A culture of comparison – The real life “Supersize versus Superskinny”

Have any of you seen that new ad on TV for a ‘miracle’ weight loss pill?

As always happens in such situations, it seemed to be on constantly until I decided to mention it in this article, and now I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

Anyway, I can’t remember the exact wording, but the ad boasted the usual promises of dropping dress sizes and toning tummies, by burning ‘bad’ calories while still holding onto the important nutrients in your diet.

To be honest I know nothing about diet pills and I’m not here to debate the effectiveness or pit falls of their use as an aid to weight loss.

What struck me the most about this ad were its subjects;

Two pretty, scarcely clothed young women.

One a slightly noticeably thinner girl, the other a ‘carrying a little bitty weight girl’, to quote my friend Calvin Harris.

(Okay we’re not really friends.)

(To tell you the truth I’m not even that into his music.)

The two girls seem to be getting on great until the thinner one decides to poke her companion in the tummy.

At which point the narrator says something along the lines of ‘You mightn’t think people notice, but they do. Do you want to be the fat one of your group of friends?’

Now this is where I got mad.

I am female, 1.72m tall and weigh just over 50 kg.

Both my parents have always been slim.

I have regular periods and normal thyroid, calcium and iron levels. I eat three meals a day, with the odd exception (I am a college student after all). I eat junk food like everyone else. I have mild anxiety that sometimes affects my appetite but I’ve become much better at finishing my food. I should probably eat more fruit and vegetables, but shouldn’t we all… I’m working on it.

I have a BMI of 17. I am considered medically underweight but this is the heaviest I have ever been in my life.

I recognise that I’m extremely lucky to be able to eat what I like and not put on weight. Being slightly too thin is considered a healthier alternative to being on the other side of the scale. It’s also generally more socially accepted and desirable.

However, I believe that the culture of comparison in which we live is doing favours for nobody, be they thin, normal sized, overweight or obese.

Take the popular Chanel 4 documentary series- Supersize vs Superskinny. In case you are unfamiliar with the show, it involves taking two extreme eaters – one very overweight and the other severely underweight – and swapping their lifestyles ‘in an attempt to change the way they view food and eating’.

I am all for healthy eating. Really, I am. I’m working on eating more fruit and vegetables.

But what does either party in this show have to gain from being subjected to the opposite extremity, one which is as equally harmful as their own?

A week of absolute torture, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, the viewing public get some cheap, mildly repulsive entertainment. That’s showbiz.

But showbiz doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and pitting people against in each other in terms of their weight is a very real problem that exists in all facets of our society.

I was first called anorexic when I was eight years old, by a slightly overweight girl in my class who used to sneer at the contents of my lunchbox everyday. I didn’t realise that that was why she called me names, or what they meant, all I knew was that it gave me a knot in my stomach that made it much more difficult to finish my sandwiches.

For as long as I can remember, adults, my aunties and extended family in particular, have had no qualms about commenting liberally on my size.

‘Do you feed that girl at all?’

‘There’s not a pick on you, is there?’

‘You’re never going to grow boobs if you don’t eat up.’

‘Ah you might fill out in a couple of years.’

Fast-forward to 2013. My little sister is about the same size as I was at her age.

She is thirteen years old and started secondary school for the first time in September. She looks like me, but with longer hair, rounder cheeks, a tint of green to her eyes and a cheekier smile. She likes animals and Friday movie nights with our dad.  She would love to be a vet one day, but is already worried that she won’t get the points she needs in her Leaving Cert.

Her eyes are bigger than her stomach. She has a monstrous appetite for Chinese food but usually has to finish her portion the following lunch-time, as she cannot physically fit anymore of it inside her when she’s full.

Just like mine used to, her lunchbox comes home half-full more often than not. The girls in her class make fun of her because it’s bright pink and is more likely to contain a raw carrot or cold pasta than a pack of Dairylea Lunchables.

Her school brought them to swimming lessons last year. All her friends (and bullies) were quick to pass comment on her size. ‘You’re so skinny!’ They don’t say it kindly.

One time, hurt by the constant remarks about her body, she responded to a particular girl who was bothering her, ‘Yeah, well you’re fat!’

‘That’s really mean!’ the girl replied.

In my sister’s defence, she didn’t intend it that way. I know her well. She might be technically a teenager now, but she’s still a child in reality. Societal standards of beauty or perfection don’t mean anything to her yet. Any exposure she has had to the adult world would be minimal enough. Neither my mother nor I have ever been on a diet. We don’t buy magazines, and she’s not allowed watch inappropriate television or films. So when she called her classmate fat, she meant it the same way someone would say tall or short, blonde or brunette. There was no malice of the usual sort attached to the word. She was merely returning a comment that was made about her own appearance in an equally snide way.

