For years now, doctors and scientists have been warning everyone about the nasty health consequences that come with being overweight or obese. Now, though, there's another reason to be concerned about the prevalence of expanding waistlines, with new research revealing that weight can have a negative influence on both spending impulses and feelings of capability.

Multiple studies, one common theme

Researchers Marisabel Romero (Colorado State University) and Adam W. Craig (University of Kentucky) conducted a pair of studies related to weight and consumer spending behavior. In the first study, individuals were shown an item with a thin, bottle-like shape. Following this image exposure, participants who had a higher body mass index (BMI) were more likely to buy a higher-priced bottle of Fiji water than a generic bottle of water when compared with low BMI participants. In a second study, high-BMI consumers who were exposed to a thin-shaped image didn't feel like they could manage their spending impulses as well, and subsequently, were more willing to take on credit card debt. Romero and Craig concluded that body shapes have a big influence on how consumers spend, and that consumer advocates need to be careful not to reinforce connections between weight, self-control and financial achievement.

Spending fills a void, but it asserts power, too

Previously, psychologists have honed in on the concept that excessive or impulsive spending connects to emotional dissatisfaction--that is, people will buy to give themselves a temporary thrill and counteract negative thoughts and feelings they might be having. It's classic "filling the void" and triggering the dopamine reward response in the brain.

But the above research also highlights that, when people feel like they have less status due to weight, they might turn to spending as a way to gain back some ground. By spending, they assert they have earned financial power and, therefore, still are successful despite their weight. That's as much an external, social message as it is an internal, self-directed one. The research also demonstrates that people easily can shift the lack of control they associate with weight to other areas of their lives, be it finances, organization or even sexual activity.

Leaders have a choice

So is the answer for consumers to hit the gym and eat carrot sticks all day? Not at all, because as Romero and Craig point out, "marketers long have used slender models, forms and designs to promote economic and social benefits". In other words, companies have known for a long time what thin images do to people. They often manipulate the psychology on purpose. Any business leader has to acknowledge this existing ethical dilemma and draw a line in the sand about whether they're going to continue to play the system.

But consumers can take a stand

Being aware of how businesses use weight against consumers is the first step in shoppers protecting themselves and their money. To counter marketing efforts, consumers might

  • Adopt a waiting period rule (e.g., avoid impulse buys by putting off the purchase for a day).
  • Ask themselves what they actually are buying for a higher price when two products are similar.
  • Voice concerns, experiences and feelings on social media (e.g., company and personal Facebook pages, Twitter, etc.)
  • Come up with a written definition for success that does not include weight and keep it with their credit cards.
  • Keep a list of achievements to review when tempted to spend.
  • Find a financial planner--or even a budget buddy--who can keep them accountable for cash outflow.

Blurring the line, business leaders are consumers, too

Team leaders, managers and CEOs who struggle with weight aren't necessarily going to see themselves through rose-colored glasses just because of their positions. Given Romero and Craig's findings, some curvier professionals who connect their sense of identity to their businesses might be tempted to take more risks with their businesses' finances, going over budget to give the impression of success and power. Alternately, they might shy away from being involved in the heart of the company's finances because of feelings of incompetence, denying themselves a real understanding of how to make the business thrive. In this regard, the same strategies that help mainstream consumers keep control--for instance, waiting briefly before making a buy--might also be useful for businesspeople.

In an ideal world, success would be measured based on the good you have done with your life, not based on your clothing size or the money you have in the bank. Clearly, we are not there yet. But the more intolerance we offer to these kinds of manipulations, the closer we come. Whether you're a consumer or business leader or both, be proactive and set limits for how others can treat you. Any time anyone unintentionally or purposely makes you feel "less than", it's time to close your wallet, not open it up.