Thursday, 16 July 2015

We're Real Women, Too: On Sizeism & Skinny Shaming

We're Real Women, Too

Several weeks back, I was having a quiet drink down the pub. It was kind of warm, so I took off my cardigan, leaving my arms bare in my strappy vest. A man in his 40s decided to sit himself down next to me, and tell me, "You need to put on some weight, girl!"

This kind of comment is nothing new to me. I have always been very slim - depending on the shop, a UK size 6 or 8 (European size 34 or 36 / US size 2 or 4) - and people have always felt the need to tell me so, or talk about my size behind my back. There's nothing like having old women in the chip shop discuss my figure; "She's so skinny!" stage whispered with revulsion, a look of disgust on their faces.

People have accused me of having an eating disorder. People have told me that I need more meat on my bones. People have always made it clear that my body isn't beautiful. Despite these comments being something I've grown up with, they're still hurtful. Sizeism is rife, and a problem. We all know it's not on to be body shaming bigger people; it's rude, it's disgusting, and it’s offensive. But when it comes to those of us who are slimmer, nobody seems to see anything wrong with sharing their opinion of our bodies.

Caoimhe Tracey has had similar experiences. "I'm 27 years old, work in the area of special needs, am a bit too emotionally attached to fictional characters, and happen to be a UK size 4 [US size 1 / European size 32]. For some reason, to a lot of the public, this last bit of information about me is sickening. I am often classified as unhealthy or can be talked about - to my face - as if I have some sort of disease that affects other peoples’ lives."

Sarah Key* reports the same. "I have had the same weight since I was in my late teens, and I have been a regular European size 36 / UK size 8 [US size 4] since I was 16, so not exactly unusually thin. I have, however, been suspected of having eating disorders, or starving myself, due to my size. This was especially true when I was younger, and with people I didn't know that well."

And it can be surprising where some of the comments come from. "I'm petite, as many would say, being only 4'10, but that means I am very slim and always have been," said Nichola Vo. "As a result, people tend to remark that I should eat more, or that I'm lucky. It's strange because when I think about it, it's come from mainly family. Like, the 'Put on some weight,' or 'You're too skinny,' comments."

Kate Reed* has also had comments from family. "One of the main culprits is my mother-in-law. She mentions at regular intervals how someone she knows keeps asking if I have an eating disorder. And then she says she tells the person that they wouldn't think that if they could see me eat because I put away vast quantities."

"On seeing me, they said with genuine seriousness that I was so skinny I looked ill, and they wouldn't be surprised if I died before they did."

I can tell a similar story. Around six years ago, I went to visit some family in Denmark. My aunt there was a dinner lady at a school, and in Denmark they take nutrition in schools very seriously, so my aunt knows her stuff. She saw how slim I am, and started talking to me about how I need to eat more, and telling me about vitamin supplements as my body probably wasn't getting what it needed. But when it came to sitting down for dinner, I had a bigger portion than the rest of my Danish family - who had quite small portions, in my opinion - and my aunt was so shocked that I cleared my plate, and took back what she said earlier.

I remember once when I was a teenager, a family member 30 years my senior came to drop something off to my parents one morning. I answered the door in my nightdress, having not been up long. I had a cold at the time, so I appeared a little under the weather, but otherwise, still looked the same as usual - just not yet dressed. On seeing me, they said with genuine seriousness that I was so skinny I looked ill, and they wouldn't be surprised if I died before they did.

I was deeply hurt by their comments. As I said, I was a teenager at the time, my self-esteem and self-confidence weren't great, so how - when you're not happy with how you look yourself - are you supposed to respond? When family, people who love you, say such things, it's upsetting. Nichola said about her family’s comments, "You get used to it after a while and just nod [along] with it because there isn't much you can do."

But this shouldn't be the case! I am much happier with my body now, and I'm sick of the comments, and I just won't sit back and stand for it. The problem is, people don't seem to realise that what they're saying is so hurtful.

"I think people don't realise that the comments are in regards to an aspect about me that I can't change, and thus would affect me," said Nichola. "I have mentioned it before about how it feels, but I don't think they understand because they are not in the same position."

"I've had girls come up to me and say, 'Oh my god, someone needs to feed you!' whilst gripping my ribs."

Caoimhe agreed. "I do believe that the comments I get, most of the time, are ignorance – which I find to be the hardest thing about sizeism really. It’s somehow not their fault as it’s so ingrained within our society to think of ‘skinny’ as this size that is only obtainable via eating disorders. It is so popular within current pop culture to preach about how curvy is beautiful, whilst also being hypocritical and degrading women who are thin. Nicki Minaj and Meaghan Trainor being the most popular, along with a lot of statements like 'Real Women Have Curves – Only a Dog Wants a Bone.' I see people liking stuff like this on Facebook all the time. Sometimes they are even friends, or my family, and it just doesn’t occur to them."

And what, exactly does this ignorance and thoughtlessness lead to for these other women? For Sarah, it's comments like, ‘Are you sure you eat?’, ‘Not all of us can be thin like you,’ ‘I'm not sure I would be happy if I was thin,’ ‘Thin women look older than they are,’ and ‘Men don't like thin women.' The vitriol in those comments! Don't even get me started on the misogyny in that last comment. As if the sole purpose of a woman’s body is to look and be pleasing to men! What’s sad is that Sarah said some of these comments are “most frequently heard from slightly overweight friends [who are unhappy with their bodies, or] people who are single.”

For Caoimhe, this ignorance has led to some appalling experiences. "In a previous work place, I and two other female colleagues were having a chat, and the (too-common) subject of diets came up. To be honest, I kind of phased out of the conversation until they dragged me back in by saying, 'At least you don't have to worry about that!' which is a nice comment so I said thanks. However, it took a bit of a horrible turn for me when [one said], 'I'd love to be skinny like you.' [To which the other responded with,] 'Yeah... skinny, but not that skinny though.' 'Oh yes, well obviously,' [the first replied.] Just like that, completely nonchalant."

