Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Thin Shaming Is Wrong, Too!

Print and social media abound with discussions of women's bodies, how they are judged and viewed, and how they should be. Catch phrases like "fat shaming," "body acceptance," and "realistic body image" are thrown around. Mothers bemoan the unrealistic standards the media feeds impressionable daughters. Athletes coin terms such as "strong is the new skinny." Articles poke fun at beach chair leg gap photos posted on Instagram, likening them to hotdogs.

This discussion certainly isn't new; the backlash against Barbie I recall from childhood could certainly be compared. What does seem new, though, is the near victory today of the "body acceptance" camp, and the burgeoning backlash against thin women's bodies.

Before I jump in here, I want to start by saying that I am all for body acceptance. People come in all shapes and sizes, and should not be demeaned or marginalized for how they look. Hence, my qualms with much of the body acceptance discussion in the media.

Just in the past week, I've read a number of uplifting articles about instances of body acceptance. The heartwarming Kickstarter campaign by Taryn Brumfitt in which she seeks to create a world where her daughter can love herself, no matter her shape and size, is a great example. A woman who struggled with her weight, Taryn "achieved" the ideal of thin, only to feel just as lousy about her body as she had before losing weight. She wants to create a movement that helps women embrace the bodies they have. This movement, and the documentary she is seeking funds to create, will be a tool to stem the tide of decades of derision of women's bodies that don't conform to the popular media representation equating female beauty with thinness. Sign me up!

The discussion, however, is not entirely so heartwarming or uncomplicated. Sure, women like Taryn are fighting the good fight, seeking to create a more welcoming and kind culture for all women. However, far too often this discussion veers into the very hurtful rhetoric that it eschews, attempting to make the case for acceptance of all bodies by casting stones at certain women's bodies.

Photo credit: Swimsuits for All
Case in point: today, an article shared widely described a swimsuit company's ad campaign featuring a re-make of the 2014 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition featuring "plus sized models." This article, though not on an exceedingly reputable website, has all the hallmarks of the winning debate. With taglines like "sexy curves go beyond a size four" and "a really healthy image for young girls," the article showcases a series of photos of lovely plus sized women modeling swimsuits that flatter their bodies.

What's not to like?

Well, the article shares the thoughts of one of the models. In the same breath, the model states that "not everyone has to be a stick insect, and not everyone has to be big. You can be you and that's fine."

Let's break this down. First, we are excited to see representation of women's real bodies and hear that "you can be you and that's fine," which creates a culture for positive self-image of real women and girls. Positive self-image is a great aspiration, but should not be sought by demeaning one body to lift up another. By characterizing non-"big" women as "stick insects," the commentary in this article shows that it is not about acceptance at all.

The body acceptance movement seems to be about accepting bodies of all shapes and sizes, as long as those bodies don't represent the popular media portrayal of "thin as beautiful." Apparently, thin women (and girls) have had their day in the limelight, and now must be cast aside the way that "real women's" bodies have been for decades.

Casting thin women as "insects" is just a repulsive as casting plus size women as "fat." Both terms have less-than-savory mental images. It can be left to the beholder which one is more gross: a bug-eyed non-human pest or a congealed cooking substance. The fact remains that both terms are a value judgement.

You may be thinking, wow, this is a lot of ranting about just one article! Unfortunately, this article is a representation of how people who "accept" women's bodies also reject thin bodies in the same breath.

I've experienced this firsthand many times. I've had my eating habits criticized, and my weight used as a reason to dismiss an argument I was making, all while at work. To wit:

"What, are you on the Kate Moss Diet?" Asked of me, at work, by someone who saw that I was only taking half a sandwich from the catering tray. You know, because someone who is 5'2" needs a full footlong meat sandwich.

"Well, you only weigh 90 pounds." Said to me at work in response to something I said, to dismiss my comment. When I replied that I weigh substantially more than that, I got stares and repeated questions until I divulged my actual weight. No one would ask a non-thin woman what she weighs, at work no less.

I may be thin, but I still have feelings and insecurities. I'd suspect that many thin women suffer the same body image issues as larger women, even though we are closer to the "ideal body" the media have taught us to seek.

I'm also a good example of the fact that many thin adult women were not thin children or teens. Many of us worked very hard to be healthier (in our case thinner), just as many "average size" or "plus size" women do. Halfway through college I was 20 pounds more than I am now, on a 5'2" frame. I ate too much pizza and didn't exercise. I thought losing weight was a lost cause. Then I discovered running, and got down to a healthy weight for my frame (around 115). And just like everyone else who has lost weight, I work hard to stay in shape. I can't eat whatever I want and stay 115 pounds.

This is my long-winded way of saying, let's all be more thoughtful when we make public statements about accepting ourselves and other women for who we are. We should all celebrate healthy bodies, no matter the size. But we shouldn't do so by putting down other women. That brings us right back to where we started, and doesn't get us anywhere.

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