I feel strong. So why do I still want to be “skinny”?
Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare


I feel strong. So why do I still want to be “skinny”?

Marisa Bate is feeling healthy, but can’t escape her complicated relationship with *that* word

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By Marisa Bate on


Back in January, I wrote about how I had started going to the gym in order to unpack myself, like stored-away garden furniture coming out with the first signs of spring, with the aim to get fit and to get strong, to appreciate my body for what it can do, scrape off the rust and be healthier.

And, now, I’ve been going to the gym for three months (as well as developing the habit of doing backward lunges in the living room when I’m waiting for an email I’m too anxious to open). Over this time, I’ve switched from straight running to interval training; I use weights and, as a result, I feel fitter and I feel stronger. Sure, I’ve still got a long way to go (if you were driving through north Essex last weekend and saw someone pushing a bike up a steep hill, that was me), but I’ve noticed a change.

And so has my boyfriend. “Skinny!” he said the other morning as I got into the shower. Now, I’m not skinny, but he said it because he knew I wanted to hear it. And he knew I wanted to hear it because not only have I gone back to the gym to make my body move again, and feel the health benefits – mental and physical – but also, to my shame, because I have been muttering about wanting to be thinner. It feels like a massive betrayal to my own sisterly beliefs about women and their bodies but, when he said it, the word sent a tingle through my limbs and, as I stood in the shower, I almost didn’t dare look down at my thighs, because I wanted it to be true so much and couldn’t bear to see otherwise.

The fact that that word rains stardust over me like Cinderella transformed is the saddest, most troubling thing. “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” said Kate Moss. “You can never be too rich or too thin,” said Wallis Simpson. The Skinny Bitch Collective is a “global phenomenon” where women work out like Marines to get skinny as hell. For a long time, skinny has been associated with attraction, acceptability, fashion, class and a sense of self-discipline that will allow you to enter an elite world where society deems you more worthy and wonderful.

I grew up on a diet of 90s skinny white-girl culture: Rachel Green, Buffy, Carrie Bradshaw

And that’s why I am so upset that I feel that tingle of achievement or, maybe more accurately, some sort of acceptance when the word “skinny” is used in relation to my body (however true it may or may not be). Because, I recognise that this aspirational thinness has often been a way of making women small and silent – it’s been a way of dictating a woman’s shape via the demands of the male sexualised or infantilised gaze, with the added function of becoming a human showroom – flogging something, anything, everything. As Roxane Gay has written in the editor’s note for her recent series for Medium called Unruly Bodies, we live in “a world that is always trying to control, discipline, and punish women’s bodies”. And it’s also important to note that skinny women don’t have an easy ride, either – in short, a woman’s body is always “wrong”.

Thanks to writers like Gay and Lindy West, we’re in the middle of re-understanding and reclaiming women’s bodies – the autonomy, freedom and right to have the body you want and, most importantly, the right to be happy in and with the body you have. We’re seeing women reject the shackles that have trapped so many, celebrate their shape and redefine what beauty and sexiness and self-fulfilment look like. That’s all wonderful and something I support, but even as I feel my body getting stronger, fitter and running faster for longer on the treadmill, the word “skinny” can still act like a drug in my bloodstream.  

I grew up on a diet of 90s skinny white-girl culture: Rachel Green, Buffy, Carrie Bradshaw. Claire Danes as Juliet was portraying a nearly 14-year-old, yet was plastered on my bedroom wall as the woman I wanted to grow into. Watching Frasier for the first time last year, I marvel how thin Daphne is – and then marvel some more about the whole storyline (played as one long punchline) when she got fat and was sent away to a weight-loss camp – the only way they figured how to deal with the actor’s pregnancy. After I graduated, I thought I wanted to be a fashion writer. If you spent enough time on fashion blogs 10 years ago, skinny was still as fashionable as Kate Moss. I was enthralled by the fashion editors. So casual in their just-so jeans, so nonchalant about their collective, seemingly accidental thinness. Around that time, I was living in Amsterdam. A group of girlfriends came to stay and, one night in a club, I burst into drunken tears in front of a mirror. I was not skinny.

It’s hard to unpick the messages that you’ve been told about what makes a successful woman when they were drip-fed to you at such an impressionable age (and ones that are still alive and well – #thinspiration is all over the internet and a toxic minefield for young girls). It’s hard to truly delete the voice in your head that attaches guilt to bowls of pasta or Easter eggs. It’s hard not to stare in the mirror, convinced that you’re not skinny enough to wear that dress, when, for a lot of your adult life, skinniness has correlated to attraction, success, validation. And, while we are seeing slow changes in fashion and the media, I wonder if it’s too late to undo my internal dialogue that keeps telling me skinny equals success, even as my body unfolds with strength and health.


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Illustration: Eleanor Shakespeare
Tagged in:
Body image
Marisa Bate

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