the HAES® files: The Skinny on … skinny?

by Health At Every Size® Blog

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 wrongTake 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.

24 Responses to “the HAES® files: The Skinny on … skinny?”

  1. Thanks Jenny! Great article and a good reminder that the Health At Every Size movement is for bodies of ‘every’ size.

  2. “My experiences are neither better or worse, nor easier or harder, than others who are differently sized or shaped than me.”

    This last jab is absurd. What makes you think your experiences with size discrimination are just as bad as a fat persons’? If you listened to fat people’s lived experiences, you would not say this.

  3. “My experiences are neither better or worse, nor easier or harder, than others who are differently sized or shaped than me.” You would not say this if you listened to fat peoples’ lived experiences of discrimination…

  4. Not to suggest that it isn’t hard to be thin. Its always hard to be called names and have assumptions made about oneself. But (perhaps I haven’t been noticing; I will try to pay more attention…) I have not really noticed that every single time you open a newspaper or turn on the radio or the TV news there is some breathless story about how thin people are ruining the economy, contributing to rising health care costs, going to get cancer and heart disease and diabetes and all kinds of other ills, and won’t live as long as their parents. I haven’t seen any initiatives by the First Lady to stamp out thinness in children. Those things are EVERPRESENT, not just isolated or occasional thoughtless remarks.

  5. I hear Jenny speaking to the individual experience of body judgment and shaming when she notes it is “no better/worse” , and not to the experience of collective cultural shaming, which, as others have noted, is so incredibly skewed against fat people. I do appreciate being reminded however, to be more aware of how I may be thinking judgmental thoughts about someone’s thinner body that could lead to my making a hurtful comment without meaning to.

    • Well, I agree that body shaming is body shaming no matter to whom it is directed. I just had a visceral reaction to this article that was similar to my experience in the 1970s when I would see occasional articles claiming that the women’s movement needed to remember that it wasn’t just women who were discriminated against; men suffered too.

  6. Thank you Jenny for the reminder that the war against fat people often has unintended casualties. I have someone in my life who is naturally quite thin and she’s had to deal with a number of intrusive and sometimes downright nasty comments over the years. We will all be better off when we (as Linda Bacon puts it) declare a truce in the war against our bodies!

  7. I have personally experienced both ends of the spectrum: being both too skinny and too fat.

    “I could use your ribs as a xylophone” was one comment I received when I was young, and yes, I received the hate looks and the ‘are you anorexic/bulimic” questioning glances. Being around 8kg underweight into my early 20s, I was told that I was the perfect size for a model. How ridiculous! I never heard that comment once I reached my ideal weight and later became even larger.

    A thyroid problem led to a significant increase in my weight by the time I was 30 – weight which I cannot shift. People still seem to feel they have the right to comment on my size or question if I am a big eater. Being a larger person, people judge me as if I lack self-control!

    I will be 50 later this year and LOVE being my age. Sure, it would be nice to be less curvy for my health’s sake and the sake of my poor knees. I watch what I eat (as a diabetic) and have slowly come to love and embrace the body God has chosen to give me, including the grey hair and wrinkles, lol.

    The person on the inside has only improved with age. I am a loving, good-hearted, good-humoured, community supporting individual that tries to improve and grow a little better with every passing year. How would being the ‘ideal weight’ improve that in any way?

    There is far too much pressure on people to look a certain way. I remind the kids/teenagers in my care (I am a foster carer) that other societies embrace different forms of beauty: some cultures love larger sized individuals; and in another, large noses are seen as sexy.

    Why have we given permission to people around us to say we are somehow less than ideal? Let’s take back the power; let’s tell those naysayers “I choose to base my self-worth on something that is actually important.”

