The ‘Thin Is In’ Narrative Is Especially Harmful to People of Color
The term “heroin chic” entered my vocabulary in the early ’90s. Back then I was a chubby, brown, impressionable nine-year-old who had no idea how insensitive and sexist those words were. My grandparents, Mexican immigrants, were raising me in the Bay Area, just outside of San Francisco. And oh, man, I wanted to be a “real” American with a third-culture zeal that felt almost epigenetic. As I admired Kate Moss on the cover of every fashion magazine and absorbed all the diet ads that said I could look like her, I saw a pathway not just to thinness but to achieving this “realness”—both my grandparents’ dream for me and my own.
It would have been one thing if it had only been my bullies at school who told me I wasn’t supposed to be fat. But every cartoon, movie, and TV show seemed to agree with them. There was no question in my young mind: The thin body was the body that America loved. I guess I knew deep down that this body I admired was also white. I couldn’t ever become white, but I wholeheartedly believed that shrinking my brown body would at least get me a little closer to the mark.
I tried hard to be thin. I really did. I ultimately developed an eating disorder that went undetected by both me and my doctors, as well as an obsession with exercise that left me feeling “dirty” if I didn’t work out “enough.” (This, I eventually realized, was rooted in our society’s long, racist history of associating Black and brown bodies with uncleanliness.) It wasn’t until I discovered fat activism at the age of 29 that things truly began to shift and my lifelong pursuit of thinness ended once and for all; I finally accepted that I was never going to be thin and that even if my eating disorder managed to shrink me before it killed me, I was definitely never going to look like Kate Moss.
While I’ve made a ton of inner progress toward body acceptance, the recent revival of the “cult of thinness” has been a painful reminder that I’m still living in an anti-fat world. Ozempic, an injectable medication designed to treat type 2 diabetes, is apparently trending among celebrities as a weight-loss method. Business of Fashion recently theorized that the resurgance of ’90s style is bringing back the body standards of the same era. As for New York Fashion Week, we saw a drop from 49 models considered “plus” or “curve” in fall 2022 to 31 in spring 2023.
To see the “thin is in” narrative reemerge in mainstream media tugs at that sense of pain and failure I felt all those years ago. I don’t dream of being thin anymore, but I’m still recovering from the childhood damage of being told my body was wrong. And though no one is safe from the toxicity of the message that thin bodies are the “best” bodies, there are unique and insidious ways that it harms people of color especially.
The notion that “thin is in” reduces the fight to end weight discrimination to a single-issue beauty trend.
When I think of some of the biggest representational wins (the ones that made me cry out of nowhere or encouraged me to wear something bolder than usual), my mind immediately goes to Lizzo, Naomi Watanabe, Paloma Elsesser, Jessamyn Stanley, Denise Bidot, and Nicole Byer—all people of color. I’ve also celebrated as I watched plus-size models grace billboards in Times Square and usher in New York Fashion Week. However, it’s important to understand that even though a lot of the most visible wins around body diversity have been in and around beauty spaces, the impact is much further-reaching—and that these are some of the very same arenas where many discussions about the humanity of people of color have also historically taken place.
I immediately think of “Black Is Beautiful,” a rallying cry that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s to normalize and embrace dark skin tones and natural hair. Fast forward to 2017, and people all over the world queued up for the launch of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty makeup line, which included foundation in 40 shades—a very big deal after decades of BIPOC feeling invisible to the beauty industry.
These fashion and beauty wins were the things that made headlines, but they were just the metaphorical tip of a political iceberg. Beneath the surface were people fighting for fair treatment at work and dignity in their everyday lives. These are the exact things that are at stake when it comes to promoting body diversity too.
The truth is that right now we are having a serious and multilayered cultural discussion on weight-based discrimination and anti-fatness. The presence of plus-size models, artists, and actors on stages, runways, and screens has alerted people to the fact that we are at a crossroads: We can face the unconscionable injustice of weight discrimination head-on and end it for good, or we can pretend that it’s a fad. Losing progress at the hands of the “thin is in” narrative isn’t the same as a haircut going out of style. It’s about losing what these public wins represent: that people of all sizes deserve to be in every space, from the most private to the most public.
Focusing on the “trend” of thinness shifts our attention away from the dire consequences of living in an anti-fat world.
Reducing the body size conversation to the simplicity of “in” or “out” is a grievous misunderstanding of an urgently needed cultural shift toward universal size acceptance. Let me clarify: What difference does it make if fat bodies are “in”—as they allegedly were before this recent return to the very-thin ideal—if people in fat bodies can’t access adequate medical care? The reality is that thinness is still treated as the prevailing indicator of health in doctor offices, and there are grave individual consequences associated with size-based discrimination, including decreased life expectancy and less access to preventive medical care.
Deeming certain bodies as “in” or “out” also ignores the fact that weight discrimination in the workplace is still legal almost everywhere in the United States—my boss can legally fire me because of my size and fat people are still making less money than thin people. These consequences are also exacerbated due to racism because, like weight stigma, it’s a systemic issue that’s correlated with worse physical health, mental health, and workplace outcomes.
