By De Elizabeth
It’s a phrase you’re likely to see in Instagram comments, or overhear inside a dressing room at the mall: “You’re so skinny,” a phrase often meant as a compliment that can be received as anything but.
As a word, “skinny” is a nebulous concept with an arbitrary reference point; what one person perceives to be criteria for its use might not align with another person’s idea of it, given that people will likely interpret thinness in different ways. Whether or not it’s a compliment at all is also dependent on a number of factors, not least of all given that beauty standards vary from society to society, and era to era. And for a lot of people, including the 30 million Americans who will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives, that one word can prove to be extremely harmful.
According to Chevese Turner, Chief Policy and Strategy Officer at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “We live in a thin-obsessed society and culture. Anything that alludes to the privileges of living in a thin body is considered a compliment.” She added, “the best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness.”
NEDA, whose 2019 National Eating Disorders Awareness Week campaign highlights the fact eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of appearance, reports that numerous studies have connected “exposure to the thin ideal in mass media to body dissatisfaction.” According to NEDA’s research, 69 percent of elementary school girls who read magazines reported that photos they saw influenced their notion of an ideal body shape, with 47 percent saying the pictures make them want to lose weight. And while body inclusivity within the fashion industry is slowly becoming more common, the reality is that the majority of models in today’s ad campaigns are thin. According to The Fashion Spot’s 2018 Diversity Report, plus-size representation in ad campaigns hit an all-time low in the past year; of the 192 fashion print ads that were analyzed, only seven plus-size models were featured.
Given that so many people grew up with saturated exposure to unrealistic body standards, it’s no surprise that the word “skinny” would carry significant associations. But it’s important to challenge those connotations for a number of reasons. “When we value ‘skinny’ we are sending the message that it is only when someone is thin that they are valuable, lovable, and worthy,” Melissa McCormick, a licensed mental health counselor with a specialization in eating disorders, told MTV News. “It is dangerous in subtle and overt ways. When we value thinness and connect it to being a good person, we also devalue those that do not fit that ‘ideal.’”
Fortunately, there are are an array of actual compliments to choose from that don’t reinforce dangerous body standards. And if we consider the fact that every body is beautiful, at every size and shape, it’s worth exploring words that have nothing to do with physical appearance at all. As McCormick explained: “Compliments are always more impactful when they are about qualities within a person, versus their appearance.” Turner agreed, suggesting that we focus on words that “capture someone’s true essence.” So instead of telling a friend how “skinny” they look, think about using one of these words instead — it could end up helping more than any of us may realize.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, head to neda.mtv.com to get help.