The XX Factor

One Woman’s Crusade to Make the World Safe for Thin People

Poor us.

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

I must yawp my indignation after hate-reading the Daily Beast’s Emma Woolf bemoan the scourge of “thin-shaming” in Western society. Basically, Woolf lives in a dreamscape where “simply being slim can be enough to cause offense” and where “even to hint at the notion that fatness might be anything [besides] a cause for celebration is a big mistake.” She asks, “Why is it OK to call a thin woman nasty names when fat shaming is taboo?” And she argues that thin women have a right to be openly proud of their slimness, which to her symbolizes “willpower,” discipline, and stylishness. 

Jezebel’s Lindy West 100 percent dropped the mic on this one, but I’ll add a postscript anyway: The place Woolf is talking about, the fat-friendly playground where cellulite glistens everywhere in fashion magazines and less ample ladies crouch tearfully in corners wishing they were heavier, does not exist. And: It’s actually not OK to thin-shame, and very few people believe otherwise. And: Obviously, society accepts—nay, embraces!—thin women who are proud of their slimness. And: Body size is often a matter of genetics and metabolism, not willpower in the form of austere eating habits or intense exercise routines. Some overweight people make wise nutritional and lifestyle choices. Some underweight people sit around all day and eat crap. The point is, science has given us reason to think twice before publicly congratulating svelte femmes on their superior moral qualities while looking down on the slovenly, compulsively overeating lardlubbers. Plus, concern-trolling by the weight police is not a good look.

A few people have drawn parallels between Woolf’s thin advocacy and the men’s rights and reverse-racism movements. These comparisons help highlight that although no discrimination (against thin people, white people, male people, etc) is OK, certain derogatory epithets (“fat”) remain more costly and painful than others (“skinny”). I won’t rehash here all the forms of prejudice the overweight suffer nor dwell on the benefits that accrue to the lithe. We don’t have all day—and it’s not a competition. But West does explain why heavier girls might merit some forbearance when they criticize slenderer girls: They’re lashing out against an entire system of ideals and beliefs, while willowy bullies taunting the fatties are just punching down. (Also, it’s my personal, very un-PC view that naturally underweight chicks have it easier than their naturally overweight sisters, since putting on weight—think lounging around your apartment watching movies and snacking on delicious food—is way more fun than dropping it, which generally entails not eating when you’re hungry and exercising when you don’t want to. Blah.)

Of course, much of this talk about “naturally underweight” is moot, due to a huge (some might say gluttonous!) elephant in the room. Woolf reveals upfront that she has struggled with anorexia. She is “recently recovered.” Her article alternates between sentences like this:

I’m fed up with being judged for being physically disciplined, for being careful about what I eat, and for exercising regularly.   

And this:

I wasted a decade struggling with the mental roller coaster of anorexia, trapped in a labyrinth of control and starvation.

It’s dizzying how Woolf’s argument keeps veering between “why shouldn’t I be proud of my thinness?” and “look how destructive and painful emaciation can be.” Either Woolf wants us to bow down to her conformity to beauty norms or she’s using some voodoo reverse psychology to get us to acknowledge that outward conformity should not be remarked upon because it is actually a prison that causes the inmate pain. I’m baffled by her description of wasting away in her 20s, offered up because “I believe people need to know what anorexia feels like … it’s important to understand extreme emaciation.” Woolf details “how your tailbone sticks out so you can barely sit on a wooden chair, how your limbs ache from lying in bed with no cushioning, how you bruise easily, and feel cold constantly. How your ribs and hips and shoulder blades become this weird, coat-hanger arrangement of clashing bones.” Wait, sorry, why are you telling us this? (And, can I add: Do you need to linger quite so attentively on the protruding bird-like skeleton, the delicate flower-petal skin? What about the way your breath smelled? Was your body covered with fine hair? Were you a jerk to your friends and family?)

I think what Woolf wants to say here is that being too thin isn’t glamorous (even though she sort of ends up romanticizing it anyway). She wants to argue—and it is a powerful argument—that extreme skinniness causes anguish and should not be fodder for other people’s thoughtless comments. To which—yes! Of course! But what on earth is this claim doing in an article about why naturally thin women should be allowed to take pride in their figures? It reads either like a secret, implicit endorsement of self-starvation or a bizarre intuition that all skinny women are anorexic and miserable. I mean, yes, it’s possible to stick up for healthy thin people and demand compassion for unhealthy thin ones at the same time. But Woolf writes like she doesn’t even realize there’s a difference.  

Clearly, Woolf is a target. She deserves our attention and consideration and support and sisterhood. Yet she has gotten the situation turned around 180 degrees: Rather than being a target of thin-shaming, she’s really a target of fat-shaming—her own. She’s internalized the voice that flows so freely and viciously through her article, the one whispering that flesh is “bad” and bone is “good,” the one telling readers all about the moral degeneration of the overweight and the virtuous beauty of the petite. She’s the bully she should be worried about.