And that's not all. "I've had girls come up to me and say, 'Oh my god, someone needs to feed you!' whilst gripping my ribs. In another work environment I was told - before I insisted - that I wasn't going to get a uniform because, 'I think we would struggle to find any in your size.'"

Talking of sizeism in the workplace, Kate was shocked by what a family friend admitted. "When I was about 18, a friend of my dad's, who worked in recruitment, said that if I was being interviewed by him for a job he might say something like, ‘You're way too thin, do you actually eat?’ because he likes to ask interviewees a question to catch them off guard and see how they react. I was absolutely speechless."

Passion by Lauren KateIt's unbelievable how callous people can be when talking about other people's size. I remember when I was invited to a publishing event for book bloggers, the cover for Passion by Lauren Kate, a young adult novel, was revealed and we were asked what our opinions were. I wasn't a big fan of the cover, I didn't like the clouds or the colour scheme much, but I didn't bat an eyelid at the girl on the cover. Most of the other bloggers did, though. They talked about how she was too skinny, she looked unhealthy, and how there shouldn't be a girl of that size on the cover of a book for young adults as it would likely cause negative body image. A woman next to me was quite vocal about how unattractive the girl was, being so skinny. After hearing these comments, I took another look at the cover, at the girl - and I saw myself. That girl had my figure. Did these people think the same things when they looked at me? Was I so unattractive?

"I hate how it is seen as irresponsible to represent a size that exists!"

People have a lot to say when it comes to models and their size, and not much is positive. But the criticism is something Sarah agrees with. "I have very clear opinions on this, and that is [sic] mostly based on being a teacher and occasionally seeing girls who are not just thin, but who are obviously sickly thin," she said. "It is quite easy to spot the difference. There is skinny, and there is skinny - and far too many models are too thin. When you have very thin girls, often tall, who look gaunt and perpetually unhappy or moody, you know that they're not eating. [...] I have yet to come across an interview with any former model who doesn't mention that yes, they have to admit they hardly ever ate while working, because of the constant pressure to weigh nothing.

"So, I support criticism of too thin models. I acknowledge that there are people who are in fact very thin, and naturally so, but in the fashion industry, I don't think the majority of girls are naturally that thin. When your collar bones stand out like on a skeleton, and your hip bones threaten to injure someone, and your thighs are the same width from your knee up to your bottom, you don't even have the natural layer of fat that normally thin/very thin people would have if they eat normally."

Caoimhe disagrees. "The representation of size within the modelling world is such a big subject, which I definitely don’t think I could do any justice to, but I do believe that there is not nearly enough ‘variety’ within high fashion or commercial modelling. It’s ridiculous. But these women are real women, who get criticised every day within the media, and it’s through no fault of their own! They get the job by being slender, and then get nothing but shame from everywhere else. Skinny shaming is just the same thing as fat shaming. The industry needs to get behind their models more whilst also bringing in more variety."

It's not just figures on book covers and models that come under scrutiny, but mannequins, too. In October last year, Topshop came under fire for having very slim mannequins. Caoimhe recalls how she felt when reading the article. "I remember [...] seeing all of the mega hype around it, and feeling so angry and hurt. I hate how it is seen as irresponsible to represent a size that exists! I am that size, and this is the norm for some people. You can't say that you're promoting healthy body image when you put down other girls that don't match your ideal.

"The fact is that 99% of stores stock the average size and above, and more (naturally!) thin people struggle to find clothes their size, so for some it's quite nice to see something and think ‘Yay, something that fits!’ like I'm sure is the reaction for some naturally bigger people too."

"Let’s please stop bashing each other."

I couldn't put it better, really. Body shaming - no matter what your size, weight or figure - is unacceptable. As Sarah said, "I am annoyed that thin is some kind of default, and at the same time also criticized. It's a double standard out there, which makes it very difficult for young people to find their way."

And it's not just on women to look a certain way, Sarah continued. "There's this insane pressure on boys/young men to look fit and muscular these days. Twenty years ago, we looked at muscular boys with suspicion and thought they were self-obsessed. [...] These days, if I bring a cake to class, the boys are sometimes more likely to pass on it than girls, because it doesn't fit into their eating/protein shake schedule. What on earth is happening?!

"Our world is obsessed with weight and looks, and that when skinny thin [for women] is the default, you make the majority, who aren't, feel inadequate. If the default is diversity, then that would be better."

Caoimhe agreed, adding, "I believe that, no matter what your size, you should be comfortable in your own skin. And it is the most important thing to note that no two people are the same size and shape. If you stood two size 12s next to each other they would fit a size 12 top in different ways. This also depends on the manufacturer! Let’s please stop bashing each other."

Enough is enough. It took a long time to get here, but I finally like my body and the way I look. I do not need negative comments from other people because my body doesn't fit their idea of beauty. No-one has the right to comment on my - or anyone else's - body, and quite frankly, our size and our weight are nobody else's business.

We're real women, too. Stop making us feel like we're not.

*Some of the women who contributed to this post wished to remain anonymous, so their real names have not bee used

Disclaimer: As I've said, I have always been very slim. I have a fast metabolism, as told to me by my doctor. I've never dieted, nor have I had an eating disorder - though I know how serious they are, and that those suffering with an eating disorder need medical help. All I am saying with this post is not all slim people have an eating disorder, and that we shouldn't be shamed for being slim.

Also, I am aware that men are body shamed too. There are no experiences shared here by men because no men came forward to contribute.

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