May 7, 2009

Skinnyism: The Newest Acceptable Prejudice

Filed under: Other — PolitiCalypso @ 7:03 pm

At left, body image movement activists’ rhetoric about most feminine body types. At right, the activists’ rhetoric about thin women.

The term “fattism” is not yet standard usage, I don’t believe, but it is a pop-culture expression that means “discrimination and prejudice against overweight women.” It’s a real phenomenon; numerous studies have shown that overweight women are less likely to get jobs and promotions than their normal and underweight counterparts, and this form of bigotry is unacceptable. Let me say up front that nothing whatsoever in this post should be construed to mean that I disbelieve that fattism is real or that I advocate the practice of it. In fact, the subject of it really isn’t fattism, but rather, its opposite. In keeping with the method of formation for the word, I’m dubbing this new type of bigotry “skinnyism.”

Now that fattism is recognized by most authorities as a real occurrence, there has, perhaps predictably, been a surge of awareness and a strong counter-movement against this type of behavior. That’s fine. What’s not fine is one direction that the movement has taken. Just as a spike in awareness of various forms of prejudice prompted a form of accompanying “political correctness” that many people believe went too far in the opposite direction, the counter-movement to fattism is, in my opinion, going too far in the opposite direction. What’s beginning to happen amounts to blatant, codified prejudice and nonscientific bigotry against thin women. Whatever can be said about fattism—and none of it is good—it usually cannot be said that overweight women were actively discriminated against in organizational policy. The prejudice occurred in practice, not on paper. In sharp contrast, thin women increasingly are discriminated against in policy itself in this counter-movement, and there is a threat of more to come. We also have to deal with the same kinds of demeaning, dehumanizing behavior that overweight women once dealt with over their weight and shape.

Take, first, the semi-recent flap over this pageant finalist in the Miss Australia Universe contest. I don’t know whether this woman is naturally thin or if she had an eating disorder or other medical condition that caused it. However, I can say with certainty that until several months ago, from the head down she would have looked like me, and I do know that there was nothing wrong with me, physiologically or psychologically. I am naturally very thin and am one of those people who can eat as much as I want of whatever I want and simply will not gain weight. The only reason I don’t look like that now is because of a hormonal change, and even now I’m definitely thin. We do exist.

As I said, I don’t know what the circumstances of this pageant contestant’s weight were, but I do know that the proposed “solution” is absolutely insane and constitutes nothing short of discrimination—elimination, in fact—of any woman who is medically underweight. The proposal for a BMI cutoff of 20 does just that: It eliminates all women whose BMIs are in the underweight range. Not all anorexics, not all whose health is actively in danger, but all thin women, period.

Can you imagine the outrage from “fat activists” if a pageant actively banned women whose BMIs were over 25, or even proposed it? Can you imagine if a third-party organization recommended such a step, as happened here? Yet when the discrimination happens to their sisters on the other side of the spectrum…. crickets. The double standard is amazing here. These people talk about how fattism is a sexist phenomenon and harms all women, which is true. But how is skinnyism different? If they’re going to talk (and they do) about individual beauty, “everyone is different,” and so forth, it’s only fair to include their thin sisters rather than putting us on the chopping block. If there is an enemy, it’s not thin women. It’s the men who have set up Barbie as the ideal for the feminine figure. Here’s a clue: Even thin women don’t look like Barbie. Nobody does.

And a bit of personal disclosure: I am 5’4″ and weigh about 100 pounds. These stats give me a BMI of 17.2. I am not vegetarian, I eat plenty of fatty foods and actively avoid anything marked “low-fat” or “diet,” and I don’t stand anxiously before mirrors with a measuring tape critiquing my body. I have no eating disorder, none of the telltale physical signs of anorexia or bulimia, and I’ve had blood tests that showed nothing whatsoever amiss. This is my natural weight, and I rather suspect that a large part of it is because I am a small-framed woman. Yet because of my small frame and (apparently) high metabolism, I would be disqualified from entering this beauty pageant if the third-party group’s advice became policy. I would be subject to having my picture splashed all over the news and discussed by people who were ignorant of the facts and eager to push the sexist notion that my appearance must be (1) caused by a psychological or physiological disorder and (2) harmful to the body image of someone else. I would also be disqualified from being a model in certain parts of Europe, where a minimum BMI of 18 is now imposed.

The diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa include attempts to maintain a weight of 85% of the “expected” weight. There is not a medical professional out there who would say that weight is (no pun intended) a one-size-fits-all, so “expected” weight varies by the individual. When you go to a good doctor for diet advice, you’ll generally walk out with a diet tailored for yourself and your own body, not some fad diet. This is because of the differences in frame and metabolism that are simply not being considered by these organizations. For me, 85% of my expected weight would mean a weight of about 85 pounds, which translates to a BMI of 14.6. That is the maximum BMI for an anorexic woman of my physique, not 18, and certainly not 20. 17.2 is not inherently “dangerous” to all women. It doesn’t indicate starvation. It’s healthily underweight.

The libertarian side of me takes very strong issue with pageants and modeling associations banning women from consideration in the first place. I have big problems with anyone but medical professionals acting as personal health nannies for anyone else, and I don’t think even they should do it by fiat, but rather by recommendation. But if these organizations are going to do it, they should have a medical basis for doing so. The current proposals and policies have no such basis. They are based on a number, not a personal assessment of someone’s health. As such, they’re discrimination against underweight women, not ways to avoid rewarding those who have eating disorders.

While Western society tries to backtrack from decades of fattism, it sees skinnyism becoming much more commonplace, and this is apparently acceptable in the mainstream. When policy-based discrimination is acceptable, truly outrageous behavior also becomes acceptable when the group discriminated against must go out and interact with the public. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. To my fellow thin women out there: How many of you have had passing acquaintances or even complete strangers comment on your weight? How many of you have been told that you ought to put on weight, “need to eat” (the assumption being that you have an eating disorder, or such phrasing wouldn’t be used), or that you have bony knees, hands, or face? How many of you have had acquaintances grab your wrist in theirs and make a comment about it (this is actually illegal and qualifies as assault)?

And to my fellow women who are on the other end of the weight spectrum, how many of you would consider such behavior even remotely acceptable if it were done to you? Would you like it if people told you, unasked, that you ought to lose some weight, stop eating so much, get some exercise, or that you had fat thighs or fat cheeks? What if they pinched your body to “demonstrate” this to you? I think it’s fair to say that you’d be extremely angry and offended, and you would have every right to be. That’s the kind of piggish behavior that the anti-fattist movement was formed to combat. It wouldn’t matter if these boors claimed (as they generally do with us thin women) that they were doing it because they “cared” about you and wanted you to be “healthy,” because the fact is that they don’t have the right, in the common usage of that word, to do it at all. As you would know full well, adding condescending nannyism to bigotry doesn’t make it any more acceptable. It’s still demeaning.

Well, now that we are receiving this garbage behavior, we get angry and offended too. We are the minority, too, unlike you, so we are dependent on our sisters-in-arms to stand up for us. Feminists of all sizes and shapes have fought fattism for you, and now, public displays of it are extremely unacceptable as a result of their efforts. But when sexist bigotry rears its head in our faces, I have to say, I don’t see anyone leaping to our defense. Instead we see media “concern” about the image that we supposedly present to other women, just by existing.

People treated you that way because you were effectively dehumanized in popular culture. You were portrayed as greedy, gluttonous, lazy women who sat around and stuffed your guts rather than doing whatever some sexist thought you “should” be doing. Once some group is dehumanized, this kind of ugliness becomes commonplace. We thin women are being dehumanized now, or this kind of thing would not be seen as acceptable. We are being portrayed now as self-loathing body dysmorphics who are killing ourselves and harming the fragile psyches of adolescent girls by our very existence. If questioning the right of a group to exist isn’t dehumanizing, I don’t know what is.

