Wednesday, January 2, 2013

When Did Skinny Become a Good Thing?

According to the University of Scranton, the number one New Year’s resolution made by Americans is to lose weight. I'm the first to applaud this goal if you are overweight and dropping a few pounds will reduce your risk of diabetes or heart disease, but why, in the name of all that’s holy, do so many people – make that women – today desire to be “skinny?”  

I’m not coming down on those women who are slender without even trying; I appreciate that there is a range of genetic body types and all can be healthy. So naturally thin girls; no need to get up in arms. But what concerns me is that women who are predisposed toward other body shapes feel the need to starve themselves into skinny jeans. And what evil genius came up with those anyway?

When I was a preteen, I was so thin I looked like eyes on a stick. I was so thin I could span my waist with my own bony fingers. In the words of the 1958 Bill Haley song, Skinny Minnie, I was ¨slightly slimmer than a fishing pole. ¨ It's worth noting, too, that he sings that Minnie is six-foot high and one-foot thick, which is about the dimensions of most supermodels, so that body type is nothing new. 

Speaking of Minnies, did you see what Barney's did to everyone's favorite cuddly rodent in their window display this holiday season?

Evidently, they didn't think Minnie's "real" figure
did justice to the Lanvin gown 

Between the ages of about eight and 12, I was twice hospitalized because the doctors thought I must have contracted a tropical wasting disease. We lived in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in central Africa at the time. After a couple of nights stay each time, during which I was tested and probed and prodded, I came up free from any ailment that might cause me to wither away. I was asthmatic, but apart from that appeared to be healthy.

My stick figure phase of life

The point is: in the 1950s and 60s, skinny was considered a symptom. If your ribs showed and your elbows looked like letter openers, it was cause for concern. Back then, skinny was the antithesis of fat – and yes, we did say fat, not overweight or obese – and neither was something you aspired to be. Until I hit puberty, when I become robustly healthy, I continued to be extraordinarily skinny and treated as sickly as a result. I still have no idea what that was all about. But it left me with a clear idea that skinny is not a good thing.

So I´m perplexed today when I hear people talking about skinny as something to aspire to. There are countless books about eating to be skinny (huh?); drinking to be skinny; thinking skinny, the science of skinny, how to get skinny in a hurry, even instantly; how to work out to get skinny, how to dress to look skinny, how to look like other skinny people, the rules for being skinny, how to be skinny forever… Some of them have been major bestsellers. Some are written by emaciated looking woman whose bodies are far from inspirational as far as I’m concerned; others are written by so-called fitness experts, even doctors, who should know better but are clearly jumping on the skinny bandwagon. I was offered the opportunity to write such a book but I turned it down. (Sorry, but as far as I’m concerned, there is no “healthy way” to be skinny unless you’re born that way.)

Food producers are getting in on the act also. There are too many products to list with skinny in the name (and besides, I don’t want to promote them) but one needs special mention: skinny water! 

Look at that: Unlike that wet stuff that comes out of the tap, it has no calories, no sugar, no sodium. 
I swear I couldn’t make this shit up. 

There is clearly a perception that skinny is a word that attracts consumers because even products that have absolutely nothing to do with body weight are co-opting it. Didn’t you just always desperately need some skinny shampoo,skinny lip balm, or skinny earrings? Don't stop there: while you're at it, get those skinny treats for your dog.

Look, I’ve spent over 30 years as a health and fitness journalist. I’ve written countless articles and some books on how to lose weight but they’ve always been directed toward getting rid of excess fat and becoming healthier. If the culture of fitness that I’ve been involved in all these years has somehow inexorably led to this vastly unhealthy focus on skinniness, then I’m probably going to hell. So let me do penance now by pleading that in 2013 we dump the word “skinny” just as in the past we’ve made “fat” politically incorrect. While we don’t need our young girls growing up obese, we also don’t need them growing up thinking that skinny, rather than healthy, is the answer either. In fact a slew of recent studies have shown that there are just as many health risks for underweight women as there are for overweight ones.  Can we perhaps make "healthy balance" the key words going forward?

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