The Skinny Fat Girl

The Skinny Fat Girl

In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of controversy over Skinny Gossip’s criticisms of Kate Upton’s body.  Kate Upton has reached stardom as a model and spokesperson.  Her (male) fans revere her curves and she entered American pop culture when she graced the cover of Sports Illustrated‘s famous (some might call it infamous) swimsuit issue.  In June, Skinny Gossip took aim at Upton after her runway appearance in a bathing suit fashion show.  The site called her well-marbled and an example of how we are 80% genetically identical to cows (which is news to me).  The outrage was loud and the fury palpable as website after website howled in protest over the Skinny Gossip’s insistence that Upton was fat.

Yes, fat.

I am not one who spends a considerable amount of time on any website (except for Nursing Clio and Facebook, of course), but I decided to devote some time on Skinny Gossip. When I read through her past contributions, I was (not surprisingly) horrified at her remarks as well as the comments made by her readers regarding fat women and even models who are lauded for their skinniness (5’9” and around 100lbs) and those who no longer deserve the title of skinny (5’9” and around 110-115).  It seems as if the site was able to fly under the radar until she condemmed Upton’s curves.  Upton’s fans and other critics attacked the site, calling out her outlandish criticism.  In reading her entries, the harsh judgements were warranted.  But what struck me was how much the discourse on the site and its supporters’ comments continually reshape and misshape concepts of weight and body image.  And this is not just about what it means to be fat, but what it means to be skinny.

My dissertation examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in America during the twentieth century and one of my chapters focuses on the prenatal diet and weight gain.  Obstetricians became increasingly concerned regarding the amount pregnant women gained because fatness had become a sign of laziness and unattractiveness.  As I discuss in my previous blog “Looking Like a MILF,” a disheveled and unsightly appearance was not an option for mothers starting the in the mid-twentieth century, but in my dissertation, mothers-to-be fell under this type of scrutiny as well.

But obstetricians were not the only ones who worried about weight gain. Concerns about how much a pregnant woman gained reflected evolving cultural norms regarding weight in general. Fat, as a topic of discussion, has been on the lips of most Americans since the mid-nineteenth century (and even earlier). Historians have enriched our knowledge by examining how new values and norms regarding weight developed, and how the terms obesity and anorexia nervous became topics of seemingly everyday conversations, and eventually became diagnosed as diseases.[1]  Fears about each became justified as doctors began to recognize the signs and diagnosed young women as anorexic and public health officials and the medical profession label obesity as an epidemic (even a pandemic).  Through most of the 20th century, doctors used height-for-weight charts, which determined how much a man or women (the charts were separated by gender) should weight based on their height.[2]  The drawback of these charts was that they did not take into account body composition.  In the 1980s though, the federal government implemented the Body Mass Index (BMI), which was actually invented in the mid-nineteenth century by a Belgian mathematician.  The BMI states that your weight should be proportional to your height.  If your number (configured by a math problem) is over 25, you are considered overweight, and if it is over 30, you are considered obese.[3]  What the BMI does not take into consideration, as critics state, is bone structure, age, genetic factors, etc.  It placed, as did the old height-for-weight charts, everyone in a box and standardized weight management for doctors.  However, even with the weakness of the BMI, public health officials and physicians have recognized the growing waistlines of Americans (and really many individuals around the world).  A lot of this has to with diet, with larger portions and processed food, and a more sedentary lifestyle.  At the same time, Americans’ bodies have changed considerable as their health improved.  Men and women’s bodies became stockier and taller through the 20th century.  However, given that 35.7% of Americans are considered obese, it is not surprising that there are apprehensions regarding the ever expanding waistlines of Americans.

Yet, as much as there was concern over too much weight gain, being too skinny (or skinny in general) caused considerable angst among young women, especially prior to 1960s.  Being thin was not beautiful.  Just as being too fat was unattractive, being too skinny was not exactly the ideal either.  In fact, as Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield pinups found there way into boys rooms and men’s lockers, those who failed to have curves found themselves marginalized.  Just as there were ads for reducing, there were many ads for gaining weight.  Between 1930s-1950s, ads for ever type of concoction (supposedly endorsed by a physician type male) commericalized female curves. But in looking in these advertisements, what was considered skinny would be the norm now.  The girl with the curves, well, she might be considered overweight, especially if that BMI was over 25.

