body image

Revisiting the Thigh Gap: Thin Body Shaming Isn’t Okay Either

judging-any-body-is-wrongWe talk a lot on the blog about body-shaming and usually it’s code for fat-shaming.  But thin bodies can also be “shamed,” and this has been brought to my attention a few times in recent weeks.

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 TroutI 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.

24 thoughts on “Revisiting the Thigh Gap: Thin Body Shaming Isn’t Okay Either

  1. You know, one thought that frequently pops into my head is: What would happen if we just made an effort to stop ALL discussion about a woman’s physicality?

  2. I like the comment above–that would be helpful. The one point this brings to mind is that size is all relative anyway, so one person’s big might be another person’s small, so who is to judge anyway? I have been at a healthy weight and been told by other women I was way too thin, when I know I’m right on target as per my doctor, It’s frustrating. i do think shaming normal-size women is a way for some women to feel better about themselves.if they in fact are not within their own normal range… So sad about Isabelle Caro…

  3. I’ve been at the receiving end of fat-shaming, but I have a friend who’s been at the receiving end of thin-shaming. Because of my friendship with her, I’ve learned how some people can make assumptions about what and how much she eats. She even had someone come up to her in the office and tell her she should keep some of the baby weight on after her second child because she looked better. If that person who’d said that had any idea how much my friend has tried to put on just 10 more pounds, they might have realized how hurtful their comment was. Instead, strangers find it okay to comment away, telling a skinny woman to eat a sandwich or a fat woman to put the fork down and push away from the table. Neither is helpful nor respectful.

    I agree that we need to stop body shaming. PERIOD. Let’s be done with it. PERIOD. Let’s focus instead on showing respect and courtesy to all people, all women, no matter what size they are.

  4. What’s irritating to me as a naturally thin woman is how often skinny-shaming is done in the name of “body positivity”. Like the above image you used. Or instances of “real women have curves” or, my personal favorite, “Only dogs go for bones”. And then thin women are told by the “body positive” community that we have nothing to be offended about and we should be flattered by random exclamations from strangers of “You’re so skinny! You must never eat.” or “Go eat a cheeseburger, skeletor”. The truth is, my weight, my extra-small small bust size, and my naturally-occurring thigh gap do not disqualify me (and women like me) from being a real woman and person and they are not anyone else’s business but my own. Body judgement negatively affects women both small and large and all of it needs to stop.

  5. I’ve been thin-shamed and I’m a healthy weight for my height. If anything, people are surprised when they hear my actual weight, because I am an athlete and carry a lot of muscle so I weigh more that people think.

    I agree that we should all just stop judging others, because we can’t win. If you are super thin, you are shamed. If you are normal, you are shamed for being too thin (unless you are a celebrity, and then you are shamed for being too fat). If you are overweight, you are shamed. Enough!

    Unless you are my doctor or my immediate loved ones, and my weight is actually dangerous to my health (too thin or too obese), my size is not your business. And your size is not business.

  6. I’ve had people make weird comments about my body, which is pretty thin and has gotten thinner in the past couple of years. I’m reluctant to call it “thin shaming” because I never really felt ashamed, mostly just weirded out and annoyed that someone (including perfect strangers!) felt comfortable commenting on my body and/or my food choices.

    I also compare it to what I’ve heard from people who are not thin and I don’t know, I feel like if you are fat or you have even a bit of heft on your body, you get it so much worse in our society, and so for a long time I was very reluctant to adopt the position that I was somehow being oppressed by these statements. I still am, to be honest. Yep, some people can say some really sucky, hurtful things, but I still look around at our culture and see that bodies like mine are held up as aspirational and beautiful, and it’s hard for me to feel like I have a single clue what life must be like for a woman who is heavier.

    That said, I also recognize that some people can be incredibly cruel to thin women about their bodies, and that this is extremely hurtful to those women, and so rather than engaging in a battle of “who has it worse” I’ve instead adopted the perspective of everyone else here, which is that it’s better to battle all kinds of body shaming than to single out one kind and let all of the other slide. It all comes from the same root of objectification and dehumanization. It just manifests itself in different ways.

    1. Oh my God, Caitlin, you just totally summed up my thoughts on this. Thin shaming is the wrong word for it, because as harsh as some comments can be, we ALL know that our society doesn’t “really” view thin women as unattractive. Whereas for those who are called fat, they know well and truly that they are being told, “You’re ugly, and everybody thinks it.” It’s comparable to racist comments. You can tell a white person they’re this or that, but a white person can’t then say they know what racial discrimination feels like because white people don’t ACTUALLY experience discrimination, whereas if you direct a racial slur at a POC it’s a different ballgame, because they DO experience discrimination, real discrimination.