The problem is that there, in school, in the playground, in our neighbours’ homes, before even hitting puberty, both myself and my sister were exposed for the first time to the reality of women’s constant battle to gain a position of superiority over each other. And like most, we responded self-defensively, with our tail-lights on and barriers up to protect ourselves from getting hurt.

But get hurt we did. And continue to be.

As an adult woman now (or technically so anyway), I’ve been at far too many parties where I’ve felt uncomfortable around my friends because they’re too self-conscious about their weight to have fun. I’ve come downstairs, ready for a night out, only to have girls stare at the size of my waist in absolute disgust. My presence makes them feel bad about themselves. And that’s not right, mainly for them, but also for me.

I’ve done nothing other than what comes natural to me to fit the ideal that they try so hard, that some of them would half-kill themselves, to conform to. And a part of me hates myself for doing that to them, even if I have no control over it. Most girls are nice about my weight, wistful at the very most. But some vilify me for it. ‘Skinny bitch,’ they whisper. ‘Guys aren’t really into bones anyway,’ they tell themselves. ‘Real women have curves.’

I hate it. It’s horrible. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

For quite a while there, there was an idea floating around the media and western society in general that ‘to be beautiful is to be thin’. And the amount of damage that caused was undeniable.

Size 0 models flooding the catwalk is wrong. Putting girls who are an average weight in the ‘plus size’ model category is wrong. Lining the pages of magazines with articles about how to achieve the perfect bikini bum is wrong, as is photoshopping every flaw to perfection, and putting huge circles around pictures of celebrities carrying a tiny bit of cellulite on their thighs.

But in defence of the natural Size 6s everywhere, people tend to underestimate the amount of damage that can be caused by repeatedly singling out people, children and teenagers in particular, for their appearance, whether they are overweight or underweight like me and my sister. People who are thin aren’t necessarily any happier or any less sensitive than anybody else. But it’s considered acceptable to pass comments on them, because they have ‘no reason to be insecure’.

In reality, everyone has something (and usually more than one something) that they don’t like about themselves and their appearance. And just because somebody appears to fit into society’s image of perfection, doesn’t mean that they’re perfect. That they’re anywhere near perfect.

I empathise with anyone who feels like they have to strive to achieve some impossible standard of perfection in order to be considered attractive by the people around them. I know I’m probably very secure in myself compared to some people, but I have been suffering from teenage acne since I was fourteen and I’m only slowly coming to terms with the shape and size of my nose. I would love someday to reach the point where I’m comfortable and confident with my body, not because it’s thin, or imperfection-free, but because it’s mine. I would love if everyone reached that point. But it’s not going to happen if we continue to treat the issue of weight in the way we do now.

The emphasis shouldn’t be on who’s fat and who’s thin. It should be on helping people become healthier and happier with who they are and the gift of their bodies, whatever their size. Otherwise we will continue pitting women in different camps according to their metabolism, genes and percentage of body fat. And there will be absolute war.

Women like me will never be able to come out and say ‘you don’t have to lose any weight’ or ‘fat people shouldn’t be the butt end of jokes on TV all the time’ or ‘I wish I was a bit bigger so I could borrow more of my friends’ clothes’. Nobody will ever be able to understand that I’m not trying to shove my privileges down their throats, but actually care more than to assert some supposed aesthetic superiority over them.

I call for an end to the Supersize vs Superskinny debate. I call for an end to weight loss programs, and for the beginning of healthy lifestyle courses. I call for an end to categorising people like they are cuts of meat in the butcher shop.

Now let’s stop being ‘skinny girls’ or ‘fat girls’ or ‘carrying a little bitty weight girls’ and let’s go and dance to the song. We’re all just girls who want to have fun.


4 thoughts on “A culture of comparison – The real life “Supersize versus Superskinny”

  1. Vinny Grette says:

    Love your opinion piece – I’m with you! I hope my healthy eating pieces would meet with your approval. if you have a look and find ways they do not, maybe you would let me know?

  2. Sarah says:

    I call for an end to PATRIARCHY! Great article, it is often forgotten that the impossible standards of beauty women are expected to reach affect everyone on the scale, even those who most people would say have reached them. Advertising, magazines, TV, film, almost every bit of media we are exposed to has elements which are designed to make us feel insecure, make us feel like shit about ourselves so that we’ll buy more stuff in an effort to look better! Unfortunately women are socialised to compete against each other and instead of realising we’re all getting screwed over we tend to blame each other. Well done for talking openly about your experiences, we need more sisters sticking together 🙂

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