  8. I was recently told a neighbour’s dog bit me because she’s not used to seeing skinny people! WTF?

  9. Excellent, excellent, excellent point!

  10. Why focus on determining who has suffered more or less? We can argue back and forth, but all we really accomplish is invalidating someone’s experiences. And that hands the power over to mainstream society, who is arguing against the legitimacy or even existence of weight stigma in general. Size acceptance is for everyone, and should be encouraged for EVERY body. We could be stronger and grow more as a movement by challenging our perceptions, become more accepting of the existence of biases based on size in general, and enact more change. And that starts by challenging ourselves to grow individually. By doing that, we will be better able to challenge and help others grow. Why would we not want that?

  11. Thanks for the reminder, Jenny, that comments on people’s bodies are inappropriate. Period.
    I’ve been fat and thin. When thin, I felt less safe in the world — more noticed by men, more commented on in an I-want-to-have-you kind of way. I realize now that when I was thin I sought out and wore things that made me feel more inapproachable and like I was physically bigger (large jewelry, belts, boots, etc.). As a 64 yr old fat woman, I’m no longer a sex object and therefore not as noticeable. But the best is that rarely do people take me on/challenge me as they did when I was younger. It must be obvious that I will bite their head off if they push me. Let’s hear it for old and fat!!


    “There are two things to address here. The first is that being told to go eat a sandwich or being forced to take in a baggy pair of pants is not oppression. Privilege is institutional; it doesn’t always resolve to the individual level. Privileged people have problems. They might even experience some of the same problems oppressed people have. But in no way do they experience the oppression of the underprivileged.

    Secondly, thin shaming is in no way comparable to what fat people go through. Fat people get food-policed at an entirely different level. There are fat taxes in the name of ‘reducing obesity.’ There are school lunch programs and food-policing in public schools in the name of reducing the population of fat people. Fat children are ritually abused by their parents and doctors, the people they’re supposed to be able to trust before anyone else in the world, forced on diets, sent to fat camps. Fat parents are getting denied custody simply for the size of their bodies, and prospective parents the right to adopt due to the size of their bodies. Fat women are being denied the same access to contraceptive, fertility, and pregnancy services. Fat employees are penalized and all but ordered to starve themselves in order to get the best rate on their employee insurance plan. And don’t even get me started about shopping while fat. Sure, something might be baggy on you, but at least you can still cover yourself. Fat people can’t make too-small clothes bigger.”

  13. The message I interpreted from the article was that no matter what size you are, society and ourselves as individuals within the society should not judge others. That we should be open and understanding to individuals struggles regardless of how they look on the outside and be kind, caring and respecting to both others and ourselves to ultimately try to avoid and make redundant the horrible fixation society has on our body image. Yes absolutely, being overweight can have detrimental health benefits, and being underweight can as well. But who are we to say what that weight is for an individual person and whether or not what the outside depicts is the health that we have on the inside.
    I have had an eating disorder for 13 years and fluctuated between bulimic and anorexic. To the normal world I don’t look unhealthy, I look extremely healthy, I train and appear to eat well, I sit well within my ‘ideal weight’. But on the inside I am riddled with health concerns and problems and already my body is breaking down from years of purging,under eating, binging and abuse. My partner is about 15 kilograms ‘overweight’ (to use that term very loosely) however she eats amazingly healthy, very rarely drinks, exercises everyday. Like many others, she has a thyroid problem which causes issues with her weight. Whilst by societies standards I look healthier and ‘better’ then her, this is far from the case.
    In our world, we are so obsessed with everybody else, how everyone else views us and sees us, what everyone else looks like and idealising others and demeaning ourselves that we lose sight of what is really important. How we feel about ourselves, how happy we are within ourselves and making ourself happy, healthy and loved. If I had learnt all these things as a young girl (a long journey I’m trying to undertake now to reverse years of battering myself and berating myself) instead of learning that I wasn’t good enough on the outside to match how I felt on the inside, then I wouldnt be in this constant struggle now.
    Large or small, tall or short, I hope that one day our world will evolve and we can focus on ourselves, on caring for ourselves and for appreciating others, appreciating their journeys, their struggles and their life. Be kind to others as we would like others to be kind to us. It starts with ourselves.
    Just my thoughts.
    Thank you Jenny for sharing your story 🙂

  14. 1) This was a brilliant article, and the author is right on target. Moreover, there is little to be gained from trying to quantify the severity of size oppression, whether it be against thin or fat. How can you measure my anxiety compared to yours? I can say that in all my years as a size acceptance activist, I have NEVER made light of the anguish of a thinner person, or used language putting down someone due to ANY physical attribute. Heck, people get put down just for being old in our society.

