Sociocultural values promoting Western body-type ideals have proliferated over the past 20 years. An important question is whether the same obesity wage penalties seen in the United States, such as wage reductions for obese individuals, are emerging in China as ideals of beauty change to reflect Western ones. We hypothesize that Westernisation will exacerbate the impact of body size on wages for years to come, particularly for urban non-manual workers whose workplaces call for extensive interpersonal relations with employers, colleagues, and customers. This study examines the economic outcomes for individuals aged 18–55, focusing on 6600 female and 8488 male participants in the longitudinal 1991–2011 China Health and Nutrition Survey. Linear fixed-effects regression models estimate the net effect of body mass index (BMI) on wages, as well as the marginal effect of BMI on wages, by survey year. All analyses control for demographic backgrounds and household fixed effects, and are stratified by gender. The results show that normal-weight women with non-manual jobs in 2011 made 2.79–2.95 times more than they had in 1991, while overweight women made 2.66–2.76 times more, and obese women made only 2.57–2.63 times more. The results also indicate that women with non-manual jobs have been subject to wage disparities since 2000. Specifically, the wage disparity for heavier women living in urban areas with non-manual jobs increased significantly after 2000, while current male obesity rates may have been propelled by social acceptance of larger body sizes among men, particularly for manual workers living in rural areas.
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