In My Skin: The skinny on thin shaming

Kayla Grorud

In My Skin is a weekly feature series that looks to tell the stories of diverse student populations at WKU. Its goal is to serve as a simple reminder that WKU is location of diversity — or at least trying to be.


“Zero is not a size.” “Eat a cheeseburger.” “Real men like curves; only dogs like bones.”

Thin-shaming — criticizing a person because of his or her low weight — has long been expected of headlines on tabloids in the grocery store, but in recent years major news sources and content on social networking sites have circulated these potentially harmful remarks.

CNN and USA Today both ran viral articles in February 2014 asking, “Is the ‘Biggest Loser’ champ (Rachel Frederickson) too skinny?”

Among numerous thin-shaming Facebook groups, one is boldly entitled ‘Real women have curves, not the body of a 12 year old boy’ and currently has 207,000 likes.

These comments hit home for junior Natalie Hayden of Lexington. At 5-foot-4-inches tall and 106 pounds, Hayden has been naturally thin her entire life. 

“Growing up, I never really thought anything of being thin until puberty,” Hayden said. “Girls started getting curves and guys started liking these curves and I didn’t have any, so I was self-conscious about that when I was younger.” 

Throughout her high school and college years, Hayden has remained thin and has become the recipient of jokes about her body.

“My friends have always made little comments, like, ‘Oh, are you anorexic?’ ‘You look like an Ethiopian child,’ or ‘You’re a twig; I could break you in half.’ It doesn’t really faze me because they’re my friends and I know they don’t say it with a mean heart,” she said.

“But I remember when I saw the ‘Zero is not a size’ campaign on Facebook; it upset me,” Hayden added. “It is — zero is my size. They made me feel ashamed, like I don’t exist. That’s the one thing that really bothered me.”

In the case of the “Biggest Loser” winner Rachel Frederickson, who shed 155 pounds during the show, responses to her weight loss produced congratulations and criticism. This led some media analysts to agree that while fat-shaming remarks to an overweight individual can be damaging to self-esteem, perhaps thin-shaming is more socially acceptable because people don’t realize it can also be offensive.

Hayden’s Alpha Gamma Delta sorority sister, Louisville junior Paige Rietveld,  also understands the discomfort of these verbal jabs. Rietveld is also at the lower end of the body mass index chart at 5-foot-3-inches tall and 110 pounds. 

“I come from a family background that is just naturally thin. Throughout high school I ran cross-country, so all my cross-country friends were small and thin like me,” Rietveld said. “My first realization I was different came my freshman year in college when one of my friends said, ‘Could you stop with that thigh gap?’ It made me really uncomfortable.”

In a college environment filled with late nights and greasy campus meals, standing against thin-shaming can make individuals feel like outcasts. 

Dietetic Assistant Professor Heather Payne-Emerson deals with a variety of nutrition issues, but she said most students focus on how to fight beer bellies and the dreaded Freshman 15. 

Payne-Emerson said a healthy body mass index can be anywhere from 18.5 to 24.9, which allows for a large range of different heights and weights to fit within the healthy range. 

“But [the BMI chart] is not perfect; there are individual differences,” Payne-Emerson said.

In a similar vein, nature versus nurture — or genetics versus environment — has long been debated in developmental human psychology, and Payne-Emerson said dietetic experts have argued whether DNA or behavior affects body weight. She believes both are factors.

“Some people are going to put on weight more easily and some people are naturally thin. Your genetics influence how quickly your metabolism runs and how your body responds to extra calories,” Payne-Emerson said.

 “What food choices you’re making — your portion sizes, if you’re drinking your calories in sodas and energy drinks, and the amount of physical exercise you get — really influence body weight as well.”

These biological and environmental  influences, however, seldom factor into individuals’ snap judgments about others’ weight.  

When Rietveld was in high school, she had a difficult time expressing to her father that her thin appearance did not mean she suffered from an eating disorder.

“My dad always worried about me not eating, and that was never the case. He’d say, ‘You’re so skinny; Do you want a cheeseburger? Are you hungry?’ It was just constant,” she said. “I knew it was out of concern, but at the same time, I felt like he never believed me when I said there’s nothing wrong with me.”

While eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are serious conditions not to be taken lightly, Payne-Emerson explains it is vital to understand the difference between a legitimate medical concern and a naturally slim individual in order to avoid inadvertently damaging someone’s body image.

“An eating disorder is a psychological disorder,” Payne-Emerson said. “It’s something that can be diagnosed. If someone is just naturally thin, that could have to do with maybe they’re making healthy choices,” she added. “There are certainly people who take in extra calories and they’re just going to burn them off. That doesn’t mean they have a psychological disorder.”

In addition to not wanting to be mistaken for having an eating disorder, Rietveld is afraid to admit maintaining her small frame is effortless because others might think she is bragging.

“I don’t think I’m fat; I’m not doing this on purpose. I’ve tried putting on weight and I eat McDonald’s probably four times a week and nothing’s happening, so I guess I have a really fast metabolism.” Rietveld said.

Hayden agrees with Rietveld and said others write off any normal body image problems she has as invalid because being thin in the American society is often seen as ideal.

“Some girls think I’m so lucky when I don’t even think that about myself,” Hayden said. “I like my body; I’m glad I don’t have to watch what I eat, work out all the time and follow a strict diet. I’m happy about that, but at the same time, being skinny doesn’t make you attractive.

 “I see all these things on Facebook about ‘Real women have curves,’” she continued. “Am I not a real woman because I’m not curvy? Be careful not to put a label on what is beautiful.”