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On Thinness and Fatphobia: Our Tumultuous Relationship with Bodies

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Is thin... back in?

If you're a frequent user of social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, you may have been led to think so. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Mindy Kaling have recently debuted much slimmer physiques, and some speculate it's due to the help of a diabetes drug--Ozempic.

How does our collective healing from these unattainable body norms interact with the ever-changing body image landscape? How does “thin is back in” affect women and femmes today? In this episode, Emma discovers how fatphobia and body image intersect with racism, classism and our obsession with self.

But we can’t talk about body image without talking about the history of the ideal body, intersectionality and the media. And that’s where University of Denver professors Erin Harrop and Rachael Liberman come in.

Show Notes:

Rachael Liberman is a Teaching Associate Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies. She teaches courses such as Introduction to Media & Culture; Media, Power & Sexualization; and Identity, Power & Media Culture. Her teaching and research interests operate at the intersections of digital media culture, sexual subjectivity and critical theory. Her scholarship centers on the critical exploration of sexuality and digital media culture; more specifically, issues related to sexual subjectivity, the pornography industry, and contemporary iterations of feminist movement. Since then, her research has shifted to a broader inquiry into pornography literacy, as well as questions about commodity feminism and other developments within feminist media studies.

Erin Harrop, LICSW, PhD, is an assistant professor at University of Denver and a licensed medical social worker. Erin’s research focuses on eating disorders, weight stigma, adolescent health behaviors, and patient-provider communication. Their dissertation featured an arts-based mixed-methods longitudinal study of individuals with atypical anorexia. They approach their research and clinical work from an intersectional social-justice-informed, fat liberation, and Health at Every Size® lens. Erin’s clinical work also involves trainings at the provider level, introducing interprofessional clinicians to weight-inclusive practices that honor patients’ unique intersecting identities.

More Information:

"Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia" by Sabrina Strings

"The past, present, and future of body image in America" by Anna North

"Will the Ozempic Era Change How We Think About Being Fat and Being Thin?" by Jia Tolentino

"Ozempic For Weight Loss: Risks, Side Effects And More" by Alyssa Northrop

"Ozempic's weight loss side effect can make it harder to find for people with diabetes" by Stacey Vanek Smith


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Emma Atkinson (VO):

Thin is back in.

How does that sentence make you feel? Are you disgusted? Excited? Exhausted?

However you react to the idea, there’s no question that the ideal body portrayed in the media is evolving once again.

Let’s look at the Kardashian family. Last spring, Kim reportedly lost more than 20 pounds in the span of just a few weeks to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s famous dress before attending the Met Gala. And whether or not you believe that the sisters have enhanced their figures with implants—and removed them—there’s no denying that Kim and Khloe are sporting much slimmer figures these days.

And Ozempic—oh, Ozempic. During the Oscars earlier this year, many viewers were focused more on which celebrities had lost weight—and how much they’d lost—rather than the awards themselves. Ozempic is a diabetes drug that often causes significant weight loss, and it’s reportedly been making its way around Hollywood, where social media gossips obsess around sniffing out who’s been trying it.

Why do we even care? What is the big deal? Aren’t we more evolved, more focused on a healthier, more realistic version of body ideals than we were 25 to 30 years ago, when “heroin chic” and fad diets permeated runways, magazines, movies and the silver screen?

On TikTok, some Millennial and Gen Z users categorized their mothers as “almond moms”—meaning that, as children, they were acutely aware of the fact that their moms didn’t eat many real meals, often substituting a handful of almonds or the like for lunch or dinner. Almond moms were obsessed with weight and body image and often passed along unhealthy body ideals and eating habits to their children, particularly their daughters. And it’s being talked about.

But how does our collective healing from these unattainable body norms interact with the ever-changing body image landscape? How does “thin is back in” affect women and femmes today?

We can’t talk about body image without talking about the history of the ideal body, intersectionality and the media. And that’s where University of Denver professors Erin Harrop and Rachael Liberman come in.

Harrop is an assistant social work professor who studies the intersection of eating disorders and weight stigma. Harrop says the idea of thinness as a body ideal came about long ago.