A person’s health is influenced by a combination of individual determinants (including genetics, as well as things we can control, like whether or not we drink alcohol) and social determinants (which comprise things we can’t control in our environments, like air pollution in our communities or whether or not we experience oppression). An April 2022 report by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation found that social determinants of health account for as much as 50% of a person’s health outcomes—meaning that adverse experiences like racism and weight stigma can play a significant role in the quality and length of our lives.
When body size is viewed as a referendum on beauty, we lose sight of this complex, harrowing reality; when we’re told that a body size is a trend, we naturally react to that information by competing—to take “in” or “out” sides. This dooms us to the cycle of body dissatisfaction that keeps us trapped in diet culture and, more urgently, shifts our focus away from creating a world where it’s safe for everyone to have the body they have.
“Thin is in” glosses over the racist history of our cultural obsession with thinness.
We’ve witnessed exciting representational wins for people of color and fat people of late, but we don’t need to look too far into the past to remember when nearly every model, actor, and public figure was thin and white. Both overtly and covertly, thinness has historically been tied to white racial superiority. In Fearing the Black Body, author and sociologist Sabrina Strings, PhD, writes about how the rise of the transatlantic slave trade contributed to a “fetish for svelteness” that grew alongside a “phobia about fatness.” Dr. Strings argues that a larger body size became a characteristic that white slaveholders used to suggest that enslaved African people did not deserve freedom. That legacy evolved and lived on in popular media representation, including spaces like the Miss America competition, which, until 1940, only allowed contestants who were slender and “of good health and of the white race.”
Don’t get me started on the problematic history of the BMI. This tool was created in the 1800s by a Belgian mathematician (not a health professional) named Adolphe Quetelet, who was intent on defining the body of a “normal man” based on a weight-to-height ratio. The Quetelet Index (now known as the BMI) doesn’t account for muscle mass, bone density, overall body composition, or race and sex or gender differences, and, in general, is not an accurate or reliable measure of health. Despite these facts, life insurance and health care providers have since used the BMI to categorize the average body as “normal or “ideal” and cast larger bodies as less than to normalize and uphold the thin (and, yes, often white) body as the only “healthy” body.
Our culture’s insistence on using weight as a reliable measure of health led to some of the most nightmarish moments of my life, like the public annual weighings in my high school PE class. Every year, the teacher would make everyone line up and step on a scale and then proceed to yell the number that materialized on the digital screen through the cavernous gym for everyone on the planet, it seemed, to hear. It was humiliating—and I suspect that was exactly the point of the exercise.
The “this is in” narrative also makes body size seem like a choice.
A growing body of research suggests that the longstanding cultural belief that anyone can control their body size long-term simply by dieting is not backed by science. And there’s also a lack of solid evidence that weight loss equals better health. Even if folks have read some of the studies I’m referencing, though, seeing headlines like “thin is in” can confuse (or trigger) people into re-considering that the size of their body may, in fact, be firmly in their hands. It’s simply not the case for most people, and this belief can be especially harmful for people of color.
The experience of racial discrimination is correlated with the development of disordered eating, and it’s not always obvious how this plays out. No one ever said to me, “You should eat less if you don’t want to be Mexican”; they said, “You should eat less if you don’t want to be fat.” I never consciously thought my food restriction was about race until later in life when I learned that food restriction is a way that I dealt with stress—both the stress of overt fat-shaming and the more subtle shame of not being white in the United States.
Further, believing that you can control your body size can lead to restrictive eating, overexercising, and weight cycling (a term used to describe losing and gaining weight over and over again). About one out of every four people who diet will eventually develop an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. This statistic in particular resonates with me because I definitely could not tell when I’d crossed the line from “just dieting” to disordered eating, as I saw food restriction as universally positive; I thought eating as little food as possible was how I was supposed to measure my success and my health.
Eating disorders often go undetected in people of color (of all sizes) and fat people (of all races) because of the prevailing misconception that they only affect white, thin, wealthy girls. Medical providers exhibit this bias as well. And due to this cultural and medical discrimination, BIPOC with larger bodies who believe they can (and should) control their body size may pay a steeper price when developing disordered eating habits, because we’re less likely to get screened, and therefore less likely to get treated.
Thin was never out, but that shouldn’t stop us from fighting for human rights.
Let’s be honest: Thin was never “out.” The reemergence of the “thin is in” narrative, however, is one of the many ways we’re being down-girled and reminded that our place is to accept that our bodies exist for other people’s approval. I know firsthand how toxic that messaging is. My decision to stop trying to shrink myself was about reclaiming my fat and brown body as my own.
What my nine-year-old self needed to hear was that bodies aren’t trends. They’re interesting and weird and kind of magical. There’s no such thing as a bad body. There’s no need for “in” and “out” teams. We’re not fighting to be considered pretty; we’re fighting for our dignity. Our bodies are incredible archives and inheritances of where and who we come from. My body looks like my grandparents’ bodies and my great-grandparents’ bodies. My face looks like my grandpa’s face. My upper arms look like the upper arms of the women in my family.
We all lose when any single body size or shape is the goal, and people of color face a unique struggle deeply tied to the ongoing fight for our full humanity. The mythology behind racism echoes the mythology behind “thin is in”: that humans can be reduced to hierarchies or trends; that who we are isn’t as important as how we look. I don’t know about you, but I’m not biting.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you can find support and resources from the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). If you are in a crisis, you can text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at the Crisis Text Line for immediate support.
Originally Appeared on SELF