Calling someone 'horrific' for having a tiny waist is just as dangerous as 'fat shaming'
Lily James has just been thin-shamed. The Cinderella actress has faced days of criticism about her ‘tiny waist’ being ‘horrific’, ‘bad for young viewers’ body image’ and ‘telling young girls they look prettier anorexic.’
The backlash to a publicity picture that showed James wearing a princess dress, complete with corset, promoted her to speak up.
“On one hand its upsetting and one the other hand it’s just boring," she said. "I mean, why do women always get pointed at for their bodies?
“This whole thing happened and I’m constantly having to justify myself. I’m very healthy and I always have been.”
The issue here isn’t really whether James decided to diet, or not to fit into the costume. It’s the fact that she’s been brutally criticised for the way she looks.
Just as large women are regularly ‘fat-shamed’ for their appearance, James is being ‘thin-shamed’.
“It’s all part and parcel of the same thing, this obsession with women’s appearance,” explains Nicky Hutchinson, a body image consultant who works with British schools.
“The idea of ‘skinny bitches’ and so on – it’s part of this horrible culture towards women.”
In other words, it's all part of the same experience of body-shaming, where women are judged on their size and weight. Whether it's fat-shaming or thin-shaming, it all comes from the same place.
“Women can’t fit into a spectrum of body shapes,” explains Sarah Pedersen, communications professor at Robert Gordon University.
“There’s a very narrow type of body that women are allowed, or supposed to have. Anything else is seen as wrong.”
But while fat-shaming gets most of the publicity, thin-shaming can be just as hurtful. It’s a problem that affects many women on a daily basis.
Celebrities are often the victims.
Keira Knightley, Taylor Swift and Millie Mackintosh have all been thin-shamed in the past. And, this week, The Veronica’s Jessica Origliasso was criticised for looking 'sick' and ‘encouraging’ eating disorders.
She retorted, saying: “I'll never be Kim Kardashian".
But thin-shaming affects ordinary women, too.
In this era of social media, any woman uploading a photograph online has the potential to be body-shamed. Take the recent hashtag #YouDidNotEatThat which shows thin women pictured with large amounts of unhealthy food, suggesting there’s no way they actually ate what's in front of them.
In day-to-day life, thin women tell me that they're often on the receiving end of comments such as: “just eat the sandwich”; “you’re all skin and bones”; and “do you even eat?”
It’s a myth that thin women have it easy,” says Pedersen. “Thin women are judged and seen as being slavish victims, who are taken in by the media and have self-hatred of themselves. While fat women are judged for not being in control, thin women are judged for trying to live up to unhealthy and artificial norms. They’re victimised.”
This is clearly not appropriate behaviour. People shouldn’t jump to conclusions about a woman’s life just from looking at her body and it’s dangerous to do so.
But what about a celebrity who could be accused of promoting unhealthy body ideals to children? Where do you draw the line between thin-shaming and calling out bad marketing?
“I think it’s important to call out when things are particularly aimed at young people – like models and mannequins,” says Hutchinson.
“Those are manipulative and about image and looks, but they’re different to an actress doing her job, or a poor news presenter.”
Pedersen agrees it’s about finding a balance.
“On both ends of the spectrum there are problems for health. But [James] doesn’t look like those emaciated models we saw in the 90s. She’s not set out to be ‘thinspirational’ – she’s saying this is what I am and this is just the way the costume made me look.” If anything, what could be criticised is the corseted costume itself, or Disney’s decision to make James wear it.
Because, as Mary George of national eating disorders charity Beat says: “Corsetry, costumes and photo angles can all contribute to what is perceived as unreal.
“James is justifiably upset at these critical personal comments. Why is it that - in a world where we are rightly mindful of colour creed and sexuality - it is still thought acceptable to criticise someone’s shape and size?”
This is what it comes down to. As much as people may want to promote healthy body ideals (and wish Disney would stop portraying such unattainable princesses), the answer does not lie in shaming the actress doing her job.
Nor does it lie in trying to defend James by saying she “eats like a boy” as her co-star Richard Madden did.
Perpetuating the gender stereotypes that say boys can eat what they want, while girls should eat less, is not helpful.
Instead, we should stop discussing women’s bodies and eating habits, full stop.
What James eats is her business, and making it anything more than that is dangerous.
As George adds: “We know the difference it would make to vulnerable young people if no one felt bullied or under extra pressure just because of how they look. And that includes celebrities.”