    All “”isms” are bad—sizism, racism, ageism, oppresion due to gender or sexual preferences, and so forth.

    I agree that it is bad to comment on someone’s physical appearance. I would take it one step further, and say that it is better to not judge someone by external factors, even silently. You can make lots of bad decisions in life if you do so.

    2) Shelley, who says a large woman in her 60’s cannot be a “sex object”–whether that be a good or a bad thing? 🙂

  15. Jen — Thank you for such a thoughtful post. We live in a society that sends such incredibly ambiguous messages (and certainly outright contradictory ones at times). The ways in which each of us internalizes and then resurfaces these messages in our own lives is so complicated and so often painful. I recently started doing self-affirmations everyday which felt rather silly until I realized that before intentionally doing so, I rarely — if ever — thought anything nice about myself! And that is even sillier. Body image and body perception get in the way of so much — living, loving, being, doing.

  16. 1,000 times yes to this. I am very thin and have endured harassment and thoughtless commentaries because of it, but I try to be a body-positive advocate for everyone. I HATE the term “real women have curves”. Real women have bodies. We’re all different. No body is more legitimate than another. Do I understand that people have preferences? Of course. That is normal. Doesn’t give anyone the right to say “dogs are for bones” or “one can’t be hot at a size 18”. These kinds of thing invalidate women of all sizes. We are more than just our bodies. Our bodies are just a vessel for the things about us that really matter! We should try to take care of our bodies, yes. But that doesn’t mean that an unhealthy person (especially a woman, since we are judged so much more on our weight) is worth any less.

    But because i try to advocate for all bodies, I also don’t like when people try to compare their suffering.The suffering caused by bullying/body shaming/low self-esteem is felt differently on every level. You can be overweight and have the confidence and thick skin needed to brush those comments off. You can be very thin and hate yourself as soon as a stranger tells you to eat a sandwich. It doesn’t matter “who has it worse”. Body shaming at any level is bad, it’s wrong, and it shouldn’t happen. No one deserves it.

  17. Fat stigma impacts everyone. It encourages good people to become tools of oppression and domination in exchange for the hollow (false) “privilege” of feeling superior—or, rather, for the “privilege” of maintaining our pathetic illusions of safety, security and control. Of course, our social and political systems no longer blatantly torture and execute stigmatized persons in public squares (e.g. historically, by beheading, hanging or burning them alive at the stake) to maintain the social status quo of domination through overt demonstrations of violence and terror. They don’t need to.

    Now our social institutions of power enforce mass submission and subjugation in ways that seem benign and “normal.” Our institutions systemically withhold the means of survival—construct barriers to mutual aid, cooperation and participatory power—and construct social conditions that increasingly eliminate options for improving and maintaining “health” (by legitimating social “power” for those who—willingly or unwittingly—collude in exchange for social “privilege,” material “security” and illusions of control. )

    The social stigmatization of persons who are unable to conform to arbitrary standards that society calls normal results in significant harm—disease (both physical and mental), increased disability, and death.

    Social conditions that create severe, inescapable, and chronic stress—the consequences of stigma—subjugate, terrify and kill human beings just as surely as direct threats and use of overt violence. The fact that so much of this ongoing social domination and terrorizing is carried out in the name of “caring” and “helping” and “prevention of sickness” (etc) indicates the extent of distorted thinking and immoral (dehumanizing) rationalizations which our dominant discourses effectively obscure and hide from our everyday awareness—including, for example, discourses of medicine, economics, religion, etc.

