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The myth of skinny-shaming

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As Nicki Minaj’s highest charting single ever, “Anaconda” has elicited a lot of controversy since its release. While the most prominent discussion seems to center around its salacious music video, which has garnered over 100 million views on YouTube—where comments oscillate between denouncements of the video as “pornographic” or “disgusting” and heralding it as a sex- positive-black-feminist masterpiece—what I find to be the most interesting argument against “Anaconda” is the accusation that Minaj is promoting an unhealthy body image. Indeed, opponents of the song have criticized its lyrics for “skinny-shaming,” contending that Minaj’s call to “fuck the skinny bitches” marginalizes thin women in the same way that larger women are marginalized. Here’s the fault with that argument: while instances of “skinny-shaming” may seem like as much of a problem as fat-shaming—and may very well be just as hurtful—the two phenomena are neither comparable nor equal, because the fact of the matter is that we live in a society that systematically and structurally privileges those who are thin and marginalizes those who are not.

It wasn’t until last weekend that I first heard the term “skinny-shaming.” I was hanging out in a friend’s common room listening to music when “Anaconda” began playing. About 3 minutes into the song, there’s a section where Nicki raps, “Where my fat ass big bitches in the club?/Fuck the skinny bitches/Fuck the skinny bitches in the club/I wanna see all the big fat ass bitches in the mother fucking club, fuck you if you skinny bitches.”

When I mentioned afterwards that I respected Nicki for saying that, to my surprise, my friend replied, “What? But like, skinny-shaming’s also a thing, which is just as shitty.”

“Skinny-shaming,” as I later learned, is the term that’s been coined to describe the act of degrading or insulting someone for being thin. It’s often mentioned in the broader context of body-shaming and women’s body image and is typically offered as a type of other- side-of-the-same-coin alternative to fat-shaming. Often, it’s heralded as more important than fat-shaming, be- cause fat-shaming gets more attention in the media and general discourse. And with the growing discussion surrounding beauty standards, the media, and “real women,” this notion of skinny-shaming is one that’s received a lot of attention lately.

The core of the skinny-shaming argument can be best be summed up by the top comment on Meghan Trainor’s YouTube video for “All About That Bass”—an- other song that’s proven controversial recently for Train- or’s claim that she’s “bringing booty back” and planning to “tell them skinny bitches that.” The comment reads:

“What happened to everyone is beautiful?! Calling some- one a skinny bitch is the same as calling someone a fat bitch. I bet if someone made a song calling someone a fat bitch everyone would hate that person. We’re all beautiful, no matter what size and we need to stop call- ing each other names or saying things like ‘only curvy girls are real women’ or ‘that girl would be pretty if she wasn’t fat.’ We are all BEAUTIFUL!!”

The basic premise of this argument, my friend’s argument, and all other arguments against “skinny-shaming” is this: skinny-shaming, like fat-shaming, is a form of body-shaming, so it is just as hurtful, dangerous, and problematic. Therefore, skinny-shaming should be discussed, analyzed, and combatted just as seriously as fat-shaming. Basically, “skinny-shaming’s a thing, and it’s just as shitty.”

But not all body-shaming is created equal. Skinny-shaming is absolutely not comparable to fat-shaming, nor should the two issues be weighed equally. And by pairing Trainor’s or Minaj’s or any other person’s individual criticism of “skinny bitches” with the systemic and cultural condemnation of all those who are not “skinny bitches” is to completely ignore the hierarchy of power associated with body-type and weight in modern American culture.

Being skinny is a form of privilege, in the same way that being white, wealthy, heterosexual, cisgendered, or able-bodied is a form of privilege. There are a series of societal benefits and advantages that come with being skinny, and these benefits serve to marginalize those who do not fit into a very narrowly defined notion of the acceptable female body type. These privileges include, but are not limited to:

The ability to find clothing in your size at the vast majority of retailers;

The assumption that your body type is at very least “normal,” and most often sexually desirable;

The assumption that those who do find you sexually desirable are also normal, and not merely satisfying a fetish;

The assumption that you are healthy and physically fit;

The lack of character judgments (e.g. lazy, greedy, undisciplined) placed upon you for your body type.

These are all privileges enjoyed by those who are skinny, and these privileges are important to recognize when analyzing what exactly body-shaming means, who it affects, and how it affects them. Fat-shaming represents a larger societal system of oppression. Skinny- shaming is an individual insult or criticism against those who are already in a position of power. Fat-shaming is nearly constant, ubiquitous, and often unacknowledged. Skinny-shaming happens sometimes. Yes, fat-shaming and skinny-shaming are both forms of body-shaming. No, they are not equal.

What differentiates individual instances of prejudice from large-scale discrimination is the system of power inherent in the latter. In “Developing a New Perspective on Race,” Pat Bidol defined racism as “Power + Prejudice”—I think this is true for all “-isms.” What transforms individual instances of prejudice into larger systems of discrimination is the existence of a power disparity. To be discriminated against is to be constantly placed in a vulnerable position in society—it is to be told, explicitly and tacitly, that you are unworthy and thus deserve less.

