Let's just get this out of the way right up front, everyone: Don't tell thin women to eat a cheeseburger. Don't tell fat women to put down the fork. Don't tell underweight men to bulk up. Don't tell women with facial hair to wax, don't tell uncircumcised men they're gross, don't tell muscular women to go easy on the dead-lift, don't tell dark-skinned women to bleach their vaginas, don't tell black women to relax their hair, don't tell flat-chested women to get breast implants, don't tell "apple-shaped" women what's "flattering," don't tell mothers to hide their stretch marks, and don't tell people whose toes you don't approve of not to wear flip-flops. And so on, etc, etc, in every iteration until the mountains crumble to the sea. Basically, just go ahead and CEASE telling other human beings what they "should" and "shouldn't" do with their bodies unless a) you are their doctor, or b) SOMEBODY GODDAMN ASKED YOU.
Now, that said, I want to talk about the concept of "skinny-shaming," because it's been coming up a lot lately and I know this conversation causes a ton of pain for people of all sizes. Case in point: Yesterday, the Daily Beast ran an op-ed by one Emma Woolf, who argues:
Okay, Emma. The simplest answer to "Why can't I be slim and proud?" is "You can." (And, judging by the rest of Woolf's article, "You obviously are.") Of course it's okay for women to be slim and proud. Every aspect of "Western" culture—which increasingly pervades and dominates global culture—demands and validates female thinness to the exclusion of nearly every other attribute. Are certain women mocked and criticized for being "too thin"? Absolutely. And to those women I say, I sympathize with you so, so hard. I know exactly what it feels like to be mocked because of your size—and how much more it stings when you feel like your size is, for whatever reason and to whatever extent, out of your hands. The way we talk about women's bodies is fucking bullshit and I will not stand for it full-stop.
I challenge the misguided cruelty of "real women have curves" every time I hear it said, or even hinted at. I've written many, many articles about the way our culture turns women's bodies from physical tools into aesthetic baubles. I've written about how older women essentially age out of their humanity. I've criticized the fact that the purity myth makes women's worth contingent on their compliance. I've literally made promoting the idea that women's bodies are our own into a full-time job. I do a lot of work on behalf of body acceptance for all women. Is it so much to ask that women of all sizes do the same for fat women?
Thin-shaming is wrong. It is bad and it is harmful and I long for its eradication and I will dance upon its corpse with my fat feet. But it's important to note that thin-shaming is a symptom of the fact that all women's bodies are policed all the time—not evidence of some culture-wide, systemic campaign to stigmatize thinness. Thinness is valued. Thin bodies are privileged over fat bodies. Despite the efforts of body positive activists (whose express goal, by the way, is to promote the acceptance of all bodies, including fat ones, not to further women's oppression by gratuitously shaming the thin), "I'm proud to be fat" is still a radical statement. "I'm proud to be thin" is the status quo.
Thin-shaming and fat-shaming are not separate, opposing issues—they are stratifications of the same issue: Patriarchal culture's need to demoralize, distract, and pit women against one another. To keep women shackled by shame and hunger. To keep us obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential. To get our money.
That's why it's so frustrating to read pieces like Woolf's, which takes the completely commendable and vital idea that women's bodies—thin and fat and in between—are not up for public critique, and contorts it into a backhanded swing at fat women. A lot of thin-shaming complaints I've come across lately read like that: "As a thin woman, my body is policed too and it hurts..." [Super important point!] "...because the fat-acceptance mafia has taken over our nation and FATTIES B JEALOUS." [Nooooooooooooo.]
Let me be very clear: 1. Thin-shaming is wrong. 2. It is right and good to aggressively fight thin-shaming. 3. The root of thin-shaming is not fat acceptance. The root of thin-shaming is the same system that breeds fat-shaming—the system that keeps women in a state of anxiety so intense that they'd literally rather die than become fat.
Let's go through Woolf's essay piece by piece.
But what about the flip side: why is skinny shaming acceptable, if fat shaming is not?
I've been writing about body positivity for years now, and I don't know any mainstream fat acceptance/body positive activists who don't call out thin-shaming EVERY time they see it. "Real women have curves" is terribly dated and pretty much wholly rejected at this point—at least by credible, respected voices who are caught up on the conversation. So the idea that thin-shaming is some holy pillar of fat acceptance is a false premise—which Woolf uses as an excuse for a whoooooooole buttload of fat-shaming later on in her piece. Even though, she claims up front, "Of course I believe that 'fat shaming' is wrong." (Right. Of course. That's why you put it in super believey and wrong-thinky and respectful scare quotes.)