So we see these debates about whether to ban perfectly healthy women from certain career paths based on an arbitrary and rather controversial number that describes nothing about their true state of health unless it happens to be on one of the extremes. We read media commentary about whether our very existence is a bad thing for “impressionable” teenage girls (sexist commentary in itself—can’t any of these teenage girls think for themselves?). We are linked up with the tragically dangerous “pro-anorexia” underbelly for simply taking pride in our shape and size—the very thing that you have always wanted for yourselves. We see more number-based mockery of “size zeroes” (I can sometimes wear a size zero). We deal with this persistent undercurrent of suspicion that we’re all secretly body-dysmorphic or have an eating disorder, an ill-informed and unscientific idea that ignores the fact that many women (and men) have natural weights below the “norm.”

The language of the anti-fattist movement is, on its own, inclusive of thin women. The underlying idea is that the female body is beautiful in many different shapes and sizes, not just a narrowly defined “ideal,” and that healthy women should be happy and content with whatever type that they have. I get on board fully with that. In fact, it’s not really anti-fattist so much as “anti-sizist” in general, which is how it ought to be. Whatever direction this prejudice takes, it is ultimately sexist in nature. It stems from a desire to demean and dehumanize some group of women, so it’s incumbent on all women to stand up to it when it rears its head. I will stand up and object whenever a healthy woman is being bashed for being above some arbitrary weight. All I ask is for that favor to be returned.


  1. This is a brilliant article. I’m skinny too and everyone feels free to comment on it, which they wouldn’t do if I were overweight.

    Comment by Annie — June 20, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  2. I agree, brilliant article. Society doe snot want to believe that there is prejudice against thin women.

    Comment by Romona — September 21, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

  3. As a large woman, I will have to admit that I have previously been judgemental of women who were thin in a harsh and bitter way. However, I know how harmful it is to be judged in the very same way for my size and I agree that “skinnyism” is not the appropriate response to “fattism”. The articles bashing thin women are just as ridiculous and shallow as those bashing the heavy. It was very interesting to read your article and very refreshing to see someone who unbiasedly stands up for every size. Would you mind if I shared this blog with my friends and contacts?

    Comment by Kayla — July 24, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

  4. I love it! My entire life I have had to endure comments about my being too thin….Its just who I am!

    Comment by angel — September 18, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  5. Thank you! FINALLY someone recognizes this! My goodness, people think they have a license to be mean to you if you’re really skinny. Now, the skinnyism gets even worse the if you are too thin to be healthy, which I admit I am. The problem is, either the person has an eating disorder or is sick. I happen to be the latter, but everyone, including my doctors, say I am the former. But even if I were anorexic, you shouldn’t treat people that way.:(

    I think people do this because they’re so sick of feeling inferior by the skinny girls on the magazine covers. I share the frustration with the body image propogated as “beautiful,” but that doesn’t mean that skinnyism is ok.

    Comment by Jenna — November 3, 2010 @ 8:44 pm

  6. this is absolutey UNTRUE, honestly all the people agreeing with this are probably overweight. If your overweight get up go for a walk and stop eating junk. We probably don’t hire overweight people because it shows weakness that they can’t help themselves so they eat. It shows instability and tells us that we shouldn’t hire someone. Being overweight is a huge burden and if you are you need to do something about it not sit on your computer and complain about how predjudice people are. Instead of being on the computer get up and go for a run and stop eating junk. I bet your now probably thinking its not as easy as that but YES, yes it is. I play tennis 4 times a week, I play soccer 3 times a week. I go for runs and I walk to school. I no having a job makes it harder but thats no excuse excersize before its really too late and you end up on biggest looser. So get off your computer stop complaining and off you go on a nice walk. Get up and do something with your life and if you’re over weight studies have been proven that you will make your family overweight. People with fat parents are more likely to end up fat themselves. People who are complaining here you are the one with the problem not everybody else and don’t complain and just say I will go anorexic then because it is a very seriouse disease and like obecidity it can definetley kill you. Get up off this computer stop complaining and get on with it.
    P.S te only reason i’m on my computer is because I have debating homework and found this website whilst looking.