This is why even using the term “skinny-shaming” is dangerous; drawing the parallel between a system of oppression and individual grievances serves to conceal the ways in which body-size privileges or marginalizes certain groups. In the same way that Affirmative Action does not constitute reverse racism, or a concerted effort to recruit women in the workplace does not constitute reverse sexism, an angry comment towards skinny people does not constitute reverse fat-shaming (i.e. skinny-shaming). Being in a position of power means that while you may encounter individual instances of prejudice, you will never be sub- jected to a system of prejudice. Thus being told “fuck you” by Nicki Minaj is not “skinny-shaming,” but rather an instance of skinny-prejudice.

To be clear, by no means am I approving of or endorsing skinny-prejudice; insulting someone for their body- type—regardless of privileged status—is unproductive and hurtful. What I am saying is that comments like “fuck you if you skinny bitch” have a context in which they must be considered. In a world in which a national retailer (ahem, Brandy Melville) labels size small cloth- ing “one size fits most,” the dieting industry brings in $20 billion in revenue per year, the media routinely and publicly criticizes celebrities for weight gain and heralds Jennifer Lawrence as a “curvy woman,” non- skinny women are given very few avenues for attacking and criticizing the culture of oppression to which they are subjected. Add to that the history of patriarchy associated with female weight management, and it be- comes clear that insults against those who are skinny are not an attack, but rather a response to a much broader issue.

So when Nicki Minaj says “fuck the skinny bitches” she’s not personally attacking women who receive skinny privilege, but rather combatting the system that gives it to them. She’s publicly recognizing the power dynamic that surrounds the female body, and she’s at- tempting to disrupt the dominant narrative that allows this dynamic to exist.

Yes, I understand “fuck the skinny bitches” might hurt your feelings, but no, this one instance of skinny- prejudice is not comparable to the pervasive culture of fat-shaming we live in. And by ignoring the fact that there is a difference, we deny the fact that this system of privilege and oppression continues to exist.

 

Illustration by Julia Kittle-Kamp

  • Monica

    Wow. This is a terrible argument. For some women, it is nearly impossible to put on weight. Some are ashamed of their bodies and wish that they could somehow be different. Skinny shaming IS a thing and it is just as terrible as fat shaming. They produce the same effect. Body shaming in general is a really terrible thing that should never happen and it sickens me to hear this argument.

  • Sbell213

    You can say that the comments said
    to me are just a response by society, but that response has come at the price
    of years of my self-esteem, years of my self-confidence, a hatred for my body
    that I still can’t kick. I am not an oddity.

    I just want to start off by saying that
    as an underweight 24 year old woman, 5’4 and on average 95lbs (although I have
    almost hit 100 for the first time. Exciting!) I would like to know where one
    finds this supposed “skinny privilege” I’ve been hearing so much about. I’d
    really like to get in on that. Given my size, I should totally meet the quota,
    right? Can I find this in a department store? Is there some bulk bonus kit I
    can get that will allow me to feel normal and good about my body? If so I’ve
    got the cash to spend on that, hell, if it will make people treat me like they
    would treat anyone else, go ahead, put whatever it costs on my credit card!

    What I’m trying to say is
    that the point of your article, at its core, it’s just wrong. It’s like if a
    friend came up to you, looking for condolences because he or she had a shitty
    day, or got dumped, or a death in the family, whatever it may be, and you
    turned to them and said “Shut up, my dog died. You don’t understand pain” It’s
    petty. Experiencing pain does not diminish the pain of others. I hate that notion. Everyone experiences
    different situations, and really, who are we as individuals to judge someone
    else when they say they feel pain? Who are we to say that the pain they feel is
    silly or unwarranted? When I say I have
    had people treat me like shit because of my size, I am in no way saying that
    overweight women don’t go through hell either. I’m saying that both sides of
    the spectrum get shit. Just because you assume someone has some intangible privilege
    doesn’t mean they have a magical force field that protects them from the world.

    I’d like to touch on your idea of privilege. I will proceed to quote you
    know.

    “The ability to find clothing in your size at the vast majority of
    retailers;”

    See, I can’t. A little thing called vanity sizing has come in, making the
    clothes larger but the tag on the clothes smaller. I hardly shop. I find it
    depressing. Nothing fits right, things are baggy. If I find clothes that actually
    work well for me, I hang on to them for years, wearing them until they have
    holes, because finding flattering clothes is difficult. I’d kill for at least
    one store in the mall to carry only small sizes, and true small sizes. Unfortunately,
    nothing of that nature exists. Before you retort saying that I can go anywhere,
    please, re read that I have a hard time finding clothes as wll.

