Two years ago, Laura**, a 20 year old New School student who stands at 5’6”, weighed 150 pounds — well within the “normal” range. Nevertheless, motivated by a desire to “look and feel healthier”, she completely changed her eating habits.
“Both of my siblings are skinnier than me, and growing up, they were always seen as the picture of health,” Laura said in a recent interview. “I wanted to be seen as skinny and healthy, when in reality, I wasn’t even considered overweight or unhealthy.”
The results were dramatic. By skipping meals and reducing her calorie intake by more than 50 percent, Laura went from 150 pounds to 110 in under four months.
“I felt like I looked good, and people told me I did, but I wasn’t toned at all and lost all of my muscle,” she recalled. “I got winded walking up one flight of stairs.”
Are we a culture obsessed with weight, or is it really just a number? Oftentimes, the vision of a thin person is considered to be admirable, or incites jealousy among people who desire to look skinnier or healthier. But truthfully, how well does anyone really know someone else’s body? Medical research shows that being skinny doesn’t necessarily correlate to the “picture of health”, as millions of people with thin builds may carry some of the most dangerous forms of fat and excess weight without even realizing it.
What does it mean to be skinny fat? The answer is a difficult one, and perhaps not necessarily concrete, as multiple potential answers and opinions flood the media, primarily in magazines and blogs. “Definitions” can be found in an array of places, from suggestive Urban Dictionary explanations to more researched medical definitions. The most upvoted entry on Urban Dictionary, an informal web-based dictionary reliant on user-generated definitions, defines skinny fat as “when someone is thin and looks great in clothes but is all flabby underneath.” In May 2014, Time explained the sufferers of skinny fat as those who seek, or should seek, medical assistance for issues of excess weight such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and other illnesses.
According to Business Insider, the term “skinny fat” became popular after a controversial ad was launched in 2012 by Equinox Gyms, an upscale chain of health clubs known for its high membership fees and racy ad campaigns. This came just months after an initial controversy surrounding a similar campaign shot by the notorious Terry Richardson, outraging Equinox members on their Facebook page. Of course, it is impossible to judge someone’s physical condition from a photoshopped ad campaign; regardless, members claimed the female model’s physique set a bad example for health, and the ad itself lacked any visual of exercise.
Rachel Knopf, a Registered Dietician Nutritionist at the New School Health Center, says she has seen hundreds of students regarding their eating habits. In an interview on October 2, she said that while someone’s body size is most visible and susceptible to judgement, it is in no way indicative of their health. “I never could have known their health problems or eating habits were before sitting down and actually speaking with them,” she said.
Knopf stressed that eating well and listening to bodily signals are two of the most important aspects of maintaining physical health. “We have to trust ourselves, and eat based on internal cues rather than external cues,” she said, adding that this is the reason our bodies have the ability to tell when we’re hungry. She explained that while physical exercise is crucial, people should attempt to find their “joy”; for example, Knopf says running on a treadmill feels like punishment to her, and therefore she finds other ways to enjoy movement and maintain balance. She also mentioned the organization Health at Every Size as an inspiring community that helps people understand and appreciate their bodies.
Health at Every Size (HEAS) is an online organization and “body peace movement” that supports people of all sizes to adopt healthy behaviors and love their bodies. Dr. Linda Bacon, author and professor of nutrition at City College of San Francisco, started the movement in 2008 after publishing Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Our Bodies. “Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we’re fat or because we fear becoming fat, says the HEAS website. “And being thinner, even if we knew how to successfully accomplish it, will not necessarily make us healthier or happier.”
Their pledge, which “acknowledges that good health can best be realized independent from considerations of size”, is designed to appeal to people who want to move on from being preoccupied with their weight and ashamed of their bodies. It currently has 7982 signatures.
In an age where thin men and women are constantly praised in the media and new diet plans and supplements are being mass marketed, it may be difficult for people to understand that issues of health are, for the most part, only skin deep.
For Laura, the understanding took some time — six months, she said — and a couple of wake up calls, including an increase in blood pressure and irregular sleep patterns. Now, two years after her drastic weight loss, Laura weighs 141 pounds. She sleeps well at night, and her blood pressure has returned to normal. “I would rather be healthy and weigh a little more than be unhealthy and weigh a little less.” she said.
**Name has been changed by request.