Weighty Matters

Courtesy of SheKnows.com

The other day I overheard a girl coo to a friend, “Oh my God, you look so skinny!” The friend seemed pleased and flattered, but all I could think of was the fact that the girl had just lied. Her friend wasn’t skinny at all; as a matter of fact, she was rather chubby.

Does it sound like I’m being cruel? I’m not. I happened to notice that the friend in question was also very pretty and well-dressed, but these qualities weren’t what the first girl had chosen to comment on—she’d used the word “skinny,” which simply was not objectively accurate.

How did “skinny” get to be a compliment on its own? Skinniness says nothing about a person. It doesn’t mean they’re kind or intelligent or funny. It doesn’t even necessarily mean they’re attractive. At the same time, “fat” is so overused as an insult that it has become a cliché. Somehow, “skinny” and “fat” have become intensely polarized words, and have even reached the point where they actually function as a code for value judgments.

Many people justify their use of these words by saying it’s unhealthy to be fat, but that’s not really the case. There’s much more to health than that – it’s completely impossible to gauge the relative health of a person merely by looking at them. Weight has a lot to do with genetics, not just diet and exercise. Yes, it is true that America has a problem with obesity. It is also true that that a healthy diet and a good exercise regimen are very important to one’s physical well-being – but that still doesn’t mean you can determine someone’s level of health based on the way they look. Given any two people of differing sizes, you can’t assume that the skinnier one is healthier.

Being fat doesn’t automatically mean that you’re lazy and don’t take care of yourself. Being skinny doesn’t mean that you’re in peak physical condition. There are healthy and unhealthy people of varying shapes and sizes; health is not directly related to weight. In fact, a 2005 study showed that the mortality risk for overweight people (as measured by BMI) was not significantly different from that of people at a normal weight.

The concept of “unhealthiness,” though, is only half of the problem. An essential part of the issue is that the appearance of fat people goes against the current mainstream ideal of beauty. The idea of thinness and beauty being inextricably connected is so pervasive that those who are attracted to fat people are called “chubby chasers.” Finding a fat person sexually desirable is so unlikely, our culture tells us, that it can only be a fetish.

It’s the conflation of the “health” and “beauty” ideas that gives such incredible power to the stigmatization of fat people. In other words, fat people are considered to be intrinsically ugly, sexually unattractive, and lazy – and worse yet, culpable for all these things. What could be worse?

This street, of course, goes both ways. Tired of being told that fat was bad and skinny was good, many people decided to respond with the cry, “Real women have curves!” Unfortunately, this is merely another facet of the same problem. In actuality, some women are curvy, some are fat and not curvy, some are skinny, etc. It doesn’t mean that any are less “real” than others. Although the “real women have curves” movement is understandable, it is equally harmful: For every heavy woman who can’t lose weight, there is a thin woman who can’t develop larger breasts and hips. It’s terrible to be called a “fat slob,” but it is no less wounding to be called “sickly thin.”

But “skinny” and “fat” shouldn’t be compliments or insults, because these words are merely neutral descriptors. There’s no need for euphemisms for fat, like “big,” or “curvy,” or “not fat.” Fatness is not subjective (although, like tallness, it is relative), but being fat doesn’t mean anything is inherently wrong with you, just as being skinny doesn’t mean you’re not “real.”

In the end, we really need to stop ganging up on each other and belittling the differences in our sizes and shapes. Those of us who are unhealthy – whether we are skinny or fat – may well stand to gain from a healthier diet and more exercise, although that’s really not anybody’s business but our own. More importantly, we can all benefit from doing our best to stop throwing around the words “skinny” and “fat” to hurt one another – particularly when it’s just as nonsensical as using the words “brown-eyed” or “blonde.”

Sophie Kaner is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].