Is Being Called Skinny a Compliment or an Insult?

Skinny vs healthy

I hope I don’t need to convince anyone that ‘fat talk’ is a terrible and self-esteem destroying habit, and one that is encouraged and perpetuated everywhere throughout society. This hits young girls and women hardest, but is not exclusive to them – boys and men are bombarded with images and messages that tie body shape to self worth on an increasing basis. From a very young age we are taught that a great deal of our overall worth is tied to our appearance and whether we are ‘skinny’ or ‘fat’.

As someone who was very obese when I graduated college and overweight for pretty much as long as I can remember before then, I will ALWAYS think of myself as fat – even though most of the last 25 years I have hovered close to 200 lbs. I am NOT fat, but that doesn’t concern that little voice inside of myself.

So when the word ‘skinny’ – and better still ‘SO skinny’ came my way THREE TIMES early this week … I was thankful, respectful, and uncomfortable. It was intended as a compliment – people from out of town who hadn’t seen me in a while were visiting as part of my old project and were remarking on how I looked, because the last time they saw me I was much closer to my early 2012 high of 275lbs . The comments were all positive and I took them as such, but I keyed on the word ‘skinny’ – because rather than looking ‘healthy’ or ‘good’, ‘skinny’ means ‘DEFINITELY NOT FAT’.

The problem is that I LOVE being called skinny, even though it isn’t a healthy thought.

It isn’t healthy because ‘thinspiration’ is disordered thinking, not a healthy pursuit.

It isn’t healthy because I am a runner and restricting means starving my body of needed fuel.

It isn’t healthy because I am a runner and improper nutrition puts me at a much greater risk of injury.

It isn’t healthy because I have a strong history of heart issues on both sides of my family, and although I was ‘cleared’ this year, not eating properly puts extra stress on your systems.

So those are some of the reasons I KNOW it isn’t healthy. And because I know that, and because I know that my weight and eating will ALWAYS be an issue … I am constantly vigilant. I monotor my eating – to ensure I am getting enough. This week I was eating almost the exact same stuff as I did just before Christmas, but felt hungrier – and so I was eating an EXTRA apple mid-afternoon to address that.

THE REALITY is that I am BY FAR the healthiest I have been in my life. I am in pretty incredible shape – I have changed up my eating habits to ensure the best intake of nutrients and balanced healthy foods I have ever done, I have maintained my running condition such that I remain in ‘half-marathon ready’ condition. But I am also the thinnest of my life – my pants are the smallest size I have ever worn, and all of my dress shirts now are fitted.

I have learned so much about myself, my body, my eating and my brain these last two years. I have never approached running or eating quite this way, and I like the results – my normal pace for my morning runs used to be 50% slower than it is today. And in the past I would work a ‘restrict & treat’ balance that was really not a good idea.

My goal is to maintain my running, my eating, and my health. I want to keep at it so these habits I have develop remain through my life – because I truly believe that I am adding years to my life through these healthy pursuits (or at least not taking years off!).

Which is why I had a big smile and unambiguously positive response when I saw a colleague yesterday from the project I worked on last year until August, who said:

“I don’t even have to ask if you have kept up with your running and eating … you look great!”

Fortunately I knew the person had dropped about 20 lbs so I could return the compliment, but I have to ask – is there a better compliment? I mean, who DOESN’T want to look great?

What do you think? Do you consider ‘skinny’ a compliment? How does hearing it make you feel?

12 thoughts on “Is Being Called Skinny a Compliment or an Insult?

  1. I think telling someone that they look great is definitely the best compliment around. “Great” really encompasses everything. 🙂

    As far as “skinny” being a compliment…I think I thought of it as more of a compliment before when I was heavier. I am skinny now and when people point it out, it makes me kind of self-conscious. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because there’s really nothing I can do about it unless I stop running and we all know that’s not going to happen.

    • Over the last two years I have learned SO MUCH about eating disorders and body image issues and how they plague everyone. I would have never even discussed them before … thatis one of the amazing things about this community.