The curvier body type continued until Twiggy’s boyish build, short hair, and black eyelashes created a fashion tsunami in the late 1960s, launching a new ideal of waif-like characteristics over bombshell types.

Models’ waistlines through the 1970s and 1980s shrank, reaching a new pinnacle in the early 1990s with models such as Kate Moss.  Curves were out and the flat chested, straight-hipped female was in.  Skinny girls rejoice!  There was no need to gain weight any longer.  But just as models began whittling down, the introduction of anorexia nervosa to the American public, began to raise questions of how thin was too thin.  As early as 1981, made for T.V. movies, such as the Best Little Girl in World, as well as the death of Karen Carpenter, who passed away in 1983, pushed anorexia into mainstream America, where it became a common topic of discussion.  The history of anorexia is long and complex, but blame for the continuation of the disease, critics contend, can be placed squarely on the fashion industry. [4]

But if we were to set aside our image of what is truly obese and what is truly anorexic, and focused on what is skinny and what is fat, what do we have?  We recognize the extremes, but do we know what a normal, skinny (not anorexic) female looks like?  Hell, do we even know what a normal overweight (not obese) female looks like? Well no, because defining either is as hard as watching sitcom reruns from the 1990s. We can point to the extremes, but when it comes to the middle, we grasp at straws.  What does it mean to have a normal female body?  In fact, I would actually ask, what does a healthy female body look like?  Is it having the BMI of 22 or is it the BMI of 27? What if the one with the BMI of 22 has a LDL cholesterol level (the bad fat) of 160-189 mg/dL (which, take it from me is bad, very bad) and she smokes and drinks on a regular basis, but the one who has the BMI of 27, who works out regularly and drinks minimally, was the picture of health?  Who would have the healthy female body?  Some might argue, well the one with BMI of 22, because she is obviously skinner, but is that how we should picture the healthy, beautiful, female body?  Does it have to be defined by weight, or should it be defined in a much more basic and biological way?  Shouldn’t it be about health instead of skinny vs. fat?  One would think that the medical profession would promote physiological health instead of health based on a scale.

Upton’s curves have gained her a lot of notoriety and very loyal fans.  Her response that she will eat what she wants received praise.  Skinny Gossip, on the other hand, has been explaining herself and reconfiguring her website to promote better ideas regarding weight and body image. (She took down her starving tips of the day. applause, applause.)  Lastly, the waif-like models, and the designers and modeling agencies that are hiring them, find themselves under fire, with European countries such as Italy banning the use of size 0 models.  Even teenagers are firing back.  Julia Bluhm led a petition drive that gathered 80,000 signatures that eventually led to Seventeen pledging to no longer use photoshop to alter images used in the magazine.  Even some female stars are embracing a more curvy appearance, which harkens back to the pinup girls of the 1940s and 1950s.

Yet, even with these changes, the discussion is still about fat vs. skinny.  The Huffington Post’s Style section asked the question whether stars looked better after gaining weight, posting before and after photos.  The article seemed to be surprised that some stars actually looked better after gaining weight.  Articles like this as well as calling Upton fat, again skews images and perceptions of what is skinny and what is overweight.  But let’s just say for one moment that Upton was indeed considered overweight (her BMI was at a 26, which I highly doubt, but work with me here).  Okay, if this were the case, the question should be, is she healthy?  What is her cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and blood glucose levels?  Does she drink and smoke?  How many times a week does she workout?  How’s her blood pressure?  Did she have a normal pap smear?  If these are all perfectly normal and acceptable, then so what if her BMI is 26?  So what if she has some rolls?  So what if she is “well-marbled?”  If she is healthy, then the scale is unnecessary, the BMI rendered useless, and the curves considered insignificant.

[1] Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, 2nd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2002) Sander Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008); and Hillel Schwartz, Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat (New York: The Free Press, 1986).

[2] Amanda Czerniawski, “The Evolution of the Height and Weight Table in the United States, 1836-1943,” Social Science History 31, no. 2 (Summer 2007).


[4] Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: A History of Anorexia Nervosa. 2nd ed. (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2000)

Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.