Bebeto Matthews  /  AP
Catherine Schuller looks at a department store window in New York last week. Schuller is a retail consultant and advocate for larger size shoppers like herself who encounter unpleasant experiences shopping, because of being overweight.
updated 4/10/2005 6:01:03 PM ET 2005-04-10T22:01:03

Even though she's been a model, an author and small-business owner, Catherine Schuller said some sales clerks still only see her as an overweight woman who is out of place in their stores.

“I was once in a store and asked for the plus-size section. The clerk said, ‘Why would I know that.’ It's like I was insulting her,” said Schuller, who runs CurveStyle: Reshaping Fashion, a New York consulting firm. “I tend not to want any help from sales associates.”

A small Rice University study details some of the unpleasant experiences of women like Schuller and other overweight shoppers. The study suggests sales clerks subtly discriminate against obese shoppers unless they think the customer is trying to lose weight.

But the world's largest retail trade association said the study proves only that some sales clerks are rude.

The research, conducted over five years, was done in three phases and focused on a large Houston mall. The shoppers visited smaller stores; no department stores or restaurants were included.

In the first phase, 10 white women played the role of a customer in four scenarios: casually and professionally dressed average-weight shoppers, and casually and professionally dressed obese shoppers. Those posing as obese participants wore a prosthetic that made them appear to be a size 22.

The obese shoppers reported greater levels of interpersonal discrimination, with the ones casually dressed facing the most rejection. The subtle forms of discrimination included less eye contact, more rudeness, hostility and unfriendliness, said Eden King, one of the study leaders.

“That kind of subtle discrimination is more challenging and potentially more harmful,” said King, a Rice graduate student in psychology.

In the second phase, seven women acted as either obese or healthy-weight shoppers. They also carried either a diet cola or an ice cream drink and told store employees whether or not they were trying to lose weight.

Obese shoppers with the ice-cream drink reported the greatest amount of discrimination, King said.

The third phase of the research involved interviews with 191 white women, who were not involved in the study, about their shopping experiences in general. Obese women said they faced more discrimination, spent less time and money in the store and would probably not return.

But Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C., said he doesn't think the study clarifies whether the store employees were actually discriminating against the obese shoppers or whether they were just rude across the board.

“Discrimination happens in all walks of life, and it's wrong,” he said. "If this behavior is happening, retailers want to know."

Krugman said the women carrying drinks might have been treated poorly because the store may have forbid food or beverages.

However, Chris Crandall, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas who has tracked attitudes toward the overweight for the last 20 years, said the Rice findings are typical.

“To reduce anti-fat prejudice, we have to tell people how much the problem is due to genetics and physiology and how it has less to do with willpower,” he said. “But that flies against the American way of thinking about things.”

Allen Steadham, spokesman for the International Size Acceptance Association in Austin, said the study's findings should be a call to action.

“Overweight people feel embarrassed when discriminated against and they want to forget it. We as consumers have to connect with the businesses and make our needs known,” he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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