What is Thin Really Worth?

I’m aware that our thin-no-matter-what culture has negative effects that go well beyond the fat community.  Still, some days I have moments when I’m struck with a blinding flash of the obvious about just how bad it can be.

I was at the gym doing leg presses with 470 pounds on the rack. While I was working two women walked up and decided to wait for the machine.  They were both thin, college age.  They are apparently bartenders (which is weird because this same thing came up last week in another conversation) and one of the women was telling the other that a customer was getting rowdy last night and she couldn’t find anyone to help her, and that she was often really scared when customers get drunk and disorderly because she could “barely lift a pint, let alone fend off a big guy”.

I finished my last set and hopped off.  As they came over she said “wow, that’s a lot of weight” (not in a complimentary way).   I asked them how much weight they wanted me to to rack.  She requested that I remove all of the weight.  As I cleared my side, she was still struggling with one of the 45lb plates. We finally cleared it and she said she wanted to rack 20lbs.  I picked up a 20 to put on one side and she said no, she meant 20 altogether, 10 on each side.

As I walked away she commented to her friend “See, that’s what I mean about not lifting heavy weights so you don’t bulk up”.

And that was the blinding flash of the obvious.  This woman was so afraid of looking like me, of being fat, that she was willing to sacrifice her sense of  personal safety and strength.

First let’s be clear:  I believe that nobody deserves violence, if someone attacks you it is their fault and whether or not you can protect yourself has nothing to do with the fact that they are 100% wrong. This is not a blame the victim situation.

What I am saying is that this woman has concerns for her physical safety every day at work, and from what she said it sounds like the only reason she is not addressing those concerns by becoming stronger might be the (completely irrational*) fear that she might look fat.

*Completely irrational:  She is small framed and just as no amount of dieting could make me look like her, no amount of weight lifting could make her look like me.  (Especially since I am a combination of a lot of muscle and a lot of fat). Even if she did steroids I think she would end up looking like a strong little dude and not at all like me.

It also made me wonder how much the popular photoshop removal of muscles (creating that oh-so-realistic “I’m Gumby Dammit” look) makes women afraid of having visible strength.

I have to say that one of my favorite things about being me is my strength.  I can always lift whatever I need and I’m never physically intimidated.  I have the calm awareness that I can handle myself in almost every physical situation.  I can open my own jars.  That’s not to say my experience will be anyone else’s experience or that every should be like me. It’s  just that to deny yourself the option because of an irrational fear of being fat seems like a shame to me.

42 thoughts on “What is Thin Really Worth?

  1. This post made me slightly uncomfortable. I understand the point you’re making – and you’re clear that you’re not blaming the victim – but realistically, even if she built up lots of muscle, a small-framed, young woman would still be at an enormous disadvantage against a big, drunk guy.

    So although she probably has lots of negative and unwarranted issues around fat, that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is asshole drunkards who intimidate women.

    1. I hear what you are saying, but I’m not sure that asshole drunkards are the only problem. This woman took a job in a bar – where she is guaranteed to face asshole drunkards. There’s blaming the victim and then there is reality and personal responsibility and I think it’s a thin line. She didn’t say that it wasn’t worth getting stronger because she would still be at a disadvantage. She said that didn’t want to be stronger so that she wouldn’t look like me. That’s an irrational fear and I think we need to examine the cultural aspects that create that opinion.

      1. Well, we don’t know why she took that job. Maybe it was the best choice she had available. That doesn’t mean she suddenly has a responsibility to be capable of taking on aggressive males in a fight – it’s her employer’s responsibility to provide a safe working environment. Also, as I understand your post, she wasn’t rejecting strength, she was rejecting bulky muscles.

        Which to me says she doesn’t understand very much about physiology – a thin framed person will just end up with very long, lean muscles, not a body builder’s physique.

        However, I realise that your fundamental point was that many women prefer to make unhealthy choices rather than look as though they’ve put on weight. That’s certainly a point worth exploring.

  2. I’ve always been big-boned, but when I was young I tried to starve myself down to 110 pounds, the small end of the weight spectrum for someone of my height. I didn’t take into account my frame. I did it but I felt like hell and my hair was brittle. I feel for this young woman in some ways but her rude attitude towards you makes me want to ask her why her mamma didn’t teach her any manners!

