One thing that really annoys me at the moment is that the HAES movement has managed to effectively elide the difference between “slim” and “skinny”. It’s generally best espoused by the phrase; “Thin shaming is nasty comments, fat shaming is structural oppression”.
And it’s bullshit. It’s gaslighting of the absolute worst order.
I am a thin person. I don’t like posting photos of myself, but if you dig through this blog long enough, you’ll see photos of me. I’ve been thin for my whole life, a product of being an extremely premature birth, being malnourished to some degree for much of my childhood due to poverty, and due to Ehlers-Danlos which, amongst other things, makes my digestive tract inefficient and kills my appetite and makes food about as likely to come up as it is to pass through.
It started in early childhood, where I didn’t put on weight like other children, so there was a constant stream of social workers to the house and the constant assumptions and whispers that I was being abused. By about 6, other children had picked up on it, and I was “skinnyface” – Either getting food smeared on all of my belongings, or having my pack-up stolen and thrown over the school fence because I “didn’t need to eat, [I am] a skeleton”.
It continued at secondary school – New city, new people; Single-sex and selective. The pupils immediately picked out that I and two others were unusually thin, so the rumours spread immediately that we all had eating disorders, and we were shunned to varying degrees for that. Again, eating at school was fraught; Having a bar of chocolate would always be accompanied by sicking-sounds from everyone around me (Because of the assumption that I was bulimic), and eating in the dining hall was a nightmare since other students would pour vinegar on my food to “Help my diet!”
It only took a couple of months for the staff to join in as well – At PHSE, I was the one in my class who was always held up as an example of “Someone who could use feeding up” or “Someone who OBVIOUSLY put wanting to diet ahead of how they looked” or “Someone who probably has an eating disorder”. The geography teacher found it hilarious that other students had scribbled my name under a picture of an emaciated child in a famine. The history teacher, a few years later, tried to stifle her laughter when the same thing happened with a concentration camp photograph. It didn’t take much to convince the teachers that I was a cruel bully who paraded my thinness in front of the other students to mock them, so they pretty much without exception joined in in pointing out how ugly, freakish and skeletal I looked. Did I mention how confusing it is to always be singled out in lessons about drug use and eating disorders, with the assumption that you’re a heavy drug user, and that you have an eating disorder, when you’re neither? Academically, despite getting good marks and being generally very interested in learning (I still am interested in learning, and improving my skills at various things) I was assume to be stupid and un-teachable and to have no interests other than being thin.
Thankfully, sports was a small reprieve – Within my own team, outside of school, I was known to be a fast swimmer and a hard worker, but every new coach had to be persuaded that I wasn’t just there by accident and wasn’t doping. And, honestly, in the changing rooms there were still rude comments and snide remarks, but at least nobody spat in my food.
Obviously, in all of this time I’d never had clothes that fit, and going to school in jumpers that hung off me like sacks and tights that wrinkled around my calves made me unfashionable as well. It didn’t matter, my uniform got holes cut in it pretty much every other month by mysterious perpetrators “who were never caught”. One of the ringleaders in my class said that I should be flattered because everyone wanted to see my lovely thin whore body, and everyone laughed.
At around 11 or 12, the physical pain started – All of my joints going to pieces. I went to the school nurse first. Her verdict was simple; I needed to stop obsessing over my appearance and eat more. I was stupid, vain, shallow and the literal worst kind of person. I braved going to the GP. He told me that eating a bit more, since “Boys like curves” would help. I still didn’t have an eating disorder, I was still trying my best to put on weight at every turn, to stop the constant taunting and assumptions that I was a bad person. Despite continuing to try to see doctors regularly for both my phsyical health and mental health, it took until I was 26 to be diagnosed with any physical pain-causing problem, and given any pain relief at all, by which point I had basically lost the ability to walk. Because everyone had decided that my only problem was being too thin, go and eat a sandwich.
At 16, I started looking for work, and was immediately turned down. Employer after employer told me that, well, a skinny fragile thing like me could never do stand-up work. Bar work? Cashiering? Shelf stacking? All needed someone who looked less “snappable”. This is despite the fact that at the time I was a fairly high-level athlete and hillwalker. No amount of my protestations that really, lifting a tin of beans was not beyond me, would get through to people. At 22, finally, I got a job that I loved, building drystone walls, and was very happy with it. After that, I had a few years of demanding physical work in a teaching lab. All stuff that, when I’d been seen in-person first, it’d been assumed that I couldn’t do. Both of these were jobs I’d got via telephone interviews. I’d always been turned down for non-physical jobs as well, because I “Wasn’t the image that our company wanted to project” – Too unhealthy, probably a drug user, a depressing reminder of poverty.
Have I mentioned the street attacks yet? There was a reason that I didn’t go to nightclubs or bars, or really socialise much, and still don’t. Firstly, tht it’s impossible to socialise when every time you go into the toilet, you get someone trying to look over the door because “The famine victim went in there, what do they look like with their knickers down?” or someone tries to rip your hair out to “make you look more holocaust since you’re already halfway there” (By the way, my hair is as thin as it is largely because of scarring in the follicles from multiple people per year thinking that they were the first to make that joke). The thing that stopped me was someone slashing me with a knife, to “See my ribs”. It needed stitches. The police officer that I’d reported it to said “Well, you ARE very thin… They were just curious” Buying food in restuarants or cafes was basically impossible – If I ordered something “too fatty” it’d get spat in or turn up with hair in it, or a cruel note. If I ordered something “too healthy” (which was often the verdict thanks to my cow’s milk allergy) I’d find it spiked with butter or milk that’d make me ill for days.
And as for clothing – Yeah, I’ve never been able to just buy clothing that fits. As I sit here, I’m wearing a pair of oversize army surplus cotton trousers which tie with a drawstring, and a silk shirt made for me by my best friend. I’ve never seen someone like me on an advertising board, or a catwalk, or in a TV show (Other than, once in a while, as a heroin addict or a criminal). Clothes are not cut to fit someone with a huge square ribcage and hollow shoulders and a recessed breastbone, and pressure sores on their scapulas and hips and arse and knees from sitting down with too little padding.
In case it’s not obvious – This was not just treatment inflicted by one person. This was not just treatment inflicted by one toxic subculture in one city, or one institiution, or one profession. This is everywhere that I’ve lived, in three countries, five schools, a dozen places of work, everywhere that I’ve ever tried to socialise. I eventually gave up on even the naturist swim – A place where people are famously accepting – because I got too many comments on my grotesque body, and too many people assumed that it meant there was something grotesque about my personality as well. This was, well, structural, systemic; in education, in society, in healthcare, in the workplace and in the media.
So the constant gaslighting that “The worst that happens with skinny shaming is being told to eat a sandwich” can frankly go to hell.