  7. I, too, have not thought much about the shaming of skinny women. It seems like people feel their doing it from a place of caring. Like, Jennifer Lawrence, for example, probably feels she’s saving girls from the pressure to diet or even starve themselves. It’s just very sad and frustrating to see young girls dieting and so it’s easy to resort to body shaming. There has to be a better way. I feel taking the route of promoting healthy eating (maybe not McDonalds) and a reasonable amount of exercise is the way.
    (This is all coming from someone who eats fast food and never exercises, but hey, I’m not perfect.)

  8. Maybe it’s selfish and maybe I speak from a privileged position of somebody who couldn’t care less, but I don’t understand why people feel bothered about what others say. I was always mocked for being short when I was a child and an adolescent. Did it hurt? Yeah, sure. Until I was old enough to think for myself and decide my body was nobody’s business. People will always talk. People will always judge. How about we stopped giving a damn? How about we campaigned for girls and women to be taught how not to care? That seems like an easier option than a don quichottian fight for shutting haters’ mouths.

  9. I really appreciate discussions like this, I like reading cultural context and am interested, at a remove, to dip into pop culture to gain meaning and help elucidate a topic. But I agree with ‘up that rock’…how about we campaigned for girls and women to be taught how not to care’. If we are talking about (body) shaming people, wouldn’t it be true that having this discussion, shedding light on ‘bad behavior’ is also a form of shaming? And do those people care about that shame, or does it just make us feel better to point out the disparity? And when we shine a light on a specific topic, that topic is at the forefront of our own minds, which, to use a pop culture reference, Don Draper in Mad Men said, ‘If you don’t like the conversation, change it’. If we shift the discussion from body shaming to self assurance, mental fortitude, confidence, speaking our minds, wouldn’t that help solve the problem?

    1. While I do agree that it would be great to teach women and girls to be more self-assured and to care less about what other people say about or think of them, I also think that there needs to be discussions pointing out the wrongness of body shaming. I don’t see that as shaming the people making the comments because their behavior is disrespectful and hurtful, and the intent of pointing out the wrongness of the comment is not done with the intent of hurting someone. The intent of body shaming IS deliberately attempting to make someone feel ashamed of their body. There is a difference between these based on the intent of the discussion.

      I think having these discussions gives us the opportunity to put together our thoughts on how to deal with body shaming and how to educate women and girls to be able to voice their self-assurance by pointing out why body shaming is wrong. I see nothing wrong with teaching ourselves how to tell someone they’re in error for body shaming us when they do it. It’s one of the best ways we can change culture; that’s how we can change the conversation.

    2. I think there should be room in the conversation for both. Otherwise if you focus your efforts on confidence, speaking your mind, etc. and you do not acknowledge that a lot of people do feel quite hurt by the things other people say to them (which, btw, I think is a perfectly normal thing to experience), you end up sending those people down the spiral of shame even further, because not only are they feeling crappy because of the initial comment, but then they are feeling even crappier because they aren’t letting it bounce off or feeling totally confident and tough or whatever.

      I’m totally on board with working to balance the conversation so it’s not all just talking about what’s shitty and wrong with the world, but there has to be room to acknowledge that people feel vulnerable and sad and hurt by things too.

  10. “engaging in disordered eating is the only way to get it.” hit a wall with your head, its the only way to help your brain. I gained 10kg of muscle in my 6 year fitness journey and i still have a huge thigh gap!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! leave me alone you idi ots thats they way im built. it makes me sad that you are jealous fu cks and try to jump on us because you are too fat naturally to have it. My friend was shitting that she will nevr have it and i must starve for sure. I made her to live like me for at least 3 years and what?? She got a thigh gap by eatin healthy n well + working out. Miracle happened? she fuckin worked for it instead on sitting on a couch with doughnut.if you are stupid enough to think that horribly fat thighs which stick to themselves are nessesary to live then its your problem, not mine. Im happy to have it because its sexy and i dont have to buy new jeans every 2 weeks because my thighs have space ! Accept it that someone have it and you cant, everyone stores more fat in some places, in my case its fuckin upper back. My friend mentioned before has fat arms ONLY and in your case .. THIghs i see! Deal with that bi ch and dont call us having a problem, because you are the only one.

    1. Wow, it’s astonishing that you got so upset about a statement that you took out of context. The statement began with “in many cases” and the ENTIRE POST is about not body-shaming people for their bodies, whether they have or don’t have thigh gaps. Congratulations for having a body that you love! That is awesome.

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