    1. She didn’t mean for me to hear her so I’m not sure if it’s rude so much as inattentive to surroundings! I too starved myself as thin as I could for a while and I too felt like crap. It just wasn’t worth it for me.

    2. I tried that to. I got close to that goal. I was told by doctors at the time that I should weigh 110. They couldn’t see that I had heavy bones and muscles. I got so thin that I stopped having periods, I was cold all the time and my stomach hurt all the time although I was still over that goal. I put on a few pounds and my health returned. My doctor couldn’t see that my health complaints were due to being too thin. The doctor only saw that I was heavier than what he recommended.

      Of course, now I’m much heavier.

      1. Hi Lillian,

        I will never understand doctors who praise people who are obviously making themselves sick. It’s just a sad state of affairs when this much common sense has gone away. I’m glad that you are better now!


  3. One thing that made me chuckle a little–I need one of those grippers to open my own jars. Working in the newspaper industry for several years with the repetitive motion of tossing those bundles gave me tendinitis. I can lift things that I could not when I was starved to skinniness (although the older I get the less my back likes it) but twisting motions can give me a sharp pain in the wrist that I prefer to avoid!

    1. Sorry – I didn’t mean to imply that those who can’t open jars aren’t strong! I had surgery for tendinitis when I was a teenager (clarinet player) so I absolutely feel your pain!


  4. I don’t get at ALL why women are so afraid of being physically strong. I’m a brown belt in Kung Fu and I run into women all the time who are terrified to hit hard – even when they’re hitting a pad. God forbid they tag you during sparring – they leap back, horrified, and whisper “Sorry!” Don’t be sorry, honey, it’s a martial art and you better practice hitting hard in case you ever, I dunno, have to use it?

    1. Seriously. When I took Krav Maga I always trained with the guys because the women I had in my class wouldn’t hit. We even had an amazing female instructor who was thin and strong and could kick your ass but she just couldn’t get them to kick. I would constantly hear her yelling from the girls side “THIS IS NOT CARDIO KICKBOXING”. It’s sad because most of them said they were there for self-defense. It’s just a shame to me. In other news, you are awesome for having a brown belt in Kung Fu.

    2. Women are not supposed to be strong, because they will be less feminine.

      That’s what the stereotype says. Most women prefer to continue feeding this stereotypes instead of being proud of themselves. Unfortunately, men also feed the stereotype and asume a strong woman is “lesbian” or a “bitch” (as if either was a bad thing).

  5. Two things here. I also understand what you are saying, but I honestly find nothing wrong with wanting to maintain a certain physique. Maybe you are ok with looking “bulky” but I think other people don’t want to and they shouldn’t be questioned or criticized for it. It’s all just personal preference.

    Secondly, I definitely don’t believe that she is sacrificing her safety that way. You don’t necessarily have to be muscular to be able to defend yourself. You can aquire different fighting skills for that too that don’t require “bulking up” although I think it can help in many situations.

    1. When people use someone as a “cautionary tale” of what they don’t want to look like, it’s not only incredibly rude, but it’s bigoted as well. It’s not even about personal preference, it’s about body loathing.

      What would be the reaction if you overheard someone say: “I don’t want to go out in the sun, I don’t want to look like I’m black.”?

      1. The way she quotes the girl at the gym and the quote you used about not wanting to look black I see as two totally different ideas. If she would have said, “I don’t want to bulk uo because I don’t want to look fat (or like I have man arms)” would be the equivalent, but she didn’t say that unless you are making assumptions and taking the quote out of context.

      2. No they’re not. She’s using Ragen’s body as a cautionary tale of how she doesn’t want to look. That is unacceptable behaviour.

        There is a big difference between saying one doesn’t want to lift heavy weights because “They change the shape of my body.” to referring to another person’s body and saying “See, that’s what I mean about not lifting heavy weights so you don’t bulk up”.

    2. Hi Ashley,

      On wanting to maintain a certain physique:

      I intended to cover that when I said “That’s not to say my experience will be anyone else’s experience or that every should be like me.”

      It’s not that I feel that people should look a certain way, but I do feel that we should examine the aspects of our culture that make so many women feel that a thin body without visible musculature is the most desirable.

      Also, she wasn’t scared of looking strong, she was scared of looking fat which was an irrational fear. I don’t look muscular (although I am) I look fat and so telling her friend that she would look like me if she lifted heavy weights is an irrational fear that I think bears examining.


