MINNEAPOLIS - It's an endless cultural lesson that's been drilled into our heads since we were tots, watching cartoons such as "The Flintstones" and playing with Barbie and Ken dolls: If you are a woman, you should be extremely thin; if you are a man, you should be big and strong.

And while we've grown accustomed to research finding that such stereotypes play out in the workplace - overweight and obese women, for example, have a harder time ascending the career staircase - a recent study has found that a worker's girth can have an appreciable impact on the size of his or her paycheck.

The study found that thin women are paid significantly more than their average-size counterparts, while heavier women make less. Skinnier-than-average men, on the other hand, cash smaller paychecks than their average-weight peers.

Experts say it's just another sign that as a society, we've internalized the unrealistic, media-driven physical ideals that show up in the workplace - and therefore the pocketbook.

"Employers don't purposely think of these things when they're evaluating a person," said Teresa Rothausen-Vange, a management professor at the University of St. Thomas, who was not involved in the research.

"They don't say 'Okay, this woman is skinny, I'm going to give her a raise.' But research has shown that if you have two resumes, if all other qualifications make the candidates equal, the more physically attractive one - whether it's a skinny woman or a muscly man - will have the leg up."

In general, she said, people have subconscious reactions to different body types. For a man, skinny says less-than-manly, clashing with our vision of a leader: tall, strong and emotionally unmoved. For women, an ultra-thin figure simply says success and makes for an attractive corporate image, she said.

The pounds add up

The pounds - whether more or less - add up in terms of dollars, according to the study, "When It Comes to Pay, Do the Thin Win? The Effect of Weight on Pay for Men and Women," published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in the fall.

Being thin paid off in a big way for women, earning them about $16,000 more a year, on average. But thin men made about $8,000 less than their male co-workers.

The researchers, Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable, say that much of the problem is the result of subconscious decisions based on entrenched social stereotypes.

Their report cites studies in which obese individuals were identified as "undisciplined, dishonest and less likely to do productive work."

Conversely, the researchers point out that employers and fellow employees associate values of self-discipline, thrift, hard work and positivity with thin individuals.

It's no secret that the mass media have much to do with what dictates the image our society finds pleasing and acceptable.

TV shows such as "Mad Men" and "NCIS" showcase powerful men with a very distinct look. "Cougar Town," on the other hand, celebrates skinny career woman Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox), a successful real estate agent who claims she's never eaten real ice cream because she's so concerned about her weight.

"It's just been beaten into our heads that we have to be skinny as a female," said Traci Mann, an associate professor of psychology who is on the health and eating board at the University of Minnesota. "Every character on every TV show and in every magazine is thin or else the source of mockery."

The qualities that govern attractiveness aren't stagnant; they might change slightly over time as trends fade in and out. Rothausen-Vange pointed to a New York Times article that said for men, the metrosexual look that was popular for a few years is being replaced again by a brawny, traditional male image.

"The preference is just changing a little bit," she said. "And it's influencing everything, all the way to performance evaluation."

The right look

Many companies are very conscious about the "look" they have representing their company, Rothausen-Vange said, knowing that potential clients or investors will share these internalized values, as well.

Seth Rieder, a designer for an advertising and marketing company in Minneapolis, said he has seen the stereotype play out. "Taller, more muscular guys, bigger guys, seem like they have more power and can be more intimidating, and I think that can link to where you move in a company," he said.

The researchers suggest that employers look at their assumptions about employees' weight, because they may be rooted in prejudice.

A Twin Cities employment lawyer, Marshall Tanick, will be leading a conference this spring on how weight and attractiveness relate to unfair treatment, salaries and promotions in the workplace.

"This may be the new cutting edge of discrimination law," he said.

Currently, no state or federal laws protect workers from being discriminated against based on their size. But about five years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began recognizing overweight workers' claims of discrimination if they were backed with some legitimate emotional, genetic or physiological reasoning that brought the claim under the umbrella of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Tanick said.

Nationally, there have been few claims, he said. Some cases have simply not been very solid, he said, and some employees have been too embarrassed to follow through with a case. In addition, discrimination cases are generally tough to win, because so much is subjective.

But while Tanick said courts can expect to see more size-discrimination cases, a parade of average-size women seeking better pay because they're not ultra-thin is unlikely.

"That would be an uphill battle," he said.

- Star Tribune