In light of New York Fashion Week (and the totally unsurprising, essentially pro-ana dieting crap that came out of it), there’s been a lot of attention paid to a particularly disturbing health trend with an even more disturbing name: “Skinny fat.” Which is when a thin person eats or behaves in ways often ascribed (but not universally true) to a fat person. But “skinny fat” is a problematic term, and I’d argue that it’s time to come up with something better–like “unhealthy,” regardless of size.
The main trouble with skinny fat, which I’m taking out of quotations because it’s distracting, is that it plays off the idea that skinny is necessarily healthy, and that fat is necessarily not. And at a time when the United States is battling unhealthy levels of overweight and obesity, that dichotomy is really dangerous. Because, while expanding waistlines are concerning, the focus is being placed too greatly on how people look, and not enough on how they feel, how they’re taking care of themselves, or how healthy their bodies are.
Plenty of strong, healthy women who make smart health choices and exercise regularly are still considered “fat.” It is possible to be clinically overweight and healthy, as long as a balanced diet and regular exercise is part of the equation. These people are considered regular fat (not skinny fat), and scorned in our society and judged and generally shamed in a really unjust and negative way.
There are also plenty of underweight or “normal” weight women eat processed, nutrient-deficient, high-calorie foods, walk fewer than 5,000 steps per day, and never hit a gym. They have little muscle definition, weak bones, and high risk of heart disease. These people are considered skinny fat, and are most often viewed as enviable; think of the praise lavished on women who can “eat whatever they want” and never gain weight.
Skinny fat people are every bit as much at risk of the factors that are contributing to American obesity–limited access to healthy food, misinformation about what’s healthy, lack of green space, a sedentary lifestyle, etc.–but they are frequently left out of the conversation surrounding the obesity epidemic because, well, they don’t “look” unhealthy.
By and large, it’s still considered better, both socially and by plenty of healthcare providers, to be thin…even if it means you’re in terrible health. Which is the problem with the term “skinny fat.” It doesn’t really get at the real underlying health risks of a lack of exercise or poor diet–it just continues to perpetuate the idea that it’s shocking or an aberration when skinny people aren’t healthy, and equally as shocking when fat people are.
Instead of relating health back to body size or shape, let’s just call skinny fat what it is: unhealthy.
Image: Doruk Sikman via Shutterstock