      1. But according to your quotes, she didn’t say or even insinuate that she was afraid of looking fat. For me personally, I like to have a slightly toned look to my body that gives it somewhat of a shape, but not after a certain point…and that in no way means I am afraid of looking fat.

  6. I personally believe that it’s all about “femininity” more than anything else. Women have been convinced for so long that to be feminine one must be delicate, demure, dainty. That being strong and capable is “butch” and unfeminine.

    Regardless of body shape and/or size, many women buy into the misogyny of believing that strength and capability detracts from their femininity. And since that is also tied up in body image, and a fat or muscular body is often considered unfeminine, it is a double whammy.

    1. ::nodnod:: That’s what I see here, too – it’s not so much a fear of fat per se (though that’s one of the manifestations) but about a fear of largeness, undaintiness, being insufficiently feminine, and ::gasp:: taking up space.


      1. I agree. I was in a dance class where we were assigned to take up as much space as possible with improvised movements. The men took right to it but the women really struggled, we ended up spending the class sitting on the floor talking about that – really interested cultural phenomenon.

    2. To be clear, I don’t believe that she intended for me to overhear her. I agree with you on the idea of femininity because dainty without visible musculature. It seems like there is a prevailing belief that men don’t want women who can physically take care of themselves.

      1. Whether or not she intended you to overhear, it’s still unacceptable to comment on another person’s body, or to use that body as a cautionary tale. Even if no-one else heard it but her friend, it’s a shitty attitude to think that it’s acceptable to speak like that.

        If you haven’t read it already, this post over on Spilt Milk is an excellent one responding to others attitudes towards fat bodies:


  7. Another brilliant post! I think she needs brain training before strength training! Oh my goodness, what a shame that this woman doesn’t take her safety seriously. I don’t think I could deal with that feeling. I also feel sorry for her, she has so bought into the only way to be is thin mentality, that she can’t think her way out of it!

    1. Hey Lauren,

      Glad that you liked the post. I do think it’s a shame that an irrational fear of being fat could drive someone to choose thin over safe, which is what it sounds like is happening here. And I agree with you, no matter what size I was I think I would do whatever it took to feel physically safe.


  8. The photo on the left is so much hotter, sexier, healthier, more fabulous than the one on the right. Embrace those curves girlfriend!!!

  9. I thought this post was so thorough that surely there would be nothing but supportive comments. Guess not.

    I’m a textbook example of an ectomorph and wasn’t at all offended by what you said. I’m always aware of my physiological disadvantages. I don’t work out very much, but it’s not because I’m afraid of changing my body type (which would probably take years of daily training). It’s because 1) I really don’t have the time and 2) I’m a little uncomfortable going to a gym being as scrawny as I am. But mostly it’s #1. My solution? I try to plan ahead when going out and I always carry a knife.

    I know it isn’t the perfect system, but it’s the best I can do for now, which I think is more than you could say for this girl. She is knowingly putting herself at a disadvantage for vanity. It’s not just irrational but impractical. She’s probably expending more time and energy ensuring that she doesn’t gain any muscle than if she were just exercising normally.

    This girl is an insult to any small-framed woman who is actually concerned for her safety and can’t do much to tip the scales in her favor, physically speaking. I see no reason to defend her vain stupidity as a “personal preference.”

    1. “knowingly putting herself at a disadvantage for vanity” and “an insult to any small-framed woman who is actually concerned for her safety” sounds an awful lot like “she got what she asked for” and “she shouldn’t have gone out dressed like that”.

      1. No, it doesn’t. I’ve lived around college campuses since high school, meaning I’ve heard every single piece of misogynistic “anti-rape advice” out there, and ended up in a few less-than-desirable situations myself. Fault never lies with the victim; however, I’m still going to do everything I can to increase my chances of defending myself, because honestly, why wouldn’t I? The other options are to put your safety in other people’s hands or never leave your house.

        If she is working hard to keep her muscle mass at a minimum while continuing to work in a profession that involves rowdy and possibly hostile customers, then I think she should reconsider her priorities. The bar isn’t going to assign her security. They’re going to hire another bartender.