    The concept of “thin stigma” as a force of social domination would hold little validity when contrasted with the widespread social consequences of fat stigma. But the notion of “thin privilege” is equally problematic for it discounts our most basic human vulnerabilities and our needs for mutual dependency—to both give and receive recognition, respect, compassion, empathy and material aid. Social “privileging”, like social stigma, supports injustice and enforces domination—denies our humanity and effectively turns us against each other in silent, helpless collusion with brutal forces to which we remain blind and enslaved by our “personal”, individual powerlessness.

  18. Part of the movement to assure curvier women they are still desirable is in order to counter the popular assumption — often by women — that thinner is always more attractive. It isn’t. It always depends. Always. So much more goes into attraction than simple weight. How a woman carries herself, how she adorns herself, how she gestures, how she moves, how she laughs. Now, attractiveness is not always the same thing as health, but I suspect there is a correlation. Find your weight, stay vital, and let the scales not only fall from your eyes, but also slide under the bed. Keep it there. Go live.

  19. Society is never totally satisfied with anything that has to do with our bodies. Fat or skinny, big nose or small nose, cheek bones or no cheek bones, hourglass shaped or not hourglass shaped… nothing is ever good enough and nothing will ever be good enough. No one in this world can be protected from biases that we all know will probably continue forever. How did we turn physical characteristics so unique to each and every individual into things that are so easily judged?

    Screw society. And it’s values. I definitely agree, body acceptance should be encouraged for people of ALL sizes and shapes. Everyone values different things in life and body size has unfortunately become an important one to many of us. There have been many misconceptions about being skinny or being fat, however. For example, just because someone is skinny doesn’t necessarily mean they are fit and in the same way, just because someone is fat doesn’t necessarily mean they are unfit. In fact, in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study (Héroux, et al., 2010), it was shown that the fittest men and the fittest women have the lowest death rates, regardless of what their weight is. We should learn to accept our bodies for what they are instead of being wavered by what society tells us what they should be.

    These days, being thin is so highly valued that it’s almost as if it’s okay for anyone to say to someone, “you’re so thin.” On the other hand, if anyone ever says to someone, “you’re so fat,” it is taken much more offensively. We are so focused on this so-called “obesity epidemic” that thin people often get thrown into the shadows. We frequently forget that saying “you’re so…” anything to anyone makes them feel like something is wrong with them when in reality there is nothing “wrong” with them. To fat people or to skinny people, words still carry the same weight. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words? Words can hurt just as much.

    Héroux, M., Janssen, I., Lam, M., Lee, D.-c., Hebert, J. R., Sui, X., & Blair, S. N. (2010). Dietary patterns and the risk of mortality: impact of cardiorespiratory fitness. International Journal of Epidemiology, 197-209.

  20. Two points: The first, sillier point is that I watch TV shows and movies where every woman is very thin. There is no variety of bodies in these programs, and even average-sized women are not shown. I don’t know if a skinny cam is used, but it does sometimes feel disconcerting to see woman after woman who might be as large as a size 2 dress, to see no women in size 12 dresses let alone size 24 dresses.

    My second, serious point is how many thin patients go to the doctor with serious symptoms and are told to first gain weight? I had glaring hypothyroid symptoms for years, and was dismissed by every health professional I saw. One nurse practitioner must have ignored my urinalysis (which surely would have shown the bacteria that ended up in my kidneys) because she was too busy pushing Optifast on me. I wasn’t even particularly heavy. So I would be interested in hearing from thin people who are told to gain weight before their fatigue, headaches, heavy menstrual periods, etc, can be treated.

  21. Thanks so much for posting this! As someone recovered from Binge-Eating Disorder, I often heard something similar to what you wrote regarding the comments people make about your weight: “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.” I often heard during my recovery, “You don’t look obese. You couldn’t possibly have had an eating disorder.” There is such a deeply rooted mindset in the U.S. (and elsewhere) about weight as “good” or “bad”. Health really does come in all sizes and we need to start looking below the surface of those we talk to. Thanks again! –Megan, Author of “Getting Out of B.E.D.: Overcoming Binge-Eating Disorder One Day at a Time”


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