladder climbing society suggests that short men and overweight women earn on average £1,500 ($2,100) less per year than taller men and slim women, respectively.
Scientists have previously recognized that there’s a link between height and weight, and how well off a person is. This sort of prosperity is measured by socioeconomic factors like earnings, postcode, level of education and job type. The direction of association was never clear, though. For instance, a person may grow to be short or overweight due to poorer education and nutrition in childhood and early adulthood.
What if you’re short and overweight? Can’t possibly be good.
University of Exeter researchers investigated the link in great detail by analyzing a huge swath of data from the UK Biobank — a database filled with biological information about half a million Britons. They analysed genetic variants with known effects on height and body mass index (BMI) from 119,000 individuals aged between 40 and 70 using a technique called mendelian randomisation. By directly comparing genetic information with actual height and weight, the researchers were able to judge how genetics influenced people’s lives. This influence was determined by measuring five factors: age completing full time education, degree level education, job class, annual household income, and Townsend deprivation index.
All other things being equal, if a man was 3″ (7.5cm) shorter for no other reason than his genetics, this would lead to him having an income £1,500 per year less than his taller counterpart. If a woman was 12 pounds (6.3kg) heavier for no other reason than her genetics, this would lead to her having an income £1,500 less per year than a woman of the same height who was 12 pounds lighter. “Because we used genetics and 120,000 people, this is the strongest evidence to date that there’s something about being shorter as a man and having a higher BMI as a woman that leads to being less well-off financially,” Dr Jessica Tyrrell, lead author on the study.
“This is the best available evidence to indicate that your height or weight can directly influence your earnings and other socioeconomic factors throughout your life. Although we knew there was a strong association, most people assumed that shorter height and higher BMI were a consequence of poorer nutrition and chances in life. Now we have shown that there is an effect in the other direction as well – shorter height and higher BMI can actually lead to lower income and other lifestyle measures. This won’t apply in every case, many shorter men and overweight women are very successful, but science must now ask why we are seeing this pattern. Is this down to factors such as low self-esteem or depression, or is it more to do with discrimination? In a world where we are obsessed with body image, are employers biased? That would be bad both for the individuals involved and for society,” said Professor Tim Frayling, of the University of Exeter Medical School, lead author of the study published in the journal BMJ.
Maybe being short or overweight does make people depressed and consequently less apt to scale society’s predefined patterns of a successful life. There’s also outright discrimination which is very much real, despite the politically correct veil. Maybe it’s in our inescapable nature to favor persons with better genes who look beautiful or healthy. This argument is silly, though, for a western society that prides itself on progressive values and equal opportunities for all. We should know better.
Dragos has been working in geology for six years, and loving every minute of it. Now, his more recent focus is on paleoclimate and climatic evolution, though in his spare time, he also dedicates a lot of time to chaos theory and complex systems.