        None of that suggests that I have a “she got what she asked for” mentality. I would never blame this girl if she were attacked, but I will call her out for placing her appearance before her ability to defend herself, especially when she’s expending extra energy to decrease the latter.

        My small-framed woman comment was unclear and poorly worded. I’ve had to deal with the realistic fear of abduction and mugging my entire life (as have many of my wiry male friends, but the topic was women). I am incapable of building muscle and I don’t have time to find escorts everywhere I go. My disadvantage is often painfully obvious, so it’s very frustrating when I see someone willingly suppressing their own strength. I didn’t mean that women should follow “anti-rape” steps or be paranoid just because of their gender. You shouldn’t have to consider the possibility of assault, but it does happen, and doing what you can to protect yourself doesn’t affect anyone’s status as a victim.

  10. Wow. Just… wow….

    I can’t believe our society has created such fear around looking and being fat that someone would WILLINGLY put their own saftey on the line lest they (god forbid) “bulk up.”

    Sure even a strong small woman would struggle against a large guy, but her chances of getting away are a lot higher if she has a little “oomph” behind it. I’m sick of this bullshit victim/ princess mentality that a lot of women have. We should not need to be rescued from all the big scarry stuff. (Let me make it clear that I am NOT blaming the victims here, as someone who’s been through that horror I know how important it is to have the ability to fight back, something I didn’t have at the time because it wasn’t something “girls did.”)

  11. I know this isn’t entirely the point of the post, but what muscles does one work to open a jar?

    Also, she can do whatever she wants with her body, I know, but the part that struck me was how much she judged you for being strong. It reminds me strongly of my middle school years where I was stronger than everyone in my gym class because of carrying all my books around and it being middle school and therefore both sexes were pretty much physically equal. The nicknames I got from that were not a party.

  12. Heh, let me guess, she probably “just wants to look toned”–as if being “toned” wasn’t about MUSCLES. I lift weights that are appropriate for my strength and it kills me when I hear women say that they don’t lift, or lift well beneath their capabilities, because they don’t want to “look bulky,” as if lifting 15-pound dumbbells will do that. I just interviewed a professional female bodybuilder and she’s very clear on how it’s impossible to look that way unless you’re taking “certain supplements,” which non-bodybuilders wouldn’t do.

    I mean, health fallacies are rife in the gym, but this seems to be one that doesn’t change regardless of what all the damn magazines say.

  13. I used to pose for art classes and always got complimented on my broad shoulders. While I did take it as a compliment I also remember feeling a bit uncomfortable with my stocky build in a society that wants women to be fine-boned, feminine, and have grapefruit-sized breasts on a body with hips like an eight year old boy.

    1. That’s the first description of the feminine “ideal” that I’ve ever genuinely laughed at. 🙂 I wish more people would realize that you can show the absurdity of this image (the problem of simultaneous sexual maturity and immaturity) without targeting and insulting people who might actually have some of those characteristics.

  14. Sorry if my last comment implied that I don’t think of women of all sizes as feminine. I was trying to impart that this society only tends to think of the tiny, frail, dainty women as feminine.

  15. My mother, who has always been thin, married my father who comes from a long line of big women. My mom is often fond of saying that she gave birth to us so she could have two sets of strong arms and backs around the house to help her.

    Seriously, being strong has always been such a big part of my identity, I can’t imagine being so weak I couldn’t lift a stein. All I can think is how terrifying simply walking down the street might be. *shudders*

  16. Wow. I’m posting a blog post about this. I was thinking this exact thing last night! You should go to my site and check out what I’m posting about this- you are a REAL inspiration! I love your blog and your message.

  17. There are a lot of assumptions being made about this girl, on the basis of not very much evidence. OK, we know she’s rude and we know she can’t lift heavy weights. That’s it. That’s all we know.

    Just because she can’t lift heavy weights doesn’t mean she’s choosing not to be strong, or unconcerned for her safety or any of the above. All sorts of things could be going on, including it not occurring to her that building up muscle could be the key to solving her work problem (though in reality, it doesn’t matter how much muscle she has, she still probably wouldn’t be capable of taking on drunk men). For all any of us know, she goes straight from the gym to the shooting range, where she’s a champion sharp shooter that can drop a grown man at ten paces.

    Or maybe she’s a young girl working in an unsafe environment and what she needs isn’t a change of attitude, but better working conditions.

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