In December, I showed the film, Arresting Ana, to one of my Women’s Studies classes. It’s a documentary about the potential criminalization of the pro-Ana (pro-anorexia) movement in France. At one point, they show a billboard campaign in Italy [first campaign shown in this link] that was meant to scare women out of being anorexic. The billboards depicted an extremely thin model posing nude, with the caption “No!.”
At the time of the photo shoot the model, Isabelle Caro, was recovering from near death from her eating disorder. According to her interview in the film, she weighed 75 pounds in the photo. Isabelle Caro has since died from her eating disorder at the age of 28.
When the lights came on and we started our discussion, several of my students said that they found the billboard campaign and the discussion of Isabelle Caro’s body to be body-shaming. Yes, she was skinny–deathly so–but the idea that simply showing her body would be enough to shock contains an implicit negative judgment. The judgment is something along the lines of: NO ONE should want to look like this woman.
Then, remember when Jennifer Lawrence got called out for body-shaming by Jenny Trout? I picked up on that, claiming it was a bit harsh. Well, one of our readers pointed out that one of the quotes was incomplete. Jenny Trout quoted her as saying this: “I’d rather look chubby on screen and like a person in real life.” The full quote was actually this:
I don’t really diet or anything. I’m miserable when I’m dieting and I like the way I look. I’m really sick of all these actresses looking like birds… I’d rather look a little chubby on camera and look like a person in real life, than look great on screen and look like a scarecrow in real life.
I think the context is important. But unfortunately it’s not totally redeeming. Why, because it tilts in the other directions. Now, thin women are “scarecrows.” Not so nice either.
And just recently, someone wrote in on my old and still oft-read post, “Why the Thigh Gap Makes Me Sad.” The commenter said:
I take exception with the remark that the girls “look like they could use a few good meals.” Naturally thin people can eat good meals and still look the same. Eating more food does not necessarily equal gaining weight, and frankly, telling someone they look like they need a good meal is just as rude as telling someone they look like they could afford to lose a few pounds.
And you know what? She’s right. The comment that they look like they could use a few good meals oozes with judgment and the presumption that I know better. Point taken. My comment was an instance of body-shaming.
Until these few incidents, I confess to never giving the body-shaming of thin women much thought at all. Yet it happens a lot. Even in a culture where we prize thinness, it’s just not true that “you can never be too thin.” Media leaps on celebrities when they gain weight, for sure. But they also leap on celebrities who lose weight.
There’s a whole thing about Angelina Jolie — a media obsession with how thin she is and calls for her to “eat a sandwich.” This article talks about skinny-shaming and how unhelpful it is. Shaming in general isn’t a great strategy for altering behavior.
It is most certainly true, for example, that Isabelle Caro had a severe eating disorder and was not a healthy woman. She herself says as much in the film, Arresting Ana. But as Dr. Gail Saltz, writes in her article about “skinny-shaming”:
Skinny-shaming, calling someone — celebrity or otherwise — “emaciated” or “stick thin,” or telling the person to “eat a sandwich,” as the cliché goes, is as unhelpful as fat-shaming. It is our skewed view as a society obsessed with being thin that left us open to commenting on Jolie, forgetting that any extreme in appearance can be a difficult and painful place to be (just ask any adolescent).
A loving discussion from someone known and involved can be a life-saver, whether you are too thin or too overweight. If you notice your friend is seeming to shrink before your eyes, you could try saying something like, “I’ve noticed you’re looking quite a bit thinner recently, and as your friend, I just wanted to check in. If something’s wrong, please know I’m here to help you.”
But comments from the public at large should avoided — or, at the very least, used to empathically understand a real issue that may be going on for many women.
Notice how she says this kind of approach should only come from an empathetic friend. It’s just not okay for complete strangers to approach people. It’s really no one’s business. And body-shaming is not the kind of approach that will help.
Is and expression of concern necessarily body-shaming? People who appear overweight often report that they take “concern” as intrusive. We have a difficult time separating judgments about weight from judgments about health. Does it go the other way, where extreme thinness is concerned? I’m not entirely sure.
So body-shaming is not okay in either direction or for any reason at all–there are all sorts of ways to body-shame that have nothing to do with size. At the same time, the thigh gap does still make me sad. But it’s not because of the way it looks. It’s more because in many cases, engaging in disordered eating is the only way to get it.