Weight and Body Language
You read a little bit about weight in the section on women’s body types, but since some reports estimate that more than 60 percent of Americans are overweight (and many of these people actually qualify as obese), this section will deal specifically with the issue of weight and nonverbal cues.
Countless studies have confirmed what heavy people have long suspected: overweight people are perceived as being lazier, less attractive, less intelligent, less healthy, and more likely to be in financial straits than their thinner peers. Why are overweight people held in such low esteem, though, when at one time being heavy was considered a sign of status and your ability to keep your pantry stocked?
People simply know more about keeping themselves fit and healthy nowadays. Those who appear not to put any effort toward their health—and in fact, seem to be bent on becoming as unhealthy as possible—are perceived as slothful and dumb. And as bad as these judgments are for overweight people, they’re ten times worse for obese men and women.
What this means in terms of body language is multifold:
• Overweight/obese people are more likely to be ignored in social situations, making eye contact and friendly gestures all but impossible for them to send and receive.
• Since overweight/obese people are often thought of as unintelligent and lazy, any nonverbal gestures they make are often seen through this filter.
• Because overweight/obese people often face insults and indifference every day, they may exhibit nonverbal cues of low self-esteem and low confidence levels, like averted eye contact and slouching.
If your weight has made you feel like the subject of ridicule and nastiness, it’s understandable that you’d shy away from other people. You can’t control the actions of others, but you can control your own nonverbal cues. Act confident (fake it if you have to), and your interactions with most people will improve because they’ll think you are sure of yourself.
The average American man weighs about 190 pounds. The average American woman weighs in at about 165 pounds. What does it mean to be of average weight, in terms of feeling accepted and comfortable enough with other people to send and receive nonverbal cues?
Well, it means a lot. You just read about the problems that seriously overweight people face in our society. Not only are their nonverbal cues often misinterpreted, they’re often left out of group activities altogether, so there are no meaningful exchanges, nonverbal or otherwise. To be of average weight means that others see you as one of them. They’re more likely to accept you, to trust you, to assume that you’re of average intelligence … unless you prove otherwise.
Consider this scenario, for instance: You have to present your ideas to a board of trustees in order to secure funding for your project. You’re a man of average weight, and you’re relieved to see that the members of the board are as middle-of-the-road, physically speaking, as you are. You’ve already overcome one hurdle: You’re probably just what they were expecting. Now all you have to do is use your confident body language to show them that you’re better than average, and you’ll secure your funding in no time.
Now, if you walked in that room and were heavier than average, you’d have to work harder to sell yourself, which is interesting, since government statistics estimate that 60 percent of American adults qualify as being overweight. All of this begs the question: If more and more people are overweight, isn’t it less likely that their appearance will be judged negatively by others (who are likely to be overweight also)?
Well, you would think so, but the answer seems to be that as humans, we are hard-wired to critique one another—and in American society, the harsher the judgment, the better we feel about ourselves. So a woman who is 30 pounds overweight may see a peer who is 50 pounds overweight and think to herself, “Wow, I know I need to lose weight, but how did she let herself get so big?!” Depending on their relationship, the thinner woman may even feel superior to her heavier friend and use nonverbal cues (poor eye contact, distancing herself from her friend during conversations, few positive facial cues like genuine smiles) to express her feelings. The heavier woman is no dummy. She will pick up on these cues, and they may well affect her self-esteem and the way she uses her own body language to present herself.
Superthin isn’t the hot look it used to be. Bony women and men are often suspected of suffering from some sort of eating disorder. Average-sized people wonder if rail-thin men and women are seriously ill. If a thin person is also somewhat disheveled, friends may start to wonder if he has a substance abuse problem.
What if you just happen to be a naturally very thin person? What if you can’t gain weight, no matter how hard you try? Sorry to say, the perception is the same. Women have spent so many years fighting against the ultrathin model of perfection—on the grounds that for most females, it’s just not achievable—that people tend to think that no one is naturally very thin. Very thin men, meanwhile, are often thought of as physically weak and insignificant.
What can very skinny people (men, in particular) do to improve their perception among their peers?
Do your best to look healthy and hardy, whether that means wearing makeup (for women) or standing tall and proud. Using confident body language will make others take note of your abilities and personality.
Presenting yourself as a confident person—with good posture, adequate eye contact, appropriate hand gestures—will help dispel the misperception that you’re inconsequential because of your low weight.