I Don't Take 'Skinny' As A Compliment

by Jennifer Rosen-Heinz
Originally Published: 
A long-haired brunette woman in a black top and leggings examines herself in the mirror. 
eclipse_images / iStock

“Hey,” my friend says, as we both walk into the locker room at the gym, “you’re looking skinny.”

This happens every time after I’m sick or injured for a while. Someone notices that I look like I’ve lost weight. It’s meant as a compliment.

If left to nature, my normal body type is a stick figure with an apple in the middle, topped with two giant breasts.

When I work out, that body changes slightly. My otherwise bird-like limbs have little bulges of muscles on them. But somehow, losing that little bit of muscle through disuse seems to read as “skinny.” Skinny is supposed to be positive, right?

I don’t work out for how my body looks. No offense to anyone who does, but I work out because I have battled with depression for the past 18 years, and the endorphin boost that I get helps top off my antidepressant — enough so that my mood is significantly less volatile when I work out.

And the thing is, being told you’re skinny isn’t really a compliment. It may be meant as one, but it isn’t one. It’s the flip side of the same coin: people looking at, and judging, your body.

Think about it. Is it okay to tell someone, “You look like you’ve put on weight,” or “It sure is taking you a while to look like you did before you had the baby,” or ask “When are you going to start working out?” No, no, and no.

Whether people are silently judging your appearance or not, compliments on appearance reinforce a dangerous, sexist standard: worrying about your body or feeling inadequate because of the way it looks.

It’s the same reason that we’re supposed to be conscious of not praising girls’ appearances more than we recognize their intellect or creativity. Hopefully, we’re doing a better job of that than we were back when I was a kid. But what about us? The women who grew up with moms who dieted constantly, drank Tab, and ate rice cakes, and who weighed themselves every morning?

Well, we’re still struggling with body acceptance. And even when we think we are being politically correct about how we treat others’ bodies, we still have blind spots, we still slip up, or unwittingly reinforce those same body standards but using new language.

For every person who feels empowered by MLM fitness and diet schemes flooding Instagram, there’s another woman who can’t do that or who struggles with health issues or is a single mom, or dammit, just doesn’t want to spend her time obsessing about what she puts into or does with her body and how that is going to change her value in the eyes of others.

Gossip mag headlines still cry out, “X celebrity flaunts her post-baby body in Hawaii!” No. She has a body. She had a baby. Her body is in Hawaii.

And well-meaning friends who haven’t seen us in a while and maybe don’t know that we’re recovering from a recent flare of IBS or coming back from a leg injury may compliment us on looking skinny. All the while, our kids are watching and listening.

In my daughter’s after-school art club the other day, I overheard a little girl bragging to another little girl, as she patted her stomach: “Look how little my tummy is.” I watched as my daughter looked on, silently taking in the conversation. I did a pushy mom thing. I walked up, stuck out my tummy, and said, “It doesn’t matter what size your tummy is. The important thing is that it works. Can you imagine what would happen if it didn’t? You’d have everything you ate just sitting in there! You’d have to poop out pieces of food!” The girls dissolved into giggles and started talking about what it would be like to sit on the toilet and poop out a salad and pizza.

There is no wrong way to have a body. By calling out body shape, even if it’s meant to be nice, reinforces a judgment. So please, don’t ever call me skinny. I’m trying to be healthy, happy, and ultimately not give a shit about what it looks like.

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