We all know that “fat-shaming” is wrong. No one should be disadvantaged or ridiculed for their weight. But what about the flipside: why is skinny-shaming OK, if fat-shaming is not?
A few years ago, I gathered for a weekly meeting. There would be platters of pastries along the table. A senior colleague – a lovely woman in her 50s – would always urge me, loudly, to have a croissant. She would prod me in the side, in a friendly manner, and say: “Look, she’s nothing but skin and bone!”
The fact that I was too skinny in those days and that she was overweight is irrelevant. She was drawing attention to my size in a way that would have been unacceptable had I done the same to her. I’m aware I’m skating on thin ice: what could be more irritating than a thin person describing another person as fat? And yet – for a moment – think about how we describe thinness: skinny, angular, emaciated, bony, skeletal, lollipop-head. These terms are batted about in the media quite casually, without the caution we must now use in our references to fat. I happen to find the term “skinny” offensive, but of course that’s foolish. You’re lucky to be thin, you think, rolling your eyes.
I’ve never been teased, or excluded, or called greedy. I’m not a “big girl” but I have curves.
Well, I know the experience of feeling that one’s private pain is on display on one’s body, of being stared at, and feeling horribly conspicuous. I see clear parallels between fatness and thinness. I believe that out-of-control eating may work in the same way as out-of-control starving, as a defence mechanism against the world, a place to retreat when it all gets too much.
It seems we can’t have a rational debate about the reasons for, and the experience of, obesity – fat is still a feminist issue, and a fraught one at that. But I’m fed up with being judged for being physically disciplined, for watching what I eat, and for exercising several times a week. 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 mid-morning but I wait until lunchtime”. Above all, a slim woman must never say: “I prefer being slim.”
I spoke to a woman on this subject who would be diagnosis as obese. She was friendly, open and happy to discuss her size. We got on like a house on fire, and I found her positivity refreshing, but her weight is an unsafe weight. I admire her ability to withstand societal pressures to look a certain way, but there is a level of self-deception here too: physical extremes, from very underweight to very overweight, are stressful for the body, and often mask mental turmoil too.
For me, facing up to the health consequences really helped. I wasted several years struggling with the mental twists and turns of anorexia. If we reframed the debate around fat and accepted that it can be a form of disordered eating with physical consequences, we might start to get somewhere.