Fiona Apple is thin.
The musician has also spent a great deal of her life battling anorexia nervosa, a disorder that developed for her after she was raped at the age of 12.
Last Thursday evening, during a show she played in Portland, a female audience-member called out, “Get healthy…we want to see you in 10 years.” The comment shook Apple, who stood from her piano and responded that she was healthy, with visible emotion.
Apple is no stranger to body criticism. The music video for her most-known single “Criminal” made waves because it featured her prancing around a flock of what could be American Apparel models in barely-there underwear. Critics responded to her gaunt limbs and suggested that the music video promoted eating disorders (I know, right?) — though, more than likely, it was simply a medium for her to sing about the virtues of heart-breaking (because heart-breaking is fun).
Perhaps this audience-member, at the Portland show, didn’t mean for her heckling to come off as rude and malicious or to instigate the fiasco that ensued (her heckling commenced a series of offensive, borderline bullying comments from the audience). Rather, it could have been a misguided attempt to show appreciation for Apple’s musicianship that, instead, came off as a cruel jibe.
Regardless, after I read about what happened to Apple at this particular show, I began to think about how easily and how often we body-shame, without actually questioning the way our words sound and without much hesitation. Body critique occurs at both ends of the spectrum, towards those who are overweight and those are underweight.
However, I believe that we have become much less tolerant of body-shaming those who are overweight. Fat acceptance movements have grown in recent years with activists reacting to the discourse we use to talk about those who are overweight. Most of us (again, only most of us) have enough decency to avoid mocking those who are overweight, but this movement has also told us that suggesting anyone lose weight — for medical reasons or otherwise — is another form of marginalizing discourse. Policing their food or commenting on their health is not okay. In addition, websites like This Is Thin Privilege have emerged with the objective of reminding us of the privileges and advantages that thin or normal weight folk receive in our fat-phobic society.
All of this progress, by no means, indicates that those who are overweight don’t still experience severe — and probably unnecessary — amounts of body shame. And if the recent surge in diet trends (honestly, ugh, what is the big deal about the Paleo diet?) is any indication, we are still painfully concerned about the amount of muffin top we can pinch over the waistband of our jeans.
On the other hand, the way the audience member heckled Apple reflects how our attitudes have remained stagnant towards body-shaming those who are underweight. It also reflects the double standard we have created for body-shaming whereby it is okay to speak about “thin” bodies in a way that would not be okay in a different context. Though most of us would never dare telling someone overweight, “Gee, you look really flipping fat today,” we would somehow feel more okay commenting on the shapes and sizes of people who had too little fat on their bodies.
We would compliment them with nice little zingers like “Wow, you must’ve lost weight” or “you look so little.” We would tell them to eat a cheeseburger (recently, I saw someone comment on a Facebook profile picture with “wow, go eat 100 cheeseburgers” and that, my friends, is the all-end-be-all). Most of us would hesitate to tell someone overweight to stop eating cheeseburgers. We would comment on thin folk’s food choices in general. If we see them wolfing down a meal meant for two or three or four, we would ask how they can do that and maintain such svelteness. If we see them munching on a few pieces of lettuce, we would tell them to go eat more food.
Because they are thin, their bodies have become ours to discuss and, like in the case of the audience-member at Apple’s show, criticize. We are wary of the Fat Police, but we allow the Thin Police to run rampant and, trust me, they can be fairly corrupt.
What we don’t understand is that body criticism can be just as painful for those who weigh in at the lighter end of the scale. Some of us enjoy it when people point out our thinness; because society tends to value certain sizes more than others, it gives us an arguably unhealthy high. However, some, like Apple, look a certain way because they have had sordid relationships with their bodies, body image, and/or eating.
We have no right to comment on or discuss anyone’s bodies but our own. So, the next time we consider asking someone “thin” if they’re healthy or telling them to eat a cheeseburger, we should stuff one into our own mouth.
After all, cheeseburgers are tasty, but I bet they’d work better as muzzles.