The ‘Thin Is In’ Narrative Is Especially Harmful to People of Color

Health Information Relationships

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.

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