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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

  • Lil cans

    Mmm preach ma

  • Not Buying It

    Here’s the difference between Nicki Minaj’s song, though, which is body negative, and Meghan Trainor’s, which is body-positive (and even says “just kidding…every inch of you is perfect” after the “skinny bitches” line). Meghan Trainor is actually fat.

    Nicki Minaj is, by many standards, skinny. She has a tiny waist. She has no arm flab or thigh dimples. She has no “double chin” or “muffin top.” In fact, Nicki Minaj is shaped like the mythical fertility goddess: big breasts, big butt, pouty lips, but toned abs / calves / arms, and a perfectly acceptable 140 lbs at near-model-height 5’5. How does she achieve this? Surprise-surprise, she’s had botox, a nose job, and plastic surgery!

    Nicki Minaj isn’t being body positive or saying anything new, body-wise. When Nicki Minaj mocks skinny bitches, she means to mock women who, unlike her, cannot afford breast, lips, and butt implants. What she’s saying is, she’s better than other women because of how she looks and because she can afford those looks with her wealth and status. When she says “fuck skinny bitches,” I think it is a euphemism for unattractive–flat chest, bony butt, etc. As in, “No ugly people in my clubhouse.” Well fuck you too, Ms. Minaj.

    • Yuki

      Dear Not Buying It,

      Do you listen to hip-hop? Do you understand how important slang and vernacular are to specific musical and cultural movements? If so, I do hope then it will be easy for you to understand the rationale behind basic semantic differences between songs in separate genres. One is not simply “loaded” with euphemisms, but rather comes from a historical tradition of preserving jargon.

      Re: your definition of “skinny”, you are vastly mistaken. Cardiovascular disease is still is fact the number one killer in America, and having a fit body is not something to be critical of. Being toned, curvy, and skinny are three very different things. Nicki Minaj is not skinny, but curvy and toned.

      I hope you realize that Nicki, Kim, and Beyonce, etc, are still anomalies in the media today. They certainly get a disproportionate amount of attention, but by no means are they still a fair representation of beauty standards.

  • Guy_Montag451

    Because Ms Minaj certainly isn’t skinny.

    Leave it to the Ivy’s to completely miss the point that she is intentionally creating controversy to have social justice warriors like yourselves add fuel to the fire by writing opinion pieces in your influential school publications.
    #playedlikeapiccalo

  • Allie

    Dear Rachel,

    Good article ^_^ I think there are better examples than Nicki Minaj though. But I agree with the main message that pro fat =/= anti-skinny! However, I would recommend songs by artists who have still their natural, beautiful bodies and don’t call themselves “barbie” in other songs:

    –’Beautiful’ by Christina Aguilera
    –’Big Girl’ by MIKA
    –’Doo Wop’ by Lauryn Hill (or ANYTHING by Lauryn Hill, or Corrinne Bailey Rae–while they did not *start* the natural hair movement, they certainly advocated loving your blackness before there were many black excellence communities online)
    –’Video’ by Indie.Arie
    –’Hairspray’ soundtrack if you like musicals
    –”I Love Myself” by Bif Naked
    –”I Know Girls” by Miranda Lambert
    –”In My Mind” and “Dear Daily Mail” by Amanda Palmer
    –”Work That” by Mary J. Blige (confronting fat-ism AND color-ism)
    –”Pretty Hurts” by Beyonce

    Also, and not everyone will agree with me, but I really REALLY don’t like the use of the word “bitch” to demean other women, regardless of body type. Because it is still very targeted at women. But is is men who dictate what body type is “hot” and desirable, yet stereotypically slim men are left out of the critique when the word “bitch” is used. I think using the word “bitch,” like fat bitch vs. skinny bitch, increases the idea the women are competing with other women for men’s approval and desire. Why get angry at other women stuck in the same situation?

    I am not in college yet, but I hope when I get to college I can find a good sisterhood where women support each other even while respecting other differences. Like I realize some people do not like that Corrine Bailley Rae sings so much about loving your black skin and natural hair, and say that it excludes white people or other races. But she never says “fuck white bitches.” She sings “Girl, put your records on /tell me your favorite song / You go ahead, let your hair down… / Don’t you let those other boys fool you / Got to love that afro hair do.” Corinne Bailey Rae is not a push-over, she is all about keeping your head high, fighting hard for what you believe in, and not tolerating disrespect. Some people who are naturally disrespectful and demeaning to black women hate that, and they play the victim to conceal their hate, to try and make her on the defensive.

