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The Skinny on … skinny?

by Jenny Copeland, PsyD

Who gets to decide what is desirable? Who defines the standards for beauty? At what point did it become acceptable – the norm even – for bodies to be judged? In modern society weight often takes center stage – whether it is berating ‘obesity’ for its supposed role in economic woes or criticizing ‘skinny’ for idealizing unrealistic beauty standards. The rates of weight stigma have increased to the point that it is one of the most prevalent forms of bias in the United States. [1] [2]

This bias invades our daily lives in many obvious ways, but our language has covertly become an accomplice. Abakoui and Simmons[3] suggested the terms ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ and their variations play an important role in the perpetuation of weight bias through an implication of a “problem” with one’s size or the potential for one ‘right’ weight for everyone. Research tells us many adults consider ‘fat’ and ‘obese’ the most stigmatizing labels to describe one’s size.[4] Let’s direct our attention to the other end of the weight spectrum. What kinds of terms are used to describe it? Thin…slender…skinny?

I’m thin and I hate being called skinny. I’m not sure I ever really realized how much that bothered me until the past few years. The comments come in many contexts, all seemingly innocuous. Once diet and weight loss come up in conversation, I become the metaphorical elephant in the room. People won’t meet my eyes and may give me dirty looks when I speak up. And then the comments start: You’re so skinny, you don’t need to worry about what you eat. How do you do it? I bet you work out all the time.

By far the worst comments came when colleagues tried to move past me in a small space at work with a large cart of files. “Don’t worry,” they said as I tried to get out of their way, “You’re so skinny, you don’t take up any space.” I’d like to believe they meant well, but the problem is that many well-meaning people are devaluing the bodies of thin people in their efforts to make themselves or others feel better.

Judging ANY body is wrong

Take the popular internet meme “real women have curves” for example. At first glance this is seen as an attempt to celebrate the bodies of curvy women who are so often neglected by mainstream media. Photographs of Marilyn Monroe are circulated on social media, proclaiming her more attractive than a differently built counterpart. I am often struck by these comments. Does this mean that women who do not fit this ‘curvy’ definition are less real or less legitimate? If I’m not curvy, what does this mean for me?

Heather Cromarty at The Shameless Blog said it best:

F**k society, sure, because society tells you that if you’re not extremely thin, you’re worthless. However, extremely thin women? They’re still people. Further, bodies are just bodies. They have no intrinsic worth, no moral value, other than what we assign them. The thought behind this comparison photo is to turn the dominant paradigm on its head, but what it really does is reinforce that for one woman to be good, another must be bad. And that kind of thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere.

In 2012 this phenomenon was again highlighted when humanitarian and actress Ashley Judd was much maligned for having a “puffy face.” Her reaction described these efforts to devalue the bodies of others as

subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.

This “skinny shaming” was extended to the Duchess of Cambridge recently as the media declared her “too thin to be pregnant,” depicting her small stature as making her a less caring and capable parent-to-be.

Thinness carries a certain amount of conventional privilege in our society, this we know is true. Research has documented the many areas in which fat people are subject to bias including political candidacy[5], relationships[6], healthcare, and employment[7]. And yet, thinness also carries its own stigma which often goes unacknowledged.

Skinny bitch. Feather. Bean pole. “Flatter than two raisins on a bread board.” Skinny mini. Toothpick. Sickly. How many of us have used these words – out of hurt, out of compassion, out of jealousy, out of pain? Who has told a thinner person to eat more? That they should go back for another helping to put some more meat on their bones? Who has given a dirty look to the skinny girl going into a plus-size clothing store with her family or friends?

Some may not view such comments and experiences as negative. But the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘skinny’ as “lacking usual or desirable bulk, quantity, qualities, or significance.”  While fat people are told they take up too much space, I am told that as a thin person, I do not take up enough space to matter. That I am lacking. That I am insignificant. I reject this understanding of weight’s dominance – for myself and for people of all sizes. My body does not preclude me from being an effective advocate, therapist, or person.

Words carry weight – often communicating more than we intend. Using terms such as ‘skinny’ and ‘obese’ may illustrate covert perceptions of one’s body size or shape. While someone may explicitly speak what they see as a compliment by saying “you’re so skinny,” the underlying message may be experienced as being broken or that there is something wrong with one’s body. It’s time to challenge our perceptions of all bodies. Size acceptance should not be limited to those who are fat – those who are thin may have privileges due to their size but should also be encouraged to be accepting of their own body size.

Living as a thin person in a world warring against ‘obesity,’ or as a part of a family who has struggled with weight, does not make my life inherently easier or better. I experience pain as a result of weight stigma: not just my own, but also against my loved ones, my patients, and greater society. My experiences are neither better or worse, nor easier or harder, than others who are differently sized or shaped than me. Pain is pain. It cannot be compared – it is simply different.

[1] Andreyeva T, Puhl RM, Brownell KD. Changes in perceived weight discrimination among Americans, 1995-1996 through 2004-2006. Obesity. 2008 Feb;16(5):1129-1134.

[2] Puhl RM, Andreyeva T, Brownell KD. Perceptions of weight discrimination: Prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America. International Journal of Obesity. 2008 Mar;32:992-1000.

[3] Abakoui, R., & Simmons, R. E. (2010). Sizeism: An unrecognized prejudice. In J. A. Erickson Cornish, B. A. Schreier, L. I. Nadkarni, L. H. Metzger, & E. R. Rodolfa (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling competencies (pp. 317-349). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[4] Puhl RM, Peterson JL, Luedicke J. Weight-based victimization: Bullying experiences of weight loss treatment–seeking youth. Pediatrics. 2013 Jan;1:e1-e9.

[5] Miller, B. J., & Lundgren, J. D. (2010). An experimental study of the role of weight bias in candidate evaluation. Obesity, 18(4), 712-718. doi:10.1038/oby.2009.492

[6] Chen, E. Y., & Brown, M. (2005). Obesity stigma in sexual relationships. Obesity Research, 13, 1393-1397. doi:10.1038/oby.2005.168

[7] Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2009). The stigma of obesity: A review and update. Obesity, 17(5), 941-964.

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