  2. Skinny is a word I wish I could say about myself sometimes, even though I agree it’s not a healthy pursuit. I want to be healthy too, but I’m realizing I have some habits right now that may hold me back from that “title.” I admire your marathon readiness, your eagerness to run, and the success you’ve achieved. Luckily, I think both of us reach for an “extra” apple when needing afternoon fuel, and I don’t think anyone ever got unhealthy eating too many apples.

    • Definitely better an extra apple than a bag of M&Ms at my desk! 🙂 ‘The Healthy Maven’ has a great post on defining what YOU mean by ‘fit’. And it gets at so many of the same things – we all set these ideals for ourselves, whether or not they make any sense! Then we punish ourselves for failing to meet them. Being happy might mean letting go of some of that pressure.

  3. It’s been a long time since anyone called me skinny, and on the one hand it was great to have it acknowledged that I’d lost weight (and worked hard to do so), it also made me cringe a little. Thin, fit, healthy, etc. These are all words I’m always happy to hear, but “skinny” seems to contain the connotation of being underweight and unhealthy.

    I read a lot of fat positive books these days (mostly written by and for women) that are about loving yourself and your body at any size/weight. It’s a great message, but most of these authors slip in nasty little comments here and there about “skinny” women. Beyond invalidating their own love-yourself point, these comments add to the feeling of “skinny” as being negative in some way.

    • I am a strong believer in the saying that ‘you can’t build yourself up by tearing others down’. That is why I am not so much in favor of ‘fat is beautify’ or ‘skinny is beautiful’ … but rather than YOU are beautiful!

      Of course those are words … the reality is MUCH harder to deal with.

      BTW – I liked reading your interview post – well, actually some of it was sad so ‘like’ might be the wrong word, and hope that things went well.

  4. This is such a hard topic – thanks for shedding a bit of light on it! When I was struggling a bit with disordered thinking, my mom would say “you look so skinny” and I used it to fuel my restrictions. I eventually had to tell her that it was not helping me, and she switched to “you look so healthy,” which I interpreted to mean “you look like you’ve gained weight.” It really is a vicious cycle, and it’s so much about how we internalize what we hear about ourselves. I’ve found that when people say “you look so happy” it makes me the happiest of all – that encompasses healthy, too, without actually saying it and without any of the negative connotations. Good for you for staying committed to your health, and I believe, too, that you’re adding years!

    • ‘You look happy’ is one I used on a colleague from an old project I saw this morning when I stopped at a different facility. The person did look happy – but he also looked healthier in pretty much every way as well. It is a great conversation-opener as well as a compliment.

      Thanks for sharing – because I know you have said you haven’t really dealt with particularly significant weight loss in terms of being over-or underweight, yet you still felt all of that pressure. That is an interesting perspective I have heard more and more – it isn’t very thin or very fat people … it is *everyone*. Scary.

  5. The term skinny is an insult – plain and simple. The various definitions of skinny are not complimentary – lacking sufficient flesh; lacking usual or desirable bulk; emaciated; unattractively thin; very lean; very thin or too thin. Would you refer to a thin person as being scrawny, bony, gaunt, skeletal, pinched, undernourished, spindly, or gangly because these are the synonyms of skinny. Not very flattering, are they? How about using terms like svelte, slim, slender, willowy, lissome, trim, or lithe to describe a thin person. As someone who has battled this for years, I will whip out the F-word in retaliation to the typical, “oh, don’t be so sensitive” excuse. Don’t call me skinny if you can’t handle the term fatty. In other words, think before you speak.

  6. I have to agree with Janet. I always correct the person who calls me skinny because images of emaciated refugees/prisoners immediately flood my mind, and I wonder if that’s how I’m being viewed. It truly isn’t a compliment, especially when there are so many more becoming adjectives in our language. And like Janet, I will refrain from calling someone fat as long as they don’t call me skinny.

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