    “The assumption that your body type is at very least “normal,” and most
    often sexually desirable;”

    Actually. I’m underweight. I’m considered weird. I feel like a freak to be totally
    honest. I feel totally uncomfortable with my body. I’m smaller than most
    people, and I feel like an alien in my own skin. It is something I have been dealing
    with for years. It doesn’t help that people (very often) feel the need to grab
    my wrists or arms and tell me that I am “just so thin” and as if I eat. They
    ask me if there is something wrong with me, or tell me that I’m too thin. As
    for being found sexually desirable, I’m sure some do. My boyfriend does.
    However, I have also have many men tell me flat out (like they think it isn’t
    an insult) that they could just never be with someone my size. That they like
    someone who is a bit more “womanly”. So don’t tell me that I get to feel
    normal. Because really, that’s something I have wanted for years.

    “The assumption that those who do find you sexually desirable are also
    normal, and not merely satisfying a fetish;”

    I’ve been told that men who are attracted to me are pedophiles.

    “The assumption that you are healthy and physically fit;”

    “Do you eat”? “Do you throw up?” “Anorexic”
    Heard those hundreds of times. Yeah, those are the things that people say to
    someone they assume is healthy.

    The lack of character judgments (e.g. lazy, greedy, undisciplined) placed
    upon you for your body type.

    “Meek”, “Passive’ “Innocent” and while those aren’t so bad, they aren’t
    ideals that I want to be associated with as a woman. I want to be seen as
    strong and independent. However, at my size, that won’t happen. Oh, and all of
    the personality traits someone may have associated with any form of eating
    disorders.

    However,
    I AM privileged. Not because of my weight. I’m privileged because I have a
    great family, I can provide for myself, I have a roof over my head, and food on
    the table. I was born into first world country. I have the right to vote, the
    right to seek an education, I have so many freedoms. I live in a world where I
    have access to books and knowledge.

    You can say that the prejudice comes as a response
    to fat shaming. A response to society, however, if this is true, why has a mere
    repose come at the cost of my self-esteem? Why at 24 is this something I am
    finally starting to be okay with? No one is saying skinny shaming is a bigger
    issue than fat shaming. We are saying that it is often an invisible issue. An
    issue that people turn a blind eye to, or an issue, as this article proves,
    people don’t seem to think is any big deal. Well. It is a big deal. So is
    treating others wrong for being overweight. As woman especially, we should be
    fighting the idea that it is okay to put down any woman for her size. Not
    having a “Well, I have it worse’ pissy battle. It’s stupid and petty. We as
    Woman are doing a disservice to ourselves. We should be joining together. Not
    making each other feel like shit.

    I was in a bathroom at an event with a friend. My
    friend is overweight and she is stunningly beautiful. This event was the first
    time I wore shorts out in at least 6 years. I’ve always been ashamed of my
    chicken legs. We were talking about it in the bathroom. Another girl I didn’t
    know came out of the stall, hearing our conversation, and went on to say how
    beautiful we were. It was crazy supportive and absolutely wonderful. This is
    what we need to doing for each other. Not calling each other fat or skinny
    bitches, and certainly not supporting those who do use those titles.

    • sbell213

      So many typos. Sorry, I wrote that with a migraine.

  • Julia

    This article completely misses the point. No one should be made to feel bad about their bodies, period. There is hierarchy in the battle against body-shaming. This is petty and ridiculous.

  • Julia

    *There is NO hierarchy in the battle against body-shaming.

  • Haley

    I am naturally very thin and may I just point out that often skinny women have difficulty finding clothes that fit right as well. Particularly jeans and pants. Also, this is definitely NOT the only case of skinny-shaming, and often times skinny women are not considered to be sexy unless they have big boobs and a nice booty. I do agree that skinny-shaming and fat-shaming are NOT equal… YET. Skinny-shaming may not be as extreme currently as fat-shaming is but it is headed in the same direction. Honestly, I don’t think that anything negative should be said about someone’s body unless you have a genuine concern for their health and completely understand their situation before stating your opinion. Skinny-shaming, fat-shaming, it’s all shaming and it’s all wrong.

  • Desya_beloved

    The problem is that “skinny” is not what you are really talking about. You are speaking of women with “average to below average” weights and body types. The old average woman, the one who weighs around 140lbs, the one who is a size 6 or 8. That is not skinny. Maybe it is to larger people who wear a size 14 but that is not the end of the spectrum that the words thin and skinny were created to describe. When we talk about skinny-shaming we’re talking about actual thin women. Those who are underweight or borderline, those who weigh more like 110lbs, those we require a size 000, 00 or 0. These women are shamed. They are called skeletons, skin and bones, sticks, bean poles, anorexic, skinny-bitches, compared to death, told to eat, force fed by family, berated by doctors, distrusted by therapists, bullied in school, and cannot find clothing in stores like so many bigger women like to claim. A 000 is not common in any major store, the vast majority do not carry them or only do so online or in limited amounts. They shop in the children’s section, cannot fine bras (find me a 28D bra, right now at any america store) and have to tailor their clothing. They are a small group sure, but they exist and do face hardships from society. Calling them a myth IS as damaging as bullying a larger woman. No need to debate about who has it worse, but to shove them aside and call their problems unimportant is cruel, ignorant and wrong.