The Real Issue With Being Skinny (And How We Talk About It)

Victoria's Secret spring 2012 campaign.
Victoria’s Secret spring 2012 campaign.

It’s no secret that being skinny is required to even attempt to fit into the standard conception of beauty. Every year the Victoria’s Secret angels strut their stuff on the runway for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, leaving viewers drooling over a body type that — let’s be honest — only about 5% of the entire female population possesses. The effect this has on the remaining 95% of the female population can be detrimental, left as they are feeling physically inadequate in spite of the fact that they’re the overwhelming majority.

Many girls and women take extreme measures in attempts to fit into this skinny mold. Anorexia nervosa is the deadliest mental disorder and it affects girls and women in disproportionate numbers. According to Matthew Herper, in general, the disease emerges during adolescence between the ages of 13 and 16. Which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise; on TV, in magazines, and on Instagram, we are constantly flooded with media images that equate our beauty to our self-worth. There are websites dedicated to “thinspiration” or “thinspo” that are filled with images meant to inspire weight loss. If you simply Google “thinspiration,” the first link will lead you to a blog titled “The Pro-Ana Lifestyle Forever Blog,” pro-ana being slang for the promotion of the eating disorder anorexia. Any mentally sound individual will be disturbed by the existence of this blog, and especially those who choose to read through the Ana Religion & Lifestyle tab, which is comprised of Thin Commandments, Ana’s Creed, Ana’s Laws, Ana’s psalm and more. The 2014 Lifetime movie Starving in Suburbia (listed on Netflix as Thinspiration) sheds some light on this topic, particularly the significance of an unhealthy body image, the threat of eating disorders, and the dangers of the Internet.

Eating disorders are not limited to anorexia nervosa. Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder in which sufferers follow a binge eating and purging (i.e. laxatives, vomiting) cycle. While binge eating disorder occurs when a sufferer binge eats often (without the purging). Because eating disorders are not black and white, there is a category called Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED) for the sufferers who clearly have a problem but do not necessarily fit the criteria for one single category. For more on feeding and eating disorders, the National Eating Disorder Association webpage serves as a valuable resource.

Research has shown that girls would rather strive to lose ten to fifteen pounds (and look more like models) than to achieve success in work (and aspire to be the next Amal Clooney). In other words: society is sending girls and women a clear message, which is that they are valued most for their appearance. And this has to change. Yes, it is important to feel beautiful, but it is far more important that we realize we do not need to be validated by anyone but ourselves.

Next time, think twice before attempting to compliment someone with, “You look so skinny!” Skinny should not be a compliment and it is this fallacious association that reinforces eating disorders, especially in girls or women who already have an unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies. Some might even be offended by such a “compliment”; what if that person was just sick with the flu and isn’t happy with her current weight?

I’m not saying it’s wrong to compliment someone based on appearance; all I’m saying is a little bit of thought can go a long way. Perhaps try starting off with something like this: “It looks like you’ve lost weight. Are you trying to?” It’s important that we don’t always compliment others solely on appearance. Instead of saying, “You’re looking especially beautiful,” try: “You’re a beautiful person.” It’s important that we credit others for more than just the outward appearance of their genetics (which, it must be said, we have absolutely no control over). We need to work towards a society where girls and women actually love themselves in their entirety because, at present, those who have a healthy body image are few and far between.

Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. The key is to love the body type you were given. Each individual should aspire to be healthy — not skinny — and it is vital to keep in mind that healthy looks differ from person to person; there’s no one size fits all.

For anyone interested in the unattainable beauty standards that girls and women feel pressured to live up to, I highly recommend Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. For those interested in body image and the challenge of loving our outward appearances, Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image by Ophira Edut (editor) and Rebecca Walker (foreword) is a great place to start; it is a compilation of various people’s journeys of coming to terms with what they see when they look in the mirror. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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