At a recent meeting I sat behind a woman who I thought might be my former dance TA. They had the same hair and were both extremely thin, the kind of thin that I’ve seen many people confidently ascribe to an eating disorder right before they come smack up against our “no assumptions about others’ bodies, ever” policy. Of course I realized immediately that it probably wasn’t her (it was a health policy-related meeting and she’s in human rights law, for starters), but the fact that I thought it was just based on hair and frame, when I would not think that about anyone with a less end-of-the-bell-curve body type, got me thinking. This is what I thought:
- Half of all people are thinner than average, by definition. (ETA: As volcanista pointed out, ROUGHLY half. I forgot my seventh-grade math — average is not median.) Of those, many are what you’d describe as “thin,” “quite thin,” etc.
- Some of these people eat less than average, for various reasons. Many eat an average or more than an average amount. Some eat a lot.
- Some of these people are healthy. Some are ill or disabled or have weak constitutions or fall at any other spot on the continuum of human health.
- Of these thin people, only a tiny number are what you might describe as “skinny” (or some more judgmental term), falling in the “underweight” category which is also associated with higher mortality rates (at least in part because some illnesses cause drastic weight loss, not the other way around).
- Some of these people are, in fact, in ill health. Some are just small. They, too, exist at all points on the spectrum of human health.
- Of these, a tiny tiny number have eating disorders. (Incidence of officially diagnosed anorexia nervosa, which includes very low body weight, is only a fraction of a percent.) But certainly not all. Many eat an average or larger amount just like less-thin thin people. And not everyone with eating disorders falls into this category.
All copacetic so far, right? Of course I know perfectly well from comment-wrangling that there are plenty of people who see a thin woman and immediately sneer that she must be anorexic. But I can’t imagine a reasonable person seriously disagreeing with the thought process above. It might not mesh with their snap judgments, but once it’s laid out it starts looking like common sense. (Especially since the knee-jerk anorexia assumption is often less about truly believing someone is sick, and more about backlashy defensiveness.) I certainly can’t imagine someone claiming that this line of thinking was delusional, or that anyone espousing it must be making excuses for the thin or eating disordered or promoting anorexic behaviors. I can’t imagine anyone reading those bullet points and wishing the person who wrote them would experience violence or death.
But how many people do you know who would be nodding through all of the above, but then balk or even become enraged at the idea that natural human variation might continue on up the scale? Some people are fatter than average, some are quite fat, and a very tiny number are what people think of as “morbidly obese” (which is significantly fatter than what actually qualifies). Some of these people eat a lot, some have problems with binge eating, some are in ill health, but many are not — the variations in food intake and health and disordered eating are mainly due to the fact that different people are different people (not to mention the fact that some illnesses cause or have common cause with fat). And not everyone ill is fat, nor is every big eater or even every binge eater.
Why can the general public accept (and even argue strenuously) that a very thin woman might not be anorexic, but the idea that a fat person might not be a binge eater is considered not only absurd but offensive?