In "soft" sciences like sociology, it's much more difficult to detect manipulation of research, than in "hard" sciences like physics. Soft science researchers who strive for objectivity deserve an extra measure of respect. Sadly, far too many researchers are more concerned with pushing an agenda than with objectivity. These same problems are not unknown in the world of journalism. Since the soft sciences and the media have a powerful influence on social policies in this country, this affects every family and every individual.
May 29, 2005
A front-page article in yesterday's Boston Globe opened with the statement, "Weight can have startling consequences for women's financial well-being, careers, and marriage prospects, according to research that found that women -- but not men -- suffer economic harm from being overweight." NYU sociologist Dalton Conley, who conducted the study, is quoted saying, "This is one of the core fundamental bases of gender inequality in the United States. Women are held to standards of objectified physical appearance that men are not." He explained that weight worked against women as they competed to get married and secure their financial futures.
Imagine for a moment that Conley had reported finding a correlation, not between weight and financial well-being, but instead between breast size and financial well-being. Imagine that the article had opened with, "Small breasts can have startling consequences for women's financial well-being, careers, and marriage prospects, according to research that found that women -- but not men -- suffer economic harm from being insufficiently buxom." In that case, the absurdity of Conley's assertion that men are not held to standards of objectified physical appearance would have been immediately apparent. It would have been obvious that Conley was measuring men according to the wrong standard.
Society does not penalize people for being overweight per se. Rather, society penalizes an individual according to how much his or her appearance deviates from whatever ideal applies to that individual. In our society, short men are penalized as mercilessly for being short as fat women are penalized for being fat. Evidence of this is all around us, if we would only choose to open our eyes.
Hollywood has long known this. Humphrey Bogart was shorter than his Casa Blanca co-star, Ingrid Bergman. Filmmakers, knowing that this would have been unacceptable to American audiences, used all sorts of tricks to make him appear to be the taller of the two. Bogart was one of the lucky ones. Most short male actors are relegated to playing unpleasant characters, and the audience sees nothing wrong with short males being subjected to ridicule.
Parents know this too. Would countless parents risk their son's health by seeking pituitary hormone treatments, if they didn't know that by doing so they were protecting their son from the lifetime of suffering that society, and women in particular, will sentence him to if he's too short?
Psychology Professor Charles Pierce of Montana State University has researched the correlation between body height and romantic attraction and found that short males are penalized. Professor Wayne Hensley of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has found that short males have more limited occupational opportunities and lower incomes.
Furthermore, since the advent of movies and television which allow the public to see presidential candidates, it has been impossible for a man shorter than 5 ft. 9 in. to be elected president. (Only 11 of the 42 presidents of the U.S. have been shorter than 5 ft. 9 in., and not a single one of those has been elected since 1897.)
It's not even remotely surprising that men who don't meet society's appearance standards for women suffer no penalty. Can it really be the case that Dalton Conley, professor at a prestigious school like New York University, can't figure this out? Or could it be that he knows his superiors will be much happier with him if he manufactures an argument, however disingenuous, that only women and not men face appearance discrimination?