Wednesday, February 29, 2012

If you're so skinny, why aren't you happy?

I've always had the vague sense that if I had long, skinny legs and a ripping bod, I'd be a star of some sorts. Probs I'd have made it in some way that I haven't made it now. Maybe not, but if I was a thinner person, or thinnish at all at least in some places besides my knuckles, surely, I'd be happier.

When I think back to some of the happiest moments in my life (the birth of my daughter, for example) the photographic evidence disturbs me. Because the picture doesn't match the wonder and empowerment and great surging love I felt -- for daughter, self, husband, universe. It doesn't match it, because I'm not thin in the photo. I'm not thin at all. I'm bloated and double-chinned and bezitted. So it's confusing. I mean, I was sooooooo happy. Shouldn't I look thinner?

It's easy to look at photos of other humans and infer that if someone has long, skinny legs and a ripping bod, they are probably happy. I mean, look how thin they are. It's easy to, conversely, glance at people and assume that anyone overweight is miserable. You might do this on Facebook. You might sort people you used to know 20 years ago into categories of "doing great" or "not doing so great - got fat."

It's a very pervasive attitude. The weight-loss industry pretty much thrives on the basic assumption that thin=happy, fathappy.

I've been thinking about these assumptions lately.

I have a thinner sister and a fatter sister. The thin one battles depression. The fat one does not. She laughs a lot.

I have a new friend who has an outrageously great bod. I've sort of know her for more than a decade now and always assumed she was a happy person for two reasons:

1) she is always smiling
2) she has long, skinny legs, exactly like I asked Jesus for when I was a tweenager

Now that I know her well, I've learned she cries a lot. And for good reason. She's had a miserable life. She's suffered a lot of violence and abuse. When she cries she still smiles. But you can tell she's crying, it's obvious because of the tears and the sobbing. The anti-depressants she's on keep her from wanting to kill herself (that's good!) but they've ruined her appetite. She misses food. She misses wanting it at all, ever. She just eats enough to function. She is not a happy person. Her long, thin legs and six-pack abs have not brought her the unmitigated joy that I'd imagined they should.

I know a handful of thin people who have all related a similar anecdote to me, which is, "At one point in my life I was 20 pounds (or 30) overweight and I was totally miserable. Then I lost the weight and I'm happy again." This is a moral lesson of sorts that I'm supposed to understand. That we're all supposed to understand. But I dunno. Is it a fairytale that we just keep telling?

Wow! Look how happy that person on the right is!

There have been times in my life when I've been thinner, and times in my life when I've been thicker. When I am honest about these times, they don't correspond with the thin=happy, fat does not equal happy equation at all.

I try to avoid fashion magazines and shopping malls and mainstream media culture in general. But I love media counter-culture. So I've been on Pinterest. Which means I`ve been getting a daily does of anorexic thinspiration.

There are a lot of "thinspiration" images on Pinterest.

Have you heard this quote?

"Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels."

I dunno, it kind of got to me. It`s really meemy. I`d never heard it before, maybe you have though, because I spent the better part of an evening following it around on the internets and it's really quite famous and controversial as an anorexic rallying cry.

It`s a Kate Moss quote. It`s here and there.

It's been banned by the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority for sale on t-shirts for little girls at, but you can still get it on a novelty fridge magnet.

I decided to learn a little bit about Kate Moss. I mean, she's really skinny. She must be deliriously happy. Right? I mean, right? Um... not?

Kate Moss, if skinny feels so good, why did you check yourself into a clinic for depression? Weren't you skinny then? Didn't you feel good? Hasn't that cocaine addiction been treating you well?

And oh lordy pants, there's things called thinspiration blogs. They post pictures like this:

I guess they are there to spread happiness and cheer among their numerous followers, but it's confusing because the bloggers who maintain them sound curiously unhappy. Like Lily of whose images:

are interspersed with textual posts like this: Now I just feel like cutting my wrists open. Motherfucking fuck shit.

She describes herself as both battling depression and having an eating disorder. Well gosh. My heart aches for her. She's very thin. She likes the Kate Moss quote. But I don't think it's doing her a service. I don't think Kate has been a good role model for her.

There was an unforgettable moment in my life when when I'd just made it through a long ordeal with Mono. I was a teenager. It got so bad that I went by ambulance from the small town I grew up in to a big city hospital and got hooked up to all sorts of fluids and drugs. My appetite had dissapeared and I was wasting away. I hadn't eaten for probably a month.

Then I recovered.

When I got back to the small town I was from and went back to school I was noticeably thinner. I wasn't thin. But I was thinner.

"Wow, you look great!" "I wish I could get mono!" That kind of thing.

The unforgettable moment I am referring to was when I was back in school, finally, and going from one class to another. I had to push open a heavy glass door that I'd never noticed was heavy before. I was utterly used to giving it a casual shove and it would swing wide open for me. But after my illness it required a shocking amount of effort. Because I was weakened. My muscles had lost so much strength and tone just lying there.

Because... thin does not equal healthy! Thin does not equal strong. Thin does not equal happy. Thin = thin.

