Skinny shaming is real. But experts warn against comparing it to fat shaming.
We all know what fat-shaming is. And it's generally understood it's inexcusable today to say things like "Lay off the chips" or "You need more exercise."
But what about the reverse? The idea of skinny-shaming is more controversial, and people disagree on whether it's as problematic to tell a conventionally thin person "Go eat a hamburger" or "You should gain weight."
Skinny-shaming, or criticizing someone for how thin they appear, demonstrates that even those who abide by today's beauty standards are susceptible to ridicule. Experts agree it is a legitimate problem that can lead to serious mental health consequences, including lower self esteem.
But they warn against comparing it to fat shaming, calling it a "dangerous" conflation.
"Tell me this: Would you go up to a fat person and say: 'Oh my God, you are so fat. Do you ever stop eating?'" asked one TikTok user, who said she is self-conscious about her small frame and has been trying to gain weight.
"Skinny people look everywhere and can see themselves while fat people are advertised when it comes to weight loss and unhealthy illnesses. so don’t compare," another wrote on Twitter.
The difference between a personal attack and systemic oppression
Anyone can experience body-shaming, no matter their weight.
But Jennifer Rollin, founder of The Eating Disorder Center, says skinny-shaming represents a personal attack rather than a systemic problem. Though being called "skeleton" or "twig" can be harmful, weight-based discrimination against overweight people has been rampant in educational, employment and health care settings.
"While it's obviously not OK to tell someone they look unhealthy or too skinny, that is very different from experiencing systemic exclusion and oppression," Rollin says. "People in larger bodies often receive fewer promotions and are less likely to be hired. They're more likely to face medical discrimination, or having doctors refuse to perform a surgery until they're X weight."
So to talk about skinny-shaming when somebody is recounting their experiences with fat phobia can be invalidating to someone experiencing regular marginalization, Rollin says.
Samantha Kwan, an associate professor at the University of Houston specializing in sociology of the body, adds that unlike overweight people, skinny people are usually judged less harshly because of today's beauty standards.
"Women are encouraged to comply with the thin ideal, and they are often rewarded for doing so and sanctioned when they do not," Kwan says. "There is plenty of research that shows that people hold unflattering stereotypes of overweight individuals. These include the assumptions that fat individuals are lazy and lack discipline and willpower."
Body-shaming in any form is damaging
Though experts warn against comparing skinny-shaming to fat-shaming, denigrating anyone for their body size is harmful – even for those whose bodies align with beauty ideals.
"Because we live in a culture that idealizes thin bodies, we tend to think that everyone should be happy if they're skinny," says Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Diet-Free Revolution.” The reality, however, is that anyone can struggle with negative body image.
Rollin warns that weight-focused comments, which may seem like compliments to some, can be triggering to those who are prone to eating disorders.
"You never know what someone is going through behind the scenes, even if their body conforms to what is societally seen as 'ideal.'"
When in doubt, it's best to stay quiet and avoid making unnecessary comments about anyone's appearance – whether they're skinny, fat or anything in between, Conason says.
"We need to recognize that the problem is not our body," Conason says. "It's the culture that objectifies them and makes it OK to make these comments. Your body is no one else's business, and if someone comments on your body, it's more a reflection of them."