Also, could you please, please draw me a treasure map to this magical obesity-glorifying wonderland you are living in, in which fat-shaming is "unacceptable"? Because I would like to move to there. (Is the president a wheel of cheese?) From where I'm sitting, fat-shaming seems pretty goddamn mainstream, seeing as I get publicly fat-shamed (in real life and/or online, directly and/or obliquely) literally every day of my life. As a woman, my body is scrutinized and policed. As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure. My body limits my job prospects, access to medical care, and, supposedly, my ability to be loved. I am told that I'm a disease vector—that obviously I'm the real problem with our bloated, embarrassing fiasco of a healthcare system.
So, no, I have to disagree with Woolf right off the bat. There is no shortage of messaging about the "dangers" of fatness and the disgustingness of fat people—not only is fat-shaming not "unacceptable," it is pretty much a national pastime.
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.
Before I go any further, it's without question worth noting that Woolf also discloses her struggle with anorexia. She talks, movingly, about the devastation her disordered eating wreaked on her physical and mental health:
In writing about my own weight struggles, I describe the visceral experience, because I believe people need to know what anorexia feels like. It’s important to understand extreme emaciation—how your tailbone sticks out so you can barely sit on a wooden chair, how your limbs ache from lying in bed with no cushioning, how you bruise easily, and feel cold constantly. How your ribs and hips and shoulder blades become this weird, coat-hanger arrangement of clashing bones.
Anorexia is destructive and it can certainly affect a person's worldview, even after recovery. Woolf has, by her account—the only account that matters—recovered. But once someone makes peace with their own body, it doesn't necessarily mean that they "get" body acceptance. Part of body-acceptance is understanding that not all fat people are fat because of "out-of-control eating." It doesn't bode well for the whole "I'm against fat-shaming" clause.
I’ve discovered that even to hint at the notion that fatness might be anything [sic] than a cause for celebration is a big mistake.
Again, the idea that fat bodies might be worthy of celebration is laughably far from the mainstream at this point. The government is literally waging a war on fat people. The notion that people can be fat and okay—that fat people are not broken, not works-in-progress, not obligated to apologize for taking up space—is still entirely radical. That notion is also—right now, today, at this moment—working wonders on the mental health of women and men of all sizes who have spent their lives toiling single-mindedly for thinness. We all exist inside that system, and we're all damaged by it.
Is that really the bogeyman you want to take down? The tiny shred of a suggestion, finally eking its way into mainstream discourse, that people with non-conforming bodies might be able to be okay? What an odd priority.
If a day arrives when our streets and internets are plastered with signs that say, "GAIN WEIGHT FAST!" and, "Use this one weird trick to load up on belly fat!" then maybe I'll buy this bullshit that fat bodies are celebrated. When women start eating themselves to death to avoid being called "Olive Oyl," then maybe I'll agree that thin-shaming has comparable repercussions to fat-shaming. When families gather around the Cambozola loaf to watch The Lumpiest Gainer, then maybe we can talk about how oppressive body-positivity is.
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.
Yes, people who have been abused and reviled all their lives are sometimes bitter toward those who benefit from that system. Quelle surprise. To me, with marginalization comes a little bit of forgiveness. When people act out against their own marginalization (even in unhealthy, hurtful, misguided ways), I try as hard as I can to react with empathy and not defensiveness. I acknowledge that many aspects of my life are easier than women who are 100, 200, 300 lbs heavier than me—and if those women resent me, I should shoulder their resentment and examine its roots. That obligation is implicit in truly, honestly examining privilege.
While all forms of body-shaming (against all genders) are clearly oppressive, I feel the need to stick up—just a little bit—for fat women who do fall into the "real women have curves" cornball sloganeering. In my fairly robust experience, you usually hear it from women who are new to body-positivity—women who've been told, every day of their lives, that they're garbage, and who are finally experimenting with the idea that they can shout the complete opposite and believe it. Now, thin women absolutely do not deserve to be collateral damage in that experiment. But if you really care to look, it's not hard to see that "real women have curves" isn't an attack so much as an attempt (albeit a flawed and destructive one) at empowerment.
