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Looking Like An Angel: Let’s Talk Skinny-Shaming

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Western chapter.

This week is Body Health and Image Awareness Week at HC Western Ontario. #HCLoveYourBody    

    “Ew, that girl is so skinny.” “Look at that fat cow over there.”Which statement is more offensive? You may have trouble deciding, but upon first glance, it’s easy to decide which comment is more socially acceptable — pointing out a woman’s thin body is much more politically correct than calling someone out for being overweight. However, both are instances of body shaming.     Body shaming is defined as “inappropriate negative statements and attitudes toward another person’s weight or size. It can also reach into the discrimination against individuals who may be overweight.” What’s wrong with this definition is the fact that body shaming does not exist exclusively or especially towards overweight women, but also extends to skinny women, who experience skinny-shaming — a term that is not common enough to warrant its own Google-generated definition, but means shaming someone who is underweight or thin in physique.

     Many argue that skinny-shaming does not have the same negative effects as fat- shaming, since we live in a society that demonizes fat bodies and idolizes thinner bodies. While skinny women aren’t part of a traditionally marginalized group, to say the effect is lesser than that of fat-shaming is ignorant. Both are instances of body-shaming, something that we need to eliminate entirely.

    Examples of skinny-shaming are all around us, and are so subtle that sometimes we don’t even realize it’s happening. Have you ever told a thin woman to “go eat a cheeseburger” or that she had “chicken legs”? That’s skinny shaming. Christy Friesen, a woman with experience working in retail clothing sales has witnessed first-hand the effects of skinny-shaming. “It’s a way to make a lack of confidence seem confident. [I’d hear people say], ‘size 00 who wears that, anorexics?’” As Laura Nemett, a Carleton University student observes, “If someone calls [somebody else] fat, it’s unacceptable, but if [they] tell someone else they are too skinny, it is seen more as an observation than an insult, which blurs the lines of what is considered shaming.”

    In the past few years there have been body positivity campaigns done by a few multi-million dollar companies such as Dove and most recently Aerie, a competing lingerie company with Victoria’s Secret. Aerie launched the #AerieREAL campaign in spring 2014, which boasts the use of “real girls” as models instead of supermodels and no photo retouching. This was in hopes of empowering women “to feel good about who they are and what they look like, inside and out.” While this campaign is a step in the right direction, the marketing team in charge of Aerie’s Instagram account received a lot of negative backlash when it released a photo the night of the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion show that simply stated “Real girls don’t wear wings.”     This statement set the intended message of the #AerieREAL campaign back tenfold. According to Aerie, women whose job it is to look fantastic and remain in great shape are not considered “real” women because they are not the “standard” or “average” shape. As student Ashlee Trowell tells me, “Aerie shouldn’t have had to bash the [VS] models to make more average sized women feel better. If any person is willing to put in hard work and patience to sculpt their body, bravo.” The immature and unprofessional marketing decision made by Aerie may give women the impression that if they are larger or curvy, it is okay for them to embrace their bodies and believe that they’re beautiful, but that they also must look down upon those who dedicate time to stay fit, and yes, thin. Where does this way of thinking leave room for those who love their thin or muscular bodies?    Even Vogue failed at its attempts to promote body positivity and acceptance of all bodies when they released a campaign in late 2014 entitled “The Best Lingerie Comes in All Sizes”. When I first heard the title of the campaign, I was excited as I expected to see women of ALL sizes — from 00 to 16 — embracing their bodies and feeling sexy and confident. However, I was quickly disappointed as I clicked through the images. All the models, though undeniably beautiful, were voluptuous and curvy. While I loved the inclusion of these types of women, I wondered why the campaign’s title said “All Sizes”, when Vogue clearly was only publishing images of women who fell within a certain range. Where were the women who had no chest or butt, but loved their bodies anyways? Where were the women who love to work out and proudly show off their toned stomachs or arms?

    This brings us to the discussion of what author and blogger Jenny Trout calls “the fatcceptable movement”, a concept that insists that there is only one type of “real” woman, and that “any outliers are less sexually desirable to heterosexual men, and therefore of less value.” A perfect example of this is 2014’s hit “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor, an undeniably (and annoyingly!) catchy ‘body positivity’ song. Jenny explains that the fatcceptable zone includes women from sizes 8-14 who preach such messages like “only dogs want bones”, “bigger is beautiful”, etc etc. Meaghan Trainor falls within this zone, and promotes body positivity to those ladies who are still within the range of what are deemed ‘sexually attractive bodies’, but are not labeled as ‘skinny’, either (refer to the lyrics “I ain’t no size two”). Society holds women in this zone up as ‘plus size’ women. As Jenny argues, songs with these catchy lyrics encourage women who think they are fat to feel good about their bodies, while simultaneously reminding them that they should feel fat.         

