We must stop equating ‘skinny-shaming’ with the abuse received by fat people. It is nowhere near as damaging.
All body shaming is wrong. But not all body shaming is equal in its destructiveness. It is also not all equal in its pervasiveness or its frequency.
The term “skinny-shaming” has been around for at least a decade, but has gained momentum in recent years. Emma Woolf, author of The Ministry of Thin, has called on people to ‘Stop the Skinny Shaming!’ and asked why it is OK to call a thin woman nasty names when fat shaming is taboo.
For Woolf, the experience of being judged as too thin is the same as being judged as too fat.
I know the experience of feeling that one’s private pain is on display, of being stared at, of feeling horribly conspicuous. I see overt parallels between fatness and thinness. I believe that out-of-control eating may operate in the same way as out-of-control starving—as a defense mechanism against the world, a place to retreat when life feels overwhelming.
Woolf even goes so far to say that some kind of body-acceptance mafia have taken over and now it’s harder to be thin because everyone is so cool with being fat:
The plus-size-sisterhood can be frightening—not unlike playground bullies. Among the messages I received (interestingly, only from women, and mostly anonymous), I was called “skinny bitch,” “body fascist,” “fat-Nazi.” I was told that men “love something to grab onto” and that “curves” are sexier than the skeletal look.
But Woolf is wrong. It is a lot easier to be skinny than it is to be fat. Sure, being called skinny or Slim or Bones or Skeletor might hurt your feelings. You may be teased and picked on. And that is terrible. But it is not a patch on the pervasive and destructive abuse directed at people who are larger than society would like.
To repeat: There is no doubt that calling someone names or judging their body is painful. But skinny-shaming is not the opposite side of the coin to fat-shaming. They are different. And yes, there is a measure of degree involved. One is worse than the other. One is more damaging. One occurs more often.
Yes, if a person is skinny, they may be called names. They may be judged. Someone might accuse them of being unhealthy and a bad role model. They might be told they have a mental illness. They might be told to ‘eat a hamburger’. These things might happen, and they will be hurtful when they do.
Similarly, if a person is fat, they might be called names and judged. They might be told they are unhealthy and a bad role model. They might be told they have a mental illness. They might be told to ‘put down the fork’ or ‘step away from the cupcakes’. But these things aren’t just things that ‘might’ happen. They will happen, more often than not.
But more than names and judgement, fat people are discriminated against. In the workplace and in society. People make assumptions about their personal hygiene, their self-esteem and their fitness. If a skinny person sits down, they are resting. But when a fat person sits down, they are lazy, exhausted, unable to keep up. They are presumed to be greedy, smelly and lacking in self-control.
People pass judgement, not only on the example that fat people set for their kids, but on their capacity to care for them, to play with them, to provide them with nourishing food. People tell fat parents: ‘Aren’t you worried you’re going to die before your child gets married/finishes school/reaches some milestone?’.
God, when you’re fat, people feel ok about talking about your imminent death! Because they’ve convinced themselves they are saying these things or your own good. Like they are doing you a favour. Like talking about your death and your kids in the same sentence is kind, thoughtful and appropriate.
Fat people are not promoted as readily at work and are paid less. The Wall Street Journal has reported that people with a higher body mass index are considered less effective in their jobs, both from a performance and interpersonal relationship perspective. Being fat may limit the jobs and industries you encouraged to work in, beyond any physical capacity or other suitability requirements for the job – from fashion and fitness to entertainment and media.
When a fat person falls in love, they are derided and mocked as being the subject of a fetish – it can’t possibly be sexual attraction or affection, it must be a kink, your partner must be a pervert.
If fat people are comfortable with themselves or their bodies, they are not considered normal or proud – they are committing the crime of ‘encouraging obesity’ and ‘celebrating an unhealthy lifestyle’. Wearing swimmers on a beach is considered ‘brave’ instead of ‘going swimming’.
And heaven forbid if you are fat, plus a woman or a person of colour, or gay person. The brutality and the discrimination is compounded.
All of this – before you even get to the more obvious challenges of finding clothes in mainstream stores or the pain of not fitting what society deems attractive, loveable or ideal, and never seeing yourself reflected in popular culture except as a punchline.
These things go beyond hurt feelings. They go beyond self-esteem. They are brutal barriers to life. They are discrimination. These things are abusive and violent. They are damaging and unimaginably cruel.
Skinny-shaming can also be cruel. But in our culture, it can never be a match for the brutality of fat-shaming. Suggesting the two are in any way similar is naive and unhelpful.
Perhaps, more accurately they exist on a spectrum. A spectrum of the way that our society keeps us looking in the mirror. They are both examples of the way that women’s bodies are studied and criticised by our culture, designed to keep us obsessing over our flaws to stop us focussing on our power and potential.
But the truth is that one is simply worse and more pervasive.
If this post brings up any issues for you, please contact The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).