From elementary school teachers to college classmates, I have been called “skinny” more times than I could ever count. Always meant as a compliment, these comments undermined my sense of identity.
And comments like these, though seemingly harmless, led me toward serious long-term health consequences.
As a kid, I saw the praise as a form of attention from adults, so I welcomed it. I started to think that I was somehow better or healthier than kids who had larger bodies than I did. As I grew up, the comments made me think that the size and shape of my body was important to my identity. I liked the idea of being skinny, but I felt a wave of anxiety and insecurity any time my body gained weight.
In college, my identity of “skinny” suddenly went crashing to the ground when I saw a photo of myself unflatteringly lounging on a couch. I felt sick staring at my larger thighs and my rounder face. In reality, my body hadn’t changed all that unusually — bodies naturally change as we age — but my mind raced as I imagined with shame what people would think if the girl they had labeled skinny her entire life came back from college — not skinny.
For the first time in my life, I downloaded a calorie tracker app. I weighed myself religiously, hoping each time I stepped on the scale that the number would be something I would feel good about. I tried to eat “healthy,” but wheat bread slowly turned into no bread, and I struggled to convince myself that celery tasted good.
The compliments came back. But I didn’t realize that when they asked, “How do you stay so skinny? What’s your secret?” that the answer was an eating disorder.
Thinness, contrary to common belief, is not an indicator of health. Though we are taught to fear fat and fight weight gain at the cost of our own mental and physical health, our language around bodies often does more harm to our health than our actual body size does.
While skinny praise can lead to eating disorders and body insecurity, fat shaming is incredibly harmful and deeply ingrained in America’s deepest fears. Some believe that fat shaming will motivate people to lose weight. On the contrary, the American Psychological Association reports that fat shaming causes elevated stress, eating disorders, self-harm, depression, anxiety and suicide. Fat shaming also leads to decreased exercise and fewer doctor visits.
An article published by BMC medicine in 2018 argues that weight stigma — or our fear of fat — is what really drives the idea of an obesity epidemic. They find that weight stigma harms people’s health regardless of their body size. The researchers conclude that the most effective way to really help improve the health of people in larger bodies is by “changing the behaviors and attitudes of those who stigmatize, rather than towards the targets of weight stigma.”
To those still thinking that body shaming is a viable solution, let me reframe the problem.
Weight is not the problem.
Our fear of fat is. The Scientific American reports that being “overweight,” according to BMI measures, is not a cause of lesser health outcomes or early mortality, according to research conducted by Kathrine Flegal. In fact, her research found that those who were clinically “overweight” actually had a longer life expectancy than those in the “normal” weight category. Flegal states that weight and health are incredibly difficult to objectively study due to our inherent weight stigma.
People can be healthy — or unhealthy — at various body sizes. Other studies, compiled by WebMD, show that while researchers continue to debate whether or not “obesity” as measured by BMI is actually an indicator of health concerns, both sides can agree that focusing on weight will only have negative outcomes.
There are plenty of thin people with hidden health issues and fat people who are thriving healthwise. But we guarantee a lower health outcome when we body shame.
Please don’t call me skinny.
Please don’t comment on anyone’s body size. When you comment on body weight, you could be complimenting someone’s weight loss from grief, stress, illness or, in my case, an eating disorder. And each time we praise someone for being thin, it sends a direct message to anyone around them who doesn’t receive that praise. A compliment of thinness is also an unspoken disapproval of larger bodies. If we want to encourage health in the people around us, the best thing we can do is stay away from the body comments.