    But Corinne’s hands are clean, because she loves everyone who is loving. Nicki Minaj I am sorry but she is not a good role model. She is shallow. She says she hates “skinny bitches” and wants them out of her club because she is a jealous, combative person. Newsflash, many black women are skinny, have no ass, and it DOES hurt to be told you don’t fit the idea of a big booty black girl. I would much rather read a book than go to a club, but it is because the kind of black girls who go to clubs are like Nicki Minaj. White girls can “get away with” being dorks and bad dancers (see Taylor Swift’s new video) but black girls are not allowed or they cannot be in the club.

    In conclusion, I wish more black girls my age would listen to Mary J. Blige or Corinne Bailey Rae or other black-positive body-positive singers, respect and even love our differences, instead of saying “fuck [other types of people].”

    P.S. please do not hate me because I did like your article! I think your comments about small shirts being “One size fits most” and the effed up dieting industry are A+. Also many people thinking fat people are lazy, I agree, that’s an awful stereotype and not true usually. Sorry if my comment sounds mean! I think I am just very passionate about the music I like and the role models I choose. It is okay if you like Nicki Minaj and find her empowering though! I just don’t like her as much.

    Thank you for reading my comment!

  • boo

    i actually don’t think nicki’s song is even about ‘thin women’ it’s not her ‘skinny bitches’ she’s talking about, she’s actually targeting women who aren’t a healthy-weight… and i’m not saying she’s literally saying “fuck you ladies with eating disorders!” it’s more like the celebrity world of women who juice cleanse/don’t eat/work out constantly–

    and you know why this skinny vs. overweight convo doesn’t even need to be happening? Cuz thin girls aren’t being mentioned, just quickly upset and insecure about it being about them. why would it be about you– unless you happen to be a mega famous super star rapper/singer/actress who lives in LA? Nicki doesn’t even interact with u. she’s talking about her competitors like every other rap song in the world does

    unless you happen to be a mega-rich, hot girl in LA who goes to clubs all the time, I feel like Nicki is literally just talking about Hollywood’s perception about skinny bitches. and wants people to start loving ass just as much

  • JOI

    So on target. I have enjoyed the privilege of being a “skinny bitch” my whole life. I think my weight, at times, even afforded me access where my race never could. Looking model-esque since I can remember has always been ripe for discussion…from my 1970 third grade classroom to the Fortune 500 boardroom to my children’s private schools. Have we forgotten how delighted ALL people are when you LOOK like you have lost weight? It’s as if you have manifested the best of being human. People act almost reverent. Not even while pregnant does someone say with pleasure and covetous triumph, “Girl, look at your fat a____! I can’t wait to hang out with you, so some of your fat rubs off on me.” Skinny is a symbol of power in our society.

  • body positivity plz

    I’m sorry, but as someone who has recently recovered from an eating disoder, this argument really frustrates me. I was never the girl that was thin and I thought that being skinny was a privilege until I went to a treatment center. There I met a lot of girls who had struggled with people shaming them for being too thin, and it did horrible things to their self-esteem. While, yes, I agree that there is a lot more body-shaming for bigger girls, that doesn’t mean that “skinny-shaming” is not a valid and mean thing. I think that we should focus on body-positivity rather than pitting body types against each other.

  • blairwwww

    it honestly makes me pretty sad when i see there are posts of curvy women saying “this is what a REAL woman looks like” or “this is what real beauty looks like.” it’s hard to see people say that those aesthetics are what make someone “womanly”, so does that mean i’m not? i cant say ive dealt with the severity of prejudice that someone who isnt as thin might have gotten but it can still be frustrating to be told, by every adult i see, that i need to “eat food sometime” because i look “sick”. i completely agree that “skinny shaming” isn’t equal to fat shaming, not by a long shot, but at the same time, it’s weird to read that being skinny is a “privilege” when it’s ultimately left me with more health problems. i really did like this article though, and even though i dont necessarily think nicki minaj’s pretty small waist is the best example, it’s certainly the most relevant to the recent uproar of “skinny shaming” that i’ve seen

  • Michaela

    For someone who is naturally skinny and had trouble putting on weight, it is frustrating to hear this argument. On some levels I agree that skinny and fat shaming aren’t equal, but to compare it to the likes of racism is audacious – being fat, unlike being a different race, is generally the unhealthy state of being, and one is not born fat. This aside, the media perpetually reinforces that skinny shaming is fine, by this ‘real women have curves’ and ‘only dogs like bones’ nonsense. It does not cause the uproar that fat shaming does. So in recent times naturally skinny girls are being ostracized as not being ‘real women’ in the media, which speaking for myself has been damaging to my body image and self worth – which should say it all really.