    Comment by Issy — June 1, 2011 @ 1:38 am

  7. I have approved this comment because I believe wholeheartedly in the right to free speech, which includes the right to make a complete fool out of oneself with speech, and this was just too good to pass up. I am going to go on record as saying that I do not think this person properly understood what he or she read. Memo to the poster: The blog entry is not about prejudice against overweight people. It is about prejudice against UNDERWEIGHT people, with specific instances mentioned. Note, not anorexic, not underweight as a result of any disease condition, but underweight as a result of natural metabolism. Exercise may put some weight on people in that muscle mass weighs more than fat, but it will not turn a small-framed person into an average-framed one, nor will it make a thin person look not-thin unless we are talking about weight training. Nobody else in the comments seems to have misunderstood the central point of this blog, which is that thin people who do NOTHING “wrong” (according to this commenter’s list of wrong things) are subject to prejudice, being formally banned from things that they might want to do (such as beauty pageants and modeling) because it might hurt other people’s precious self-esteem, and even made to endure illegal assault by people who cannot mind their own business. The only mention of overweight women is the fact that overweight women have difficulty in some situations, and that the apparent (over)reaction to this is to enshrine prejudice against thin women in official policy. And this poster is doing DEBATING homework? Wow. A really important part of debating is to correctly understand the argument that the other party has made!

    Comment by PolitiCalypso — June 1, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

  8. Enjoyed every bit of your article.

    Comment by Samir Glassman — January 29, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

  9. I just wanted to mention that being looked down upon for being thin is not only a condition of being a skinny female, but also happens to skinny men and boys. I was frequently poked at in all of the ways you described during childhood for being what other people thought was “too thin.” Although the reasoning might be different (thin women might be seen as creating a harmful image for other women, whereas men might be seen as weak, etc), the results are the same: people of either gender feeling badly about their otherwise healthy body type due to being “too skinny.”

    Comment by Chuck — March 16, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

  10. I actually googled skinnyism as many friends are posting articles about plus sizes at the moment. I couldn’t have put it better myself; having endured a lifetime of being asked if I ate anything, being asked if I was anorexic ( by complete strangers ). Being poked fun at for being flatter chested. Oh, and not forgetting being told by a male friend I’d been put in the category of being “experimentally thin” [to have sex with] out of the fresher girls – he is no longer a friend. It had an effect on myself confidence when I was younger. Yes, I’m sporty – but because I enjoy it rather than as a means of losing weight. I eat plenty and I’m healthy.

    Comment by JB — March 20, 2013 @ 8:55 am

  11. They are so prejudice about naturally thin people that they do not make jeans or clothing in my size. I’m thin, but I eat a high protein high carb diet and am constantly trying to gain wait so clothes will fit better. I have a 25 inch waist, which would be a 0 or 00,but my hips are 29 inches not 32. Petite clothes don’t fit and child clothes are fine for jeans, but not for professional dress. There are clothes for plus size and extremely fat people, but not for naturally thin people. It’s reverse discrimination. It’s genetic, my whole family is my size, but people stare and ask if I eat or ask if I’m bulimic when they see me eating. It is wrong they pass regulations in entertainment against thin people, but not overly obese. (not saying there should be any regulation at all) I will never have a normal bmi and neither will either of my children probably. Every pair of pants I buy have to be hemmed. I just want to go to the store and buy something that fits off the shelf. I put an intense about of calories and food in my body at an attempt to be normal and it doesn’t help only worsens my self esteem. I hide my weight often at public and professional events to avoid being criticized judged or labeled. The stigma around thin people is wrong.

    Comment by Justyn — May 11, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

  12. Thank you so much for writing this. I don’t even think it is reactive or ‘reverse’ discrimination; it was happening to me long before ‘real women have curves’ started up.

