Do We All Turn Into Sexist Body Shamers In The Voting Booth?

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Chris_Christie_1Photo: Media Punch Inc/RexUSA
While Hillary Clinton seems to be the Democrats' horse of choice for the 2016 presidential race (assuming she even wants to run), the Republicans face a more difficult decision. As recently as six months ago, it looked like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the average-Joe, Springsteen-obsessed hero of Hurricane Sandy, would be the only one who could hope to challenge Hillary. Of course, that whole Bridgegate fiasco dumped some serious rain on that particular parade, despite Christie's comments to the contrary. And now, a study published in the journal Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion suggests the White House hopeful might have another hurdle to clear with voters: his weight.

Conducted by researchers at Michigan State and Hope Universities, the study looked at data on U.S. Senate candidates for both primary and general elections between 2008 and 2012. Candidates were sorted into three categories by body type: obese, overweight, and normal weight.

The data showed that when it came to making it onto the ballot in the first place, both obese men and women had a difficult time, while women who were simply overweight were also underrepresented in the elections. But, the researchers noted that when people actually went out to vote, both men and women who were either overweight or obese consistently received fewer votes than their thinner opponents. And, as the weight difference rose, so did the discrepancy in the vote count; this effect seems to be independent of both gender and party affiliation.

While this finding is the first of its kind pertaining to the field of politics, it's probably not a surprise to Christie — he famously underwent lap band surgery last year, with many speculating that the procedure was at least partly motivated by his 2016 ambitions. At least in theory, then, politicians can overcome Americans' weight bias; Christie himself has lost over 100 pounds since his procedure.

But, what other factors play into our perceptions of politicians? A new study by Dartmouth researchers suggests that having facial features that don't conform to one's perceived gender could also hurt a politician's chances.

Published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the study showed a national sample of subjects a series of photos of 198 candidates that had run for office between 1998 and 2010, and asked them to assign genders to each one by clicking either "male" or "female" in a computer program, based on their gut instinct. The researchers tracked the subjects' mouse trajectories to gauge how much gender ambiguity was associated with each face; this data was compared with the actual results of the elections in which the candidates ran.

The results showed that the harder it was for the subjects to discern the gender of a candidate, due to features like hairstyle, eyebrow heaviness, or eye size, the less likely it was that that candidate had won his or her election. This was especially true for female candidates; perhaps unsurprisingly, the effect was found to be higher in more conservative states. The finding was consistent even after the researchers controlled for other potentially mitigating factors, such as general attractiveness and, of course, competence.

But, the data also showed that looking too feminine could backfire on a candidate, as well. The study's authors note that, especially among subjects in conservative states, female features were negatively correlated with perceptions of competence. In order to appear competent and win their races, women first needed to be recognizably female, but they also needed to possess just enough masculine features to be seen as strong and effective.

Of course, a female candidate's face isn't the only thing that voters expect to be "feminine." Hillary Clinton, for example, has long been criticized for everything from the way she dresses to her voice to the choices she's made as a wife and as a woman with a career. Even Tim Gunn, who's hardly a Fox News harpy, has said that she "seems confused about her gender." It seems that even if Hillary does break that particular glass ceiling in 2016 (after all, she's got the weight thing going for her over Christie) there will be those waiting to cut her down for not being "woman" enough — whether she looks like one or not.