A Closer Look at Skinny-Shaming and Body Image

People have always told me that I’m “blessed” to have a tiny waist and a fast metabolism. Back in high school, friends would pick me up and say I was as light as a feather. We’d squeeze four people in the backseat of a car because I barely counted as one. Adults told me to enjoy my small frame now because “it won’t stay like that forever.”

I tended to accept these “compliments” without ever really questioning them, figuring I should just be grateful because everyone else wanted what I seemed to have.

It didn’t occur to me until much later that these kinds of seemingly harmless comments are part of a much broader and more serious conversation regarding society’s views on body image. On one hand, we love to admire runway models with symmetrical faces because we’ve been conditioned by society to believe that’s the definition of beauty. At the same time, we envy them and feel pressured to be like them, however unrealistic or unhealthy their bodies may be. We fall into a vicious cycle of comparing ourselves to people who are skinnier or “better”-looking and drowning in self-hatred every time we devour an extra French fry or skip one night of exercise.

Unfortunately, we also hold each other to ridiculously rigorous standards of weight. Women are told that, to be deemed attractive, they should have full lips, large breasts and butt, a small waist, curvy hips and long legs – also called the “hourglass figure.” They’re expected not to be “noticeably overweight,” which suggests laziness and lack of self-control, or “too underweight,” which apparently spells out ‘eating disorder.’ Similarly, if men don’t live up to the expectations of being lean and muscular then they’re deemed “unmanly” and weak. Repeating expressions like, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” and “Man up!” only perpetuates these unrealistic ideals, illusory correlations and sexist expectations.

The overall message, at least for women, seems to be that you should aim to be curvy and skinny at the same time – but how are those two compatible? More importantly, what gives someone the right to tell other people what they should look like or how they should view their own bodies? Newsflash: There is no such thing as a perfect body, and any magazine that tells you otherwise is worth tossing into the recycling bin.

This is supposed to be the part where I tell my readers to feel good about themselves, to forget the haters and to eat whatever you want whenever you want because food equals happiness. I’m hesitant to say, “You do you,” though, because every time I say it to my friends, they reply, “Easy for you to say. You’re skinny.”

And I get it, to a degree. It’s much easier to be inspired by someone like Gabourey Sidibe, who dissed her haters after they spewed rude comments about pictures that were taken of her at the Golden Globes. How can I know what it’s like to be ridiculed for having a muffin top when I’ve never had one?

Although I don’t know what it’s like to experience fat-shaming, I do know how it feels to be teased and belittled because of what my body looks like. I know what it feels like to have other people impose their own judgments and assumptions about my weight onto me. Friends joke that I must have an eating disorder, not even considering the seriousness of their remark or realizing that it’s never okay to joke about eating disorders. When I ask restaurant attendants how big a burrito, vegetable omelet or whatever dish I’m ordering is, they’ll look me up and down and say, “It’s enough for you” instead of answering my question.

At a recent club meeting that was about an entirely different topic but turned into a discussion related to body image, an attendee gabbed, “You hear these girls who are really skinny say things like, ‘Oh, I’m so full!’ or ‘No, I can only have one sliver of this chocolate cake!’ and it’s like, ‘Come on! Stop making the rest of us feel bad.’” I was blushing the entire time, not of embarrassment but of indignation because I am one of those girls. I wanted to say something like, “I can’t help it that I have a small stomach,” but knew it would come out sounding more like a line from “Mean Girls” rather than a sincere explanation for why I eat relatively small amounts of food at a time.

There are also people who try to tell me how I’m supposed to think about my own body. When casual conversation steers toward the topic of diets and gym routines, I get incredibly uncomfortable because someone inevitably comments on his or her own weight and expects the rest of us to somehow respond tactfully. (Now I know exactly how romantic partners feel when they’re asked, “Does this make me look too *insert adjective*?”) If I try to make small talk about working out, someone says, “What are you talking about? You don’t need to go to the gym.” Even worse is when I’m told, “You’re skinny. You don’t get to feel self-conscious about your body.”

Just because I’m skinny doesn’t mean I don’t have issues with my body image. Just because I’m skinny doesn’t mean I’m completely healthy or that I don’t need to take steps to make my body strong.

The truth is, I’m not supposed to consume a lot of chocolate, oily or spicy foods, tomato sauce or alcohol, and it has nothing to do with my weight or body image. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had severe acid reflux that has led to esophageal stricture – a fancy term for a narrow esophagus – and loss of peristalsis, which helps food move from the esophagus to the stomach. As a result, food would get “stuck” in my esophagus during or after nearly every meal I ate. Eating crunchy, chewy or tough food, including meat, was always a risk no matter how much I chewed or how small my bites were. Whenever food got stuck, I had to drink a lot of water to push the food down or rely on gravity. Otherwise, I couldn’t eat for hours. The longest I’ve gone without eating anything solid was close to three days.

The day after I underwent a surgical procedure called a dilation (to have my esophagus widened) was the day I began to really enjoy food for the first time. That was in middle school. Since then, I’ve learned how to appreciate the nutty flavor of different cheeses, the tart juice from kiwifruit and the salt on Auntie Anne’s pretzels. I eat slow – not just to protect my still-sensitive esophagus, but so that I can relish every piece of food that I put between my lips. I won’t allow myself to feel guilty for having an extra scoop of macaroni and cheese or eating four meals a day instead of three because I still remember what it’s like to be hungry even when there is food in front of me that I can’t enjoy.

I’m writing this not to spill out all of my childhood woes, but to share my experiences of what skinny-shaming is like. Being skinny isn’t a “gift” or a “blessing” for me. It’s the consequence of a lifelong health burden, of not getting enough nutrition when I was younger. It’s a reminder to not take delicious food for granted, and to take good care of my body. I struggle every day to maintain a healthy weight that gives me enough energy to do the things I want to do, like walk from Student Stores to Franklin Street.

I’m not saying slim people have it worse off (we don’t). What I’m saying is that – skinny-shaming, fat-shaming, it doesn’t matter what you call it. Criticizing or making fun of other people because of their size or weight – no matter what the numbers on the scale say – is just wrong. Someone else’s weight isn’t your business, so stop judging and start following a healthy lifestyle of your own.

And before you decide that you have the authority to tell other individuals how to think or feel about their own bodies (because you don’t), remember that there is much more to people than just their size and their looks.