    Comment by switchblade_adrenalectomy — December 9, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

  13. I’m thin. Most people don’t believe I’m actually 117 lbs at 5’3. As a child I had an overactive thyroid, but now I’m just naturally like this. I have been told my eating will catch up with me. That “they would be skinny too if they ate like a bird.” Disgusted comments from friends about how much I eat and how I should be obese because of it. And so on. I don’t eat in front of many people because of these comments, I pig out before visiting someone who says that. It puts a damper on my relationship with my mother-in-law, she all but force feeds me. She even accused me of starving my children when I was pregnant and breastfeeding because of my size. After two pregnancies, I bounced back within three weeks. In my case, it’s high metabolism and genetics.

    Comment by Alyssa — June 16, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

  14. I am a tall skinny man who has worked around a bunch of women and have called me names like skinny beanpole stick, stringbean, no butt, and boneyard. It use to real bother me but now I love and accept being tall and skinny. I do think nobody has a right to put down anyone’s body fat, skinny, short or tall. Ir is mean, shallow and uncalled for.

    Comment by Bruce Harms — September 21, 2014 @ 8:37 pm

  15. I am a tall skinny man who has worked around a bunch of women and have called me names like skinny beanpole stick, string bean, no butt, and bone yard. It use to real bother me when I was younger but now I love and accept being tall and skinny. I do think nobody has a right to put down anyone’s body fat, skinny, short or tall. It is mean, shallow and uncalled for. The name calling really bothered me when I was younger because my family of origin shamed me for being skinny and then tall and skinny. 12 step involvement and psychotherapy has taught me the value of self acceptance so thank God these comments don’t bother me anymore. I don’t think people who make these rude comments consider how the person’s family of origin treat or may have treated the person for having this paticuliar body type.

    Comment by Bruce Harms — September 22, 2014 @ 8:41 am

  16. I also know as an adult that skinny bashing is almost always done from people who are jealous of the skinny person’s body type. Most of the skinny bashing women would like to have my skinny body. That helps me laugh off the nasty ignorant comments today.

    Comment by Bruce Harms — September 22, 2014 @ 8:24 pm

  17. Wow I love your article it is exactly what I feel. I was having a regular medical checkup and had to get my height measured (173 cm) and weight taken (57.5 kg with clothes and shoes on, so in reality 56 kg). I have always been proud of my diminutive figure. In fact I think I am not quite slender enough and I aim to get down to 50 kg but I am happy as I can wear large kids clothing if I choose too. The lady conducting the checkup was lovely but she was biased in regards to what is under weight. Some uncharitable people would say that she was fat if not obese. I had no problem with her size but she seemed to have some concerns about my petite frame as she said I was underweight. It got me thinking that in this day and age no one is allowed to comment on someone being overweight or to use the ‘f’ word (read: fat) (which I totally agree with) yet it is open slather when it comes to saying that a person is (supposedly) underweight or to using the ‘s’ word (read: skinny). There is no way that I am going to change the size I am as I was born this way as I take after my mother. It is not like I don’t eat in order to be thin, in fact I have a big appetite and I do not put on weight. I guess I am lucky like that. If I was to take the nurse’s advice and try and become bigger I would be insulting all those people who spend hours dieting, measuring their waists with tape measures, and exercising their asses off in order to achieve their dreams of possessing a svelte body. Any one of those people would quite rightly say we would do anything to have a body the size of yours and there you are abusing it by purposely putting on weight. Slender people have to put up with a lot of jealousy from those who secretly yearn to be petite. Just because some hip bone, collar bone, or rib bones are visible doesn’t mean that one is anorexic. Skinnyism is a new type of prejudice that petite people experience

    Comment by hal — April 14, 2015 @ 5:06 am

  18. Hi it is me again. I would just like to say I love being slender. While I get people saying eat more etc I also get a lot of appreciation from both men and women who love to run their hands over my flat and firm tummy. I urge all slender people to embrace their size and rejoice.

    Comment by hal — April 14, 2015 @ 7:54 am

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