When people attack a fat person for being fat, they're just tearing down a person. They're doing it for sport, for selfishness, to validate their own superiority. But when a larger woman attacks a thin women for being thin, the attack is split—part of it is selfish, yes, to tear thin women down and feel better about their own marginalized bodies. That is bad. But a bigger part is attacking the system that marginalizes them. That anger at the system is justified.
And that's one reason why I call out thin-shaming when I see it—because ALL of our energy, collectively, no matter what our size, should be directed at the system that makes us hate ourselves for profit. In fact, I'd argue that fat women—people who have been shepherded, out of sheer self-preservation, into the body positive movement—are probably more likely to call out thin-shaming than thin women still mired in the hierarchy of "good" bodies.
I'm fed up with being judged for being physically disciplined, for being careful about what I eat, and for exercising regularly.
In the first sentence of her essay, Woolf claims she "never said" that fat people are "lazy, slobby or undisciplined"—because, apparently, she saved it all up for the 10th paragraph. From Woolf's magical ivory fat acceptance bunker (remember, she's totally against "fat-shaming"!), fat people obviously aren't physically disciplined, we couldn't possibly be careful about what we eat, and we never, ever exercise. The fat-shaming hat trick!
So there it is. Woolf isn't actually invested in body-positivity for all. She's invested in getting credit for cheap lip service, positioning big mean fatties as the villains, and humble-bragging about her "willpower"—while perpetuating cruel stereotypes about fat people and staving off criticism by couching it all in sugar-coated concern trolling.
Here are some other things a thin woman is not allowed to say: “It takes willpower to stay slim”; “Of course it would be easier just to eat anything I wanted but I don’t” ; “Yes, I'm often hungry midmorning but I wait until lunch-time.” And here, above all, is what we must never say: “I prefer being slim.”
All of those statements, except for the last one, contain implicit judgments on people who don't make those choices (along with the concomitant assumption that no fat people have ever made those choices). That is a false dichotomy, and, pro tip: If you're noticing that fat people don't seem to like you very much, it might be because you assume all of us are nutrition-illiterate simpletons indiscriminately gobbling meatballs (sometimes at midmorning!!!) while we slowly fuse to our toilets with Cheeto dust.
Also, you are "allowed" to say anything you want. I hear thin women say all of those things all the goddamn time, and none of them (as far as I know) have been carted off to Guac-tanamo by the lard cops. And as for "I prefer being slim"? Yeah, NO DUH. You prefer to be able to buy clothes that fit you. You prefer to be able to walk down the street without being openly mocked. You prefer not having to read countless condescending essays in which complete strangers pontificate about how lazy and gluttonous you are. You prefer to be treated like a human being. Go figure.
A friend and fellow journalist says: “it’s incredibly tedious, all this tip-toeing around the issue—if I write anything about weight I’m terrified of causing offense, endlessly having to clarify and explain.” Another friend, herself a size 18, is even more outspoken: “it’s jealousy, pure and simple. Skinny-minnies are fair game because we all want to lose weight.”
OMG, YOU HAVE A FAT FRIEND? Hey, PS, fuck your fat friend! Your fat friend doesn't speak for me.
Why must we be apologetic about the lifestyle we’ve chosen, the food we eat, or the body we want to live in?
You don't have to. That's what fat people are for. I spent half my life eating apology-salad as publicly as possible so that I might be able to pass as one of the "good ones."
While researching my book, I spoke to a woman in the U.S. who weighs around 500 pounds (35 stone). A member of a Fat Acceptance community, she was open and happy to discuss her size. We got on like a house on fire, and I found her optimism refreshing. But I wonder if she’s willfully ignoring the health risks? By any measure, 500 pounds is not a safe weight.
Basic concern trolling. Next.
One man contacted me, and his words have stayed with me: “I was in denial for years … Then I decided I’m not big-boned, I’m fat. I’ve lost 15 kg [33 pounds] since then.”
Great for him. Great for you. Go ahead and write AS MUCH AS YOU WANT about yourself and your body and your feelings. No fat people in my acquaintance (and I know a lot—from the Gravy Convention!!!) have a problem with that, and our culture as a whole certainly doesn't. Talking about your body is not offensive to fat people. The only thing that's offensive here is that your essay asking fat people to stop making assumptions about you is mainly made up of a bunch of shitty assumptions about fat people. I fully support your body-acceptance, but you don't get to step on mine to get there.
Image by Jim Cooke.