Thin Bodies Do Not Mean Healthy Bodies

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”. Read more

Posted on by Jasmine Peterson in Feminism 4 Comments

Preschool Girls Internalizing Body Image Pressure

The Anabell Foundation satirizes super-skinny dolls with their "Perfect Girl" ad

Reading the paper today the headline: “Young girls believe thinner is better” caught my eye. In an experiment similar to the famous 1954 Clarks’ doll study that found young children preferred white dolls to black dolls, researchers at Pepperdine University in California recently completed a study that found girls as young as three idealized thinness.

In one study researchers asked the girls to match 12 adjectives (cute, mean, ugly, etc.) to figurines made to look like a thin, average, and large woman. Participants ended up assigning 1.24 negative words and 2.69 positive words to the thin figure on average, while the largest figure received 3.09 negative and 1.24 positive words.

In another study where girls were asked to pick which of the figurines to use as a game piece in Candyland or Chutes and Ladders, 69% chose the skinniest one, 63% of whom refused to trade for a larger figure when asked.

It’s discouraging to see that girls that young are already picking up on the thin ideal and the weight bias reinforced by TV shows, dolls and other children’s toys, and advertising.

It’s probably too easy to just blame Barbie. In one of my Women’s Studies classes 34/35 students had played with Barbies as kids and all were now supposedly feminists shunning body image ideals. But despite my feminism and the fact I volunteer blog for About-Face, whose mission is to raise awareness of girls’ and women’s body image issues, I still feel the pressure to watch my weight and I struggle not to feel bad about myself when I realize I’m not fitting into my skinny jeans as well as I used to. These pressures are insidious and this study shows they’re strongly inculcated at a very young age.

So what’s to be done? The study’s authors suggest the following:

  • Focus on health, not weight.
  • Refrain from making comments about your own or others’ weight or body shape. For instance, no talk of “My thighs look so fat” or “I shouldn’t eat that cookie, because it has too many calories” when around kids.
  • Compliment children on things they do, or their personality characteristics, rather than on what they look like.
  • Limit children’s exposure to mainstream media sources that emphasize thin models or put a high value on physical beauty
  • Model healthy eating habits and exercising for your children.

I’d add that we need to support groups like About-Face, who call out the worst offenders in sexist advertising and address the gendered beliefs that underpin the thin ideal, like the belief that woman’s primary function is to be desirable to men, and that she can only be desirable if she’s thin.


Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Feminism, Pop Culture Leave a comment