Thin Bodies Do Not Mean Healthy Bodies

by | May 2, 2012
filed under Feminism

by Jasmine Peterson

I often talk about the manner in which we associate body size with a state of health – and usually these conversations focus on the fallacious assumption that large bodies are unhealthy bodies. The converse is also true; there is a cultural assumption that thin bodies are healthy bodies, and this is also fallacious. Any person of any size can be healthy or unhealthy. Health is just far more complex than the size of one’s body.

In recent months, I have been under a tremendous amount of stress, so much so that I had been unable to eat or sleep, and I turned to some pretty maladaptive coping mechanisms. During this period, I lost a great deal of weight. It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t desired. It was merely a side effect of the intense stress I was under. It is a signifier of my distress; it is not a signifier of beauty or health.

What I began to notice, however, was that people were making a lot of comments about my weight loss, and my appearance. Their valuations of my body were positive; they were reinforcing my unhealthy weight loss through their positive comments about my body: “You’re so skinny” or “You look so good”. And even when I explained how this weight loss came about, people would make comments like “Well depression looks good on you” or “I wish I had what you had”.

Through these conversations I got pretty angry. How could anyone possibly wish to be going through what I’ve been going through right now? How could anyone desire so much to be thin that they would want to spiral into a state of depression to the point where they were barely able to function? Here people were telling me how good I look and yet I was definitely not well.

I think this is the tragedy of living in a thin-obsessed culture. All of our valuations of bodies, of women’s in particular, rest upon their size. We make judgments about their value as a human being, about their state of health, about their behaviour and characteristics (e.g., thin people are active, intelligent and large or overweight people are lazy, unintelligent) based on what their body looks like. These judgments are deeply embedded in our psyches and in our cultural discourses.

It seems a pretty harmless thing to most people, to comment upon someone’s weight loss. And perhaps most people appreciate when others notice their efforts or hard work. But, because we have come to associate body size with health, we often assume that weight loss is inherently healthy. This is hugely problematic, and may even be one of many factors contributing to disordered eating behaviours. Thus, reinforcing these behaviours by praising weight loss or thinness, even when attained through unhealthy means, is detrimental. I open this conversation in light of my recent experiences, but also because of my concern for our cultural obsession with the thin ideal and its impact on people.

So perhaps the next time you’re thinking of commending someone on their thin(ner) appearance, you might think twice and perhaps find something else to compliment them on.

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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  • Rachel Crosby

    Thank you for writing this, Jasmine. I am in agreement. Praising thinness – no matter the cost to the individual – is a harmful practice. I was part of a discussion group which was lead by a woman who works with individuals who have disordered eating. She recommends, as you say, to change the dialogue you have with others. Use emotional terms to reinforce the positive aspects in othera. “You look healthy, you look happy, what a great energy you have right now”. Let’s encourage each other to feel well, not just to look thin.
    My mother has Chrohns disease which caused her lose a significant amount of weight, while keeping her hovering on the verge complete non-functionality in life. She has never received so many compliments before in her entire life.

    Our minds have become twisted up in some very upsetting ideas. Thank you for opening up this conversation.

  • Ashli

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve had the same type of experience. I was always a curvy girl but at one point in my life I started taking a medication that had the side effect of curbing your appetite. What this translated to was a type of unintentional anorexia. I ate so little that I went from a size 16 to a size 3.

    Girlfriends became jealous of my weight loss and wanted to get the medication I was on (which I was taking to cure a very difficult and painful health problem!) Men who previously had no interest in me had a sudden “change of heart”. Everyone commented on how “healthy” or “good” I looked. It made me feel the same was as you – angry. This weight loss was the result of medical complications and was artificial since as soon as I went off the medication I gained all the weight back.

    When I look at pictures from that period I am astonished that no one expressed concern or rushed me to the hospital…I looked emaciated!

  • jada

    A friend of mine lost a lot of weight in a way that seemed disordered…and still do. It was hard to not say “u look good!” because of the expectation in society that I should.have. But I couldn’t, not.knowing how she lost it.

  • Jasmine

    Thank you for sharing your stories. This is why I wrote this. It’s something I’ve observed before, and now that it’s happening to me I see just how insidious it can be. Praising women because they are thin is the result of a very pathological, misogynistic culture. My research focuses on health perceptions because of these very skewed perceptions of what constitutes health based on a person’s body size. I hope that these conversations can help to shift the cultural discourse on healthfulness.