Healthy = healthy.

Maybe you're all like, Bets, are you just figuring all this out now?


Maybe you're all like, Bets! Don't just let yourself go or anything! Fat people are the least happy people of all. Maybe skinny does not equal happy, but fat certainly definitely always must equal miserable!

I don't know. Not so sure. Starting to think otherwise...

Just sayin.



  1. That slogan on a t-shirt for little girls is just fucking evil - there's no other way of saying it. And the young woman, Lily, from Wantstobepretty is quite clearly unwell.

    It makes me so sad. While we're all so busy worrying about what we look like and how that might equate to our happiness, (and I'm as guilty of that as anybody, I'm not immune to the culture that surrounds us)there's a whole wealth of talent and energy going to waste.

    Imagine if women derived all their self-esteem from what they did, rather than what they looked like. Just imagine what we could achieve.

  2. I think that this is so difficult to wrap our heads around, so deeply ingrained into our society. My mom often made comments about my weight as a teenager and it's a miracle that I didn't end up with an eating disorder– but cut to me today, almost thirty, on a restricted calorie diet even though I look FINE. FINE, REALLY. What is my deal? Am I punishing myself? I'm not stupid enough to think I'll be any happier if I lose 5 pounds. No one will notice. WHY.

    At some point, and I think motherhood helped with this, I learned that no matter what I do, how little I eat, there's a natural weight that is just ME. That's what organs and bones and muscle LOOK like. Super skinny models and actresses and magazines and "thinspiration" stuff... it's hurting us. I believe it has hurt ME.

  3. There's a counter-Kate-Moss-quote poster thing on Pinterest that just has words ... "Nothing tastes as good as being skinny feels." "Bitch, please! Have you never tried Nutella?!"

    The two times in my adult life I got skinny, I was depressed as fuck and food didn't taste good.

  4. my hubby and i were talking about this recently. being the nice boy that he was, he was shocked and shaken that i have had people tell me (when i was a slightly prepubescent chubbed out tween) that i was fat. "kids really say that?!" what planet are you on, hubby?! this has been quite the revelation for him to wrap his head around - reexamining culture in the light of a father with a new daughter. (obviously the people who market and sell the crap like those tshirts do not have daughters. f'ers.)

  5. That was awesome. I've got a couple of rants in the form of captions on pins of healthy-looking, fit, or just plain beautiful curvy women on Pinterest. I HATE the "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" images with a fiery passion! I'm glad you wrote about it. Good for you. I might have to take some of my long, well thought out captions, and put them into a blog post where they'll actually be seen, rather than floating around unshared in my little corner of Pinterest.

    Thank you for writing this!


  6. I had the exact same experience of returning to school after a horrible bout with mono, only to have the women around me asking me what I had done to lose so much weight over the Summer. =( Happy=Happy!

  7. I don't like the advertising culture. I've even taught a class for girls on how to think analytically about it. I don't watch tv commercials, I don't read women's magazines, yet I still get bombarded by the skinny=happy message. It's everywhere. Imagine if marketers could make as much money from a books=awesome campaign. Or a treat your children nicely campaign.

    I have two sons, and I wonder how to teach them to navigate around the messages regarding women that pervade our culture. I guess I can start by inhabiting my own fat self with confidence... and dare I say... happiness.

  8. My family are skinny obsessed, and they assume that I am unhappy because I'm not skinny. I enjoy food. I enjoy sitting eating an amazing meal. If that means I have to eat after 5pm and, heaven forbid, have carbohydrates, but experience the sensation of an Italian cooked bowl of home made, hand twirl pasta, by mercy, I would choose that with a good glass of red wine and a deep and intimate conversation over a 5pm salad on my own in the kitchen every single day.

    I look at my mother who was 'plump' all her life and happy, to now be skinny and calorie obsessed and miserable as she fights to keep her marriage and I think to myself I'd rather sit and have a late dinner with my husband, than leave him to eat on his own after work so that I'm not having calories late at night!

    This was a great post... thank you!

  9. Healthy equals healthy. Yes.

    The thing is though, for some people, healthy ALSO equals thin. Which is the part that's upsetting to me. Because, I've always been thin. I've not always been the healthiest, but right now, I am both. I don't diet, I never have. I don't obsessively exercise, I never have. Thin DOESN'T always mean starving, anorexia, bulemia, food-hate, drug use, striving for some out-of-reach ideal, or depression. Thin can be a natural body type. Just like heavy, or muscular, or whatever other adjective you have for body shapes. Go figure.

    But in this culture, as much as it seems all are "thin obsessed", we have no problem commenting blithly that Angelina Jolie looks "skeletal" or remarking that she should "eat something", because heavens knows if you're "that thin" you're obviously NOT EATING. And somehow it's okay to remark derisively about the state of someone's skinniness? But wait, wait, I thought everyone WANTED to be skinny?

