For decades, various shades of skinny were the undisputed standard of female perfection. Now, thin women are finding themselves the targets of increasingly cruel and very public edicts to “have some cake”, “get some curves” or “see a psychologist”.
This was the tone taken by the founder of British fashion label Rose and Willard, Heidy Rehamn, in a recent op-ed for the Huffington Post, where she outlined the company’s plan to protect their models from the scourge of eating disorders by including a “non-negotiable contractual clause” forcing models to eat a supervised meal during photo shoots, or forfeit their pay.
The idea that you can help a woman in the grips of an eating disorder with one good hearty meal is obviously laughable.
The image of an employer obliging potentially vulnerable young women to endure a public force-feeding session is highly disturbing. Humiliating and dripping with intrusive paternalism, Rose and Willard’s “go eat a cheeseburger” policy has all the ingredients for a supersized serving of skinny-shaming.
Despite their absurd approach, Rose and Willard are correct in acknowledging the ever-shrinking size of fashion’s female stars is of serious concern. The far-reaching and toxic influence the industry’s fetishisation of thin has had on women in the spotlight is well-documented and we do need to talk about it.
We also need to talk about the impact glamorised images of the super skinny have on the women and men who consume them.
Expert opinion has long blamed the media’s glorification of skinny for the consistent upsurge in eating disorders, a fact recently recognised in a bill passed by the French Government to ban models considered to be too thin.
So let’s talk, talking helps. But let’s not mistake that conversation for a right to diagnose all thin women in the public eye with an eating disorder, and let’s certainly not be the kind of bastards who would ridicule them for it.
Keira Knightly and Australian actress Jodi Gordon are among the many celebrity women regularly attacked for being ‘too thin’.
Their images are plastered time and again under “scary skinny” headlines, reeking of faux-concern for the “scrawny bones” and “worryingly thin frames” pronounced as evidence of their eating disorders.
The most recent skinny-shaming of Jodi Gordon has taken place in the wake of her highly publicised divorce.
Though weight loss is a common side-effect for women and men experiencing stress and emotional trauma, this has not stopped the publication of images of Gordon’s “protruding rib cage” and tell-all discussions of her diet and exercise regime.
At a time when we should be urgently working to de-stigmatise sufferers of eating disorders, skinny-shaming has become nothing less than the deliberate mockery of mental illness.
Let’s talk about ‘thin privilege’
Since taking its place in the heart of feminism, the term ‘skinny-shaming’ has induced large swathes of sisterhood in-fighting.
Commentators have argued skinny-shaming is not nearly as bad as fat-shaming, because — eating disorder or not — thin bodies are the kind that patriarchy loves. It’s a stance so popular it has even coined its own catchphrase — skinny-shaming’s sister in feminist linguistics, ‘thin privilege’.
The famous victims of skinny-shaming listed above perfectly illustrate thin is synonymous with everything rich, white and beautiful. It’s an image that has made famous women with eating disorders the ‘poor little rich girls’ of mental illness.
If skinny girls are sick, no-one really cares, because they have that gazillion-dollar deal with Cover Girl and get to bang Brad Pitt.
Except, of course, in the real world, this isn’t true at all. It isn’t true for the girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who “exhibit more signs of disordered eating behaviour” than their wealthier peers.
It isn’t true for all the girls whose lanky limbs, more awkward than sexy, have long been the stuff of schoolyard bullying. And it isn’t true for women like Anna Oudra, whose tiny size is the result of a genetic condition called Marfan’s syndrome.
“I came to feel deeply flawed,” Oudra writes of the toll years of skinny-shaming took on her psyche.
“I began covering mirrors, avoiding reflections, and obsessing about looking normal. I went through phases of having panic attacks and avoiding going out.”
Thin or fat, body shaming hurts all women
None of this is intended to suggest the shaming of thin women is as routine or as vicious as fat-shaming.
Fat women are without doubt tyrannised both in the media and in everyday life in a way that skinny women are not.
Body-positive activists like plus-sized model Tess Holliday have braved armies of internet trolls to point out fat women are the victims of cruel and systematic discrimination.
But this is where thin stops being the opposite of fat. Skinniness does not liberate women from the erosion of their humanity by a culture of objectification, nor does skinniness stop women from being judged as physically or mentally deficient because of their size.
The damage caused to women who are the victims of skinny-shaming is very real and we must recognise it as such. If not for the victims, we must do it for ourselves.
Allowing any woman to be body-shamed, for any reason, means accepting that same standard and the pain it causes for all women.
If we’re going to talk, let’s talk about that.