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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 denouncing 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, because 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”—another song that’s proven controversial recently for Trainor’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 someone 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 calling 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 weighted 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 the 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 social 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 subjected 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 clothing “one size fits most,” the dieting industry brings in $20 billion in revenue per year, the media routinely and publicly criticize celebrities for weight gain and herald 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 becomes 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 attempting 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

332 Responses

  1. Shana says:

    That said, the fact that this so-called privilege exists & thrives is not our burden. Minaj and the like are better off saying ” fuck the dominant narrative”. That would be more accurate and constructive. We should not be targeted indirectly or otherwise (as per your logic) .Secondly, I don’t deny societies obsession with a specific body image/shape. I take great pride in my body shape and I’ve personally inspired many of my female counterparts to embrace a healthier path. If this contributes to this so-called ” skinny privilege”, then I’ll be a life-long proponent. I get the gist of the article in terms of context & comparison but it raises graver concerns specifically relating to the growing obesity epidemic & what is arguably one of societies biggest failings and challenges to date. Your statement, ” insulting someone for their body-type is unproductive and hurtful”. Hurtful, sure. Unproductive (in the case of the not skinny,dare I say fat/obese), I’m not so sure. Countless people will attest to the positive outcomes of their efforts to lose weight to achieve a healthier appearance . This on the heels of receiving criticism. Better to note the difference between insulting a large person for the sake of hurting them and taking the time to propose means and ways to get society to shift from a fat vs thin mentality to a ” let’s all try to be the best versions of ourselves ” so that there is privilege for all.

  2. Shana says:

    In conclusion, it’s safe to say that I would prefer to live in a world without extremes. The fact is that we live in a society where 65% of the world’s population live in countries where being overweight and obesity kills more people than being underweight/slim (like me). Being cruel to fat people is not necessary but when first world countries shrug their shoulders and call it normal, I doubt that I’ll ever stop sounding off about this- and not in a hurtful way.

  3. Juxta says:

    This article makes an incredible argument in the controversy surrounding skinny-shaming. In my opinion, there is a large similarity with similar arguments that also have the same type of underlying facts, as white privilege (let’s start using the term “white ignorance though, because this term somewhat gives whites a reason to stay ignorant because the see it as a privilege and not as a problem…something about theirselves they cannot change, since they were born white…I hope this makes sense).

    Nicki is a strong, opinionated, powerful, black woman. Black women are extremely oppressed, especially in our society. Obviously Black people
    are in general, and it’s a evil, evil, kind of racism that is not predijuiced, it is on a much larger scale. When black people, especially those that are in the public eye, display a strong argument, they are easily shushed and shamed like a child by their abusive mother/father/parent.

    I realize this comment is a little scattered. But I must say, although there are major VALID similarities in arguments of skinny shaming and white privilege (anything surrounding racism), they don’t lie on the same type of foundation.
    Black people and all people of color, have been fundamentally oppressed through absolutely every type of system we have on this earth. Nearly every damn business that has ever existed, when it comes to employment or being a customer. I am not directing this comment towards the article AT ALL or to anyone on the comment board. I just felt it was necessary for me to voice my opinion on that.
    Thanks for reading, whoever got through my rambling :)

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