Women At The Top Of The Career Ladder Are Also The Skinniest

“When a man gets up to speak, people listen then look. When a woman gets up, people look, then, if they like what they see, they listen.”-Pauline Frederick

According to a new study, women in the top echelons of law, medicine and business are very good at losing weight. According to the official figures, they are the only social group to lose weight in the past 15 years while everyone else is growing fatter. Well that is good but there motivation for keeping themselves thin is not. These women keep themselves thin because they know they are still judged on their appearance rather than skill.

Just as professional women also won’t let their hair go grey and wear those painful heels because they look good, keeping themselves thin is all part of the package they want to present and, at least it sounds like, have to  in order to succeed. According to Andrew Hill, professor of medical psychology at Leeds University. “Appearance is the most important attribute for women in our society. Valuing them only for their appearance is a way for me to subjugate them,” The Daily Mail quoted him as telling the Sunday Times. “There’s no doubt that to be fat in our current society is a disadvantage particularly if you are female,” he said. One female lawyer told The Daily Mail it was alright if male lawyers were obese but it was not permitted for female lawyers. New data from the National Obesity Observatory (NOO) shows that 15% of professional women were obese in 1997, but that figure had dropped to 14% by 2008.

In a survey published last month in Manchester and Melbourne, Australia, fat women scored worse in an assessment of their leadership potential. The 12 candidates – six obese and six slim – had identical educational CVs, but those who were overweight were judged more poorly by volunteer students who took part in the study. Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas in Austin, found that being good-looking is worth $230,000 extra over the course of a typical career. Not being obese would fall somewhere under this scale.

But as we wrote last year, an eating disorder may be a result of a busy executive lifestyle of a woman in particular instead of the catalyst that got them there.Lisa Briggs, Intuitive Psychotherapist and Overeating Intervenionist and founder of IntuitiveBody.com, said that that Type A perfectionism we see in high-powered career women is already part of an eating disorder. “It is that feeling that we are never good enough,” she said.

A more common and popular cultural term for this epidemic amongst high-powered career woman trying to show that they can “have it all” is stressorexia. According to The Daily Mail, stressorexia occurs in older, motivated and intelligent women with high expectations. It is believed that the disorder may often start with a skipped lunch due to work deadlines but can quickly worsen. These women develop this condition because they live in a world where the lines between the sexes’ traditional roles have been blurred, then begin to feel that food is the only thing they can control. From Dr. Adrian Lord:

“They are trying to be sexy, fashionable and slim, have a career and be perfect mothers and wives. Some neglect to eat because they are too busy and others are just totally stressed-out – which suppresses the appetite. Fifty years ago, women just had to be a good mother. Now they have to do everything and they can’t abdicate. As a result, they feel very anxious and this can cause them to try and keep control of their food, which can lead to drastic weight loss and cause them insidiously to slip into an anorexic-type situation. It is very much a modern-day phenomenon, compounded by the blurred roles of men and women. Basically, this ailment is a combination of depression, anxiety and anorexic-type symptoms. Women with it need thorough assessment to get to the underlying issues.”

Briggs said a lot of women are faced with a perfect storm of changes in culture and women’s roles. More women are supporting families now and are the main breadwinners, she said. From her experience with high-powered female clients she has found that addictive behaviors are very common, especially on the bulimia and laxative side. Many of her clients, especially entrepreneurs in the entertainment field, feel that they have to look better.

“It is excruciatingly painful because they are perceived as having it all but behind the scenes they have a dirty little secret. The tension between how people perceive them and who they really are is tough.”

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    • Lastango

      “15% of professional women were obese in 1997, but that figure had dropped to 14% by 2008″

      They’re not obese at the top. I have never met a heavyset woman in a truly senior role. They don’t smoke, either… they would have to leave the building to do that, and they simply don’t have the time and they can’t afford to have people see them standing around in the parking lot.

      “women in the top echelons of law, medicine and business…. are the only social group to lose weight in the past 15 years.”

      Sounds right. These women tend to be highly competitive, and they are “on” all the time. They think carefully about everything they do, and what they show to the world.

      BTW, lookism is an issue for upper-level men, too. For example, I remember when an attractive woman who had attained a senior rank in the US military was asked if she owed her advancement in part to her appearance. She replied, “Have you ever in your life seen an ugly general?”

    • Jamie

      Or perhaps their fitness is another manifestation of the willpower, discipline and self control it takes to succeed in life. The same willpower that will keep you in the library studying during college when everyone else is out having fun (and thus getting good grades, getting into good grad schools, and climbing the corporate ladder) is the same willpower that helps you say no to the plate of cookies in the center of the table at an afternoon business meeting.

      • Meredith Lepore

        Very good point Jamie.

    • Erica

      Very interesting article – I haven’t heard of the term ‘stressorexia’ before!

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