    Jenny also argues that the song’s intended body positivity message falls back on itself, since the core of its messages devalues other women based on physical appearance. Take the following lyrics as an example: “I’m bringing booty back / Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that / No I’m just playing I know you think you’re fat”. Wow. Not only does Meghan bash thin women since they have bodies that ‘larger’ women may envy, but she also suggests that thin women can only feel good about themselves if they too are insecure about their size and think of themselves as “fat”. “All About That Bass”, just like Aerie’s message, “Real women don’t wear wings”, are both instances in which the fatcceptable movement makes itself the authority figure in deciding who does and does not constitute as a ‘real’ woman. Sorry Meghan, but I ain’t about that bass.        Upon asking for comments about Victoria’s Secret models via social media, one young woman commented that the models’ thin bodies are “unhealthy and an embarrassment to young girls.” It’s easy to assume that the Angels take unhealthy means such as ‘starving themselves’ to remain thin, but this is a sweeping statement that has no basis in fact. With little effort, one can easily research the type of work it takes for the Victoria’s Secret Angels to achieve their incredible physique. Not only do the Angels eat incredibly nutritious and healthy diets full of protein, but they undergo intense daily workout regimes in order to stay in top shape, including heavy cardio, ballet, yoga, weight training, boxing, running… to name a few.

     Others attribute the Angels’ bodies as being the outcome of some sort of ‘genetic lottery’. Although these women undoubtably have great genes — just look at their beautiful faces! — genetics actually have fewer to do with body type than people think. Sydney Tyrrell, a student studying health science, explains that genetics don’t matter as much as lifestyle. “What we like to say is genetics or genes give you a range of options, but the lifestyle choices [you make] determine where you reach on that scale. An example is [someone whose] parents are tall. Genetically, [their children] would be predisposed to having a taller height range, [for example]  5’6 – 5’9, but it is the nutrition they receive while developing that makes it possible for the child to grow to the maximum in that range. The same can be said for weight.” If the Angels did not work out and eat the way they do, they would of course still be beautiful, but not have the same body that we see.      Weight is often attributed to hereditary means, however it is the lifestyle, rather than genes, that are passed on from generation to generation that determines someone’s body weight or type — such as what individual families cook and their activity level. Joanna Iwanowski, a holistic nutrition student, recalls from personal experience that her Polish parents raised her family on whole, organic foods. She recalls, “Many people I went to elementary school with — who always had what I considered to be the ‘good snacks’ — are heavier now and have many [health] problems.” Joanna also points out that most VS models were born and raised in countries that have extremely different eating habits and lifestyle choices that are far from what North Americans consider ‘normal’. The laws surrounding additives in these countries are much different than North America, where most of our processed foods come from.

     It has to be understood that for women like the VS Angels, being fit and looking good is literally their full-time job — they work day in and day out in order to look the way they do. Emily Arnold, a Western University student, comments, “VS models promote health, fitness, friendship and hard work which are all admirable traits. But beauty isn’t defined simply by looking like them!” Realistically, it is very hard for the everyday woman who has a full-time job — that isn’t modeling — to keep up such a schedule. Kellie Anderson, another UWO student agrees that such dedication to one’s body is admirable. “There is a fine line [between] being dedicated to the health of your body and being obsessed with it.” Cheryl Leanne, a graduate of Connestoga College also notes that “having inspiration is great, [but] I don’t think everyone should think they need to look exactly like [a Victoria’s Secret Angel].”      Joanna explains that for her, Victoria’s Secret models are great inspiration for staying fit — much better than high-fashion models, who are notorious for suffering with eating disorders. “When I [looked to] high fashion models as inspiration when I was younger, I found myself obsessing about food and starving myself to have those [visible] collar bones and thigh gap.” Joanna explains that VS models are on the other side of the spectrum, as they promote fitness and health.“They work hard to achieve what they have to look like based on [Victoria’s Secret] marketing. The misconception comes from people having unrealistic goals — nobody is going to look like Candice Swanpoel or Miranda Kerr, specifically because they are the only Candice and Miranda of their kind. What we can strive for is to better ourselves by setting goals and actually doing the work to obtain them…I think conflict comes into play when people who don’t put in the work are confused when they see zero change in themselves.”    Victoria’s Secret models are equally as “real” as any other woman. Skinny-shaming and criticizing them for being thin and fit is just as damaging to our perceptions on body positivity as fat-shaming. Shaming is shaming. Women’s focus should be personal health and fitness above trying to obtain what they think may please others, and stopping the tearing down of other women’s bodies. The will to strive towards a healthy body is both positive and obtainable, and that dedication is a truly admirable trait.

Alexie is a graduate from The University of Western Ontario where she majored in English and minored in both Writing and Anthropology. She is now a graduate student at Western, where she is completing a Masters of Media in Journalism and Communications. Reality TV junkie and social media addict (follow her on instagram: @alexie_elisa and twitter: @AlexieRE_Evans), Alexie is ecstatic to be on the alum team of HC Western Ontario after loving being the campus correpondent in her undergrad!