    Here, I have an idea, world. Stop talking about ANYONE ELSE'S BODY and start focusing on making sure you're happy and HEALTHY in your OWN body. Stop commenting on other's bodies - be them thin or not. It's none of your damn business, and EVERYONE'S feelings are able to be hurt. Even IF they have the "skinny" body you think they should be happy (and therefore just able to take whatever unkindness it thrown their way) in.

    1. Oh yes, making snide comments about a thin woman is just as harmful. We all need to stop policing women's bodies, full stop. We cannot know from looking at a person whether they are healthy or happy based on the size of their pants.

  10. This is just an excellent post, Betsy, and a message that sadly, it takes a LOT of women a really long time to learn (if they ever learn it at all). Sigh. I just found out that I'm having a girl, and one of my first thoughts/fears was, Oh God, I'm going to have to deal with that whole self-image thing! Eeek!

    I feel like my mom did a pretty good job of this with me (I'm not always thrilled out of my mind with how I look - like right after giving birth - but I do seem to be less involved in self-loathing than so many of my lovely, beautiful friends). So hopefully I can pass that on. All of this self-hatred, it's such a freaking waste of time and energy. One day, you'll wake up old and wrinkled, and you wasted your youth hating your perfectly lovely and functional body. It's just so sad. It makes me want to get all Marxist/Feminist and start ranting about the ways that the Patriarchy undermines women with destructive ideologies whose main purpose is to distract them from their REAL problems (like, you know, oppression).

  11. The first time I read this I was too tired to comment, and now everyone else has said all the good stuff. But, yes. And also, have you met my friend Patti? Because this post goes very well with yours, I think:

  12. Great post! So happy to read this.

  13. That last image? That slayed me.

    My husband has had a bad stomach for literally his whole life. He's thinner than he should be, and for a number of reasons he recently lost a fair bit of weight. It's kind of a struggle for me, because on the one hand I can't lose weight to save my life, and sometimes I buy into some of the crap that says I should be thinner and all that jazz. But watching him, and seeing how it negatively impacts him, has left me knowing for sure that given the choice, I'd rather be healthy.

  14. Thank you so much for this. I was just thinking today — wait for it, it's quite the revelation — This is my body for the rest of my life. Why not just be happy in it?

    I know, right?

  15. I'm happier now at a fatter size then I ever was as a thin teenager or when I was struggling to take the weight off in my 20s. My secret? I accepted my body for all the good things it can do. I can walk miles, climb stairs, lift heavy objects, create and birth children, nurse them, make them laugh, have great sex, laugh, eat, hug kittens...all while being a good 100 pounds "overweight".

    I finally realized what used to make me unhappy was all the mental and emotional work of trying to make my body thin when it didn't want to be. When I let go of that I could focus instead on moving and dressing the body I have with no shame. I also embrace this because if my daughter is going to have a fat mother, and she is, I want her to see fat and happy, not fat and disgusted with myself. I still don't like looking at most pictures of myself, but overall I am fat, happy and unapologetic. I take up space and there is nothing wrong with that.

  16. Betsy, thanks a million! This is the kind of straight-talking people need to hear. Yet sadly it's only the tip of a huge iceberg of problems that are caused by society indoctrinating people with ideas of how they should be. I am slowly but surely healing myself from a horrific 5 years which began when I accepted my sexuality was not going to change and progressed along the lines of gay = feminine, feminine = skinny. Both parts of that are really damaging for people, and I know there are many more examples out there.

    Maybe what we all need is more hugs, more caring for friends, more yay for you being YOU :) xx

  17. My friend is really skinny - she has anorexia and she has tried to kill herself so many times. I know she is sad, she has been in hospital for the last couple of years. Yet everytime i see a picture of me i hate myself because i feel so fat (i am almost 5'5 and weighing 6 3/4 stone) i am really not happy with how i look. i think some thin people are happy, it depends on how they got to be thin (e.g people with a thin body shape are more likely to be happy rather than people with anorexia.) i don't know really though, i am only 14.

  18. Sweetie, is there a guidance councillor at your school or someone you could talk seriously about your body image with? Honestly, you sound like a bean pole to me and it's worrisome to me that you don't think so.

    My greatest hope for women and girls is that we learn to hinge Respect for our selves including respect for our bodies on something other than how closely we resemble photoshopped supermodels. They aren't real! We are!

  19. I'm torn-skinny does feel good, but food tastes good too. I wish I could eat and be my normal size without feeling so fucking shitty about it all the time... Help!

  20. It is not fair to think that everyone who is thin is depressed or anorexic or whatever. That picture you have used might give you some inspiration butt for me(being skinny all my life without doing anything), it is horrifying. I hate it when people call me malnourished or if have a disease or something. I totally agree with you that we should be happy in our skin as it is. But accepting yourself with love doesn't mean you have to criticize the other extreme. All the examples you have qouted of the skinny people you knew makes me feel like you think they are someone to be pitied. No dear, as much as i support being truly happy in one's body, i oppose the other extreme to be called skeletal or malnourished or depressed or God knows what. So i request that people who are skinny not be judged or shamed this way. And pleased don't get me wrong, it's beautiful what you have written and is an inspiration to many, but you should explore this angle too


Tell Betsy...