Body shaming is not okay. Bodies matter. Not seeing your body in the media matters. Banning body types from the media matters. Advertising, television, social media — the sizes and shapes I see affect me, and the ones you see affect you.
God, I’m like a broken record. But no matter how much I say this stuff, I still find myself saying it over and over again. Because the solutions aren’t coming quickly enough — and when solutions are offered they are so not solutions — just new problems to discuss.
I’m sure that you’re aware of the recent British Advertising Standards Authority’s ban of an Urban Outfitters model. If you didn’t come across this particular bit of news, it’s not because it wasn’t covered by the media outlets. As you’d imagine, it was blogged about, and it showed up in all the rags with a feminist or body-positive slant, but it was also noted by a plethora of mainstream press — TIME, USA Today, Washington Post, Us Weekly — just to name a few. Basically, the underwear advertisement was banned because the Advertising Standards Authority’s felt that the gap between the model’s thighs proved that she was too thin to be a “healthy” role model for Urban Outfitters target audience — the young and impressionable.
Anytime, anywhere, anyplace that discussion of banning this image appeared there was a cacophony of voices — in comments, articles and blogs — clamoring that banning the image was wrong. Offensive skinny shaming! And honestly, the conversation never seemed to get much deeper than, “Oh, no! Don’t be mean to thin people, too.”
To be clear, banning the Urban Outfitters image was wrong, and it is body shaming. But the problems I see with this news cycle are so much more complicated than ostracizing thigh gaps or hurting thin feelings. What I see is a complete failure to unpack the systems that reinforce the status quo — a climate of perpetual body hatred that is grounded in the idea that only thin bodies deserve love and respect.
No Offense, But Hyper-Thin Bodies Are Part of the Problem
One thin model isn’t the issue, a thigh gap isn’t the issue — the dominance of hyper-thin bodies in the media is the issue. I get it. I do. No one should ever make a "go eat a hamburger" joke because it’s not funny, and saying that “real women have curves” is idiotic. (Real women come in an infinite multitude of varieties — if you tell me you're a woman, then you are. Period.)
That said, the majority of female bodies that we see in the media are overwhelmingly thin, and very thin, under-a-size-6 thin.
In fact, a study of prime-time television shows determined that 14 percent of female characters are fat; these statistics represent less that half of actual fat people in the general American public. And when it comes to modeling clothes in advertisements for straight-size fashion, the reign of thinness is even more prolific than it is on television or in film. You never see a medium-size model in straight-size clothes. Medium-size models are modeling plus-size clothes.
Now the thing is that this smaller body — the body that is under a size 6, the one we see advertised everywhere — this body is an extreme size. What I mean by that is if we consider body size as a spectrum, some of us are going to be genetically manufactured in a way that results in hyper-thinness and others hyper-fatness — but most of us will fall somewhere in the middle. Hyper-thinness and hyper-fatness are the extremes. So when the media is dominated by images of the hyper-thin, an extreme body type has been culturally set as the norm — and it's a lie.
Culturally we have started to realize that a media landscape that features only hyper-thin bodies can result in real world consequences, everything from poor self esteem to, y'know, death. So smarties come up with a plan to deal with it — because that’s what smarties do. And yet, as usual, the plan is upside down and backward — and that’s because we as a culture are basically unwilling to give up worshipping thinness as the pinnacle of fashion and beauty. (Heads up, this is the problem.)
The British Advertising Standards Authority or the government of Israel — who recently enacted a law that bans models with a BMI of 18.5 or less — see the statistics that say a prevalence of media images of hyper-thin bodies contributes to rising numbers of anorexic teens, so they resolve to ban the images of models that “represent” an “anorexic” body type. (As if that was the problem to begin with . . . sigh).
The thinking is that if girls are suffering because they are getting too thin, then let’s get rid of the role models that are “truly” too thin. Then the thin that we are striving for will at least be “healthy” — whatever that means. It’s logical, right?
NO. No, it’s not. This kind of solution is ass backwards. It changes nothing because you haven’t dealt with the problem. You are still working from a space that allows for the belief that thinner is better — more beautiful and therefore more valuable.
Skinny Shaming Sucks — Fat Discrimination Is Worse
I am a body image activist — which means every day I’m in the trenches fighting to change the cultural factors that create negative ideas about body types, and as far as I am concerned, bringing an end to weight bias and/or fat discrimination should be the primary goal of anyone attempting to heal our culture’s body image issues.
Skinny shaming is mean and bad, but has little to no societal repercussions. There is no skinny discrimination. No one is paid less because they are too thin. No one receives subpar medical care because their doctor can’t see past their thinness. It’s just not happening.
The reason I bring this up is because there is no danger that the hyper-thin body is going to be culturally understood as shameful. While individuals may experience critique of their thin bodies — our culture worships thin bodies. So banning the skinny model’s legs actually makes little to no social impact because women and girls of this body type can see themselves everywhere they look.
Just to be clear, consider last summer when Samm Newman — a 19-year-old from Ohio who wears a size 24 — had her Instagram account banned for posting an image that supposedly “violated community guidelines.” The image was a selfie of Newman in an opaque bra and panties — 100 percent akin to a bikini shot. As you can imagine, Newman called foul — pointing out that thin girls post bikini shots and more on Instagram and their accounts continue to thrive and flourish.
Much like the Urban Outfitters debacle, the media covered Newman’s story, but the comments and the outrage were oh so very different. Every single time that Newman’s story was posted in an arena where commenting was allowed, people ridiculed her. They called her fat, gross, unhealthy, and disgusting. They questioned her choice to pose in her undies and they advised her to get in shape — or rather to stop being fat.
There were also always people who defended Newman, but my point is that Newman’s fat body and the injustice she was experiencing from Instagram provoked a very different kind of response than the banning of the Urban Outfitters model. While Instagram mistreated Newman — just like the Advertising Standards Authority mistreated the Urban Outfitters model — a huge portion of the general population seemed think that Newman was getting what she deserved.
This comparison exemplifies the reality of thin privilege. When you are living in a thin body, we stand by you through injustice — we raise our fists above our heads and cry out, “No, this is wrong!”
No such guarantee for a fat body — the response will instead be scattered, peppered with critiques of your appeal, your health, and your inadequacy.
I am going to be honest here: As far as I am concerned, the outrage that I see in response to the banning of this Urban Outfitters image emphasizes our cultural adoration of the thin body. This kind of shaming should have sparked a conversation about weight bias, but it didn’t. People weren’t up in arms calling for a solution that actually changes something because they were too busy being upset that someone was saying something mean to that pretty thin girl.
Banning body types isn’t a solution. It never will be. Adding body diversity is the solution. If we want to regulate advertisers, we should be looking at regulations that are akin to affirmative action — regulation that mandates diversity not regulation that excludes more bodies. (I’m gonna take flak for that, I can feel it coming.) I just want to see every body out there. Apples, Pears — the entire fruit basket of body types needs to be represented if we are going to promote healthy body image.