    • Rachel

      …you’re naturally skinny, but people can’t be born fat? have you seen babies? they are so chubby. people naturally have different body types. Also, the only bodies mainstream media shows (for women, especially) are thin ones, so not sure how media reinforces ideas that the very people they’re exclusively presenting are somehow inferior. however! “skinny-shaming” is not okay, obviously, but I do believe overall it’s not nearly as bad or prevalent as “fat-shaming”

  • Some Thoughts

    I was asking myself what it was about the “skinny shaming” argument that didn’t sit well with me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until today when I was listening to Meghan’s song. Generally speaking, I almost always agree with the line of thinking in this article: backlash to systematic oppression is not as bad as the oppression itself. A POC using a derogatory slur against a white person is not “just as bad” as the slurs against POC, heterophobia is NOT the same thing as homophobia, etc., for all the reasons the author lists above. But something about skinny shaming just felt different to me. Let me see if I can explain.

    The difference, in my opinion, is that in almost all instances of backlash to oppression manifesting in poor behavior, the backlash does not contribute to systematic oppression in and of itself. If a gay person has a blanket prejudice and uses hurtful language such as “breeder” against a heterosexual, they might not be behaving well, but they’re not taking part in oppressive structures. They’re venting their anger against them, in what may not be the most productive or best way to do it, but really it’s nothing more than that.

    However, when we “skinny shame,” it is the ONE instance where the backlash actually IS actively contributing to further oppression. Because when you say “real women have curves,” or “bones are for dogs” or “skinny bitches,” you are still perpetuating the idea that WOMEN’S BODIES ARE PUBLIC PROPERTY TO BE COMMENTED ON, JUDGED AND SCRUTINIZED. Which is, at its root, misogyny, which is, at its root, oppression. Forget about “hurt feelings.” When you comment on a woman’s body IN ANY WAY, you are actively partaking in systematic oppression against women which objectifies them and views them as things to be judged and critiqued publicly by male gaze-centered standards of beauty.

    That’s why “skinny shaming,” while definitely not as bad as fat-shaming, is still pretty bad and actually IS part of a societal, structured system of oppression. The very act of commenting on a woman’s body like it’s an object that’s publicly owned by random strangers who don’t know her continues to objectify her and contributes to misogynistic ideals at the end of the day, where women are things rather than people.

    That seems an important distinction to make. YMMV.

  • Underweight

    but
    what about when you’re not healthy and people think you are? This
    article is interesting, but only applies to people who are skinny but not TOO
    skinny. Trust me, when you start to go into the “unhealthy skinny”
    range, like I was for most of my life, things are different. Every “OMG
    you’re so skinny, good for you” translates to “I am glad you are
    sickly”.

  • Nope.

    Sorry, but this made me incredibly angry. I respect your opinion and all, but you don’t seem to understand the extent that skinny-shaming can go to. My friend is 5’5″ and only 100 pounds. She eats. A lot. She is a pig, and I love her for it. But because of her metabolism, it’s taken her a long time to reach 100 pounds. At school or anywhere in public, she is frequently called anorexic. When she has food in front of her, people ask her if “she’s really going to eat that” like they don’t believe she will keep it in her stomach or let it enter her body in any way. Today’s society does push a skinny image, that’s true. But they somehow expect us to not be skinny at the same time, because if we were, we’d be unhealthy. So I don’t think anyone has the right to say that skinny-shaming isn’t an issue. Neither do they have the right to say any other body shaming is okay.

  • Liana

    This is exactly the same reasoning as saying that because women have been historically marginalized, it’s okay for men to be treated like shit and act as the brunt for women’s anger and righteous indignation. Or that because transgender people have been historically marginalized, it’s okay for them to lash out at cisgendered heterosexual people by calling them “cishet scum” or actively discriminating against their existence. Body-shaming is NEVER okay, and larger women being historically marginalized is not an excuse to shame women who are naturally skinny. And even if it were, it is ABSOLUTELY counterproductive to everything that the notion of equality stands for.