Erin Harrop:

So eating disorders have been around for centuries, I'll start by saying that. So we have anorexia nervosa, which is one of—I think it's the first eating disorder that was kind of codified as an illness or disease, I believe, if I'm remembering my history correctly, that it came about at the end of the 1800s. And then even prior to that we saw instances of ‘miracle maids.’

So this is back in the medieval times, people, especially in the Catholic faith, and I don't know if I would call it like a rash or an epidemic, but it was kind of a group, a time period when it was very well, I don't know how common but it was an occurrence for people to say that ‘I am devoted to God, I am surviving on holiness, I do not need to eat, I can fast all the time.’ And there's this whole experience of what they called ‘miracle maids:’ people that appeared to survive on very little, who had kind of frail frames, who claimed to survive on the word of God.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Harrop says this early CONVERGENCE of religion and body image is really where the idea of thinness as a moral issue began. AKA, thin equals good and right and holy, and fat equals laziness, immorality or even sin.

Of course, during this time, there were some parts of the world where a plumper figure meant you were richer and therefore more successful, but thinness was beginning to have real political meaning.

And even then, even when women—like in the case of the Venus de Milo—were portrayed as having curvy hips and fuller tummies, truly larger body types weren’t the focus of beauty in art.

Why? Well, the answer, like many things, is unfortunately and inextricably tied to racism.

Erin Harrop:

I will say that the intersection of religion with race is when we really started to see thinness really being weaponized in a more racial way. And Dr. Sabrina Strings, in her book, “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia,” really gets into how racism, in combination with the church, kind of weaponized body size into this dualism of thin, good, fat, bad.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

In a 2021 Vox article, Dr. Sabrina Strings outlined how Europeans wanted more ways, other than simply skin tone, to differentiate themselves from the people whose countries they were colonizing—so they turned to body size.

Strings told Vox that the French and English in particular said that European people had more, quote, “self control,” whereas Black people couldn’t help but give in to calorie-laden edible temptations.

She said, quote, “This began the whole idea that Black people, as a race, were prone to what was considered a low form of corpulence that should be avoided.”

Enter fatphobia, defined by the Boston Medical Center as “the implicit and explicit bias of overweight individuals that is rooted in a sense of blame and presumed moral failing.”

Fatphobia as we know it today is borne of not only racism, but classism, Harrop says.

Erin Harrop:

I would say it comes from this systematic valuing of some bodies as good and some as bad, which is knit together with things like racism, and colorism and weight-ism. I took that big pause, because it's just very, very deeply entrenched in the body ideals that we have about thinness.

If you read, I know, I've mentioned Dr. Sabrina's String’s work. She does such a good job of documenting how society went from seeing larger forms as a sign of wealth and social status to seeing larger forms as a sign of laziness, of lack of self-control, of moral bankruptcy, of not caring about yourself. And now it's even a symbol of poverty.

And so, so it, there's intersections with class, there's intersections with race, there's intersections with faith, then I bring that up, because when we started seeing this shift towards this preference, in lower weight bodies, there was it was really when we started getting to a place where now the elite, the elite in society, instead of just needing to be well fed. Now, they could also be well fed and pay attention to this certain type of physique. And it was a way of differentiating people based on race and skin color, and kind of phenotypic differences that we see across groups of people.

So it was a way for the kind of European white ruling class to establish themselves as upper class and kind of justify it in an embodied way and to kind of contrast their bodies, with the bodies of other people and other groups of people. So to talk about weight stigma and fat phobia, without talking about that, we're just missing half of the conversation. So what's at the root? what's at the root is classism, racism and the moralization of food and bodies, whether that's through cultural norms or religion or faith practices.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Fatphobia really hit a peak in the late 1900s, during what Harrop calls the “fat-free ‘90s.”

Erin Harrop:

That’s also when we saw magazines kind of shift to this more ‘heroin chic’ model. So Kate Moss made a big splash when she came out, because she was just very known for how very thin her body was. And that was kind of perpetuated then, in the early 2000s.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Then, in the late aughts and 2010s, the ideal shifted again. “Strong is the new skinny” was the new calling card, this time for a different kind of thinness.

Erin Harrop:

And then that kind of shifted to a curvy fit model, where now we wanted women and femmes to be curvy in all the quote, right places, and muscular and fit.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

And throughout it all, fatphobia persisted. And it has real, wide-ranging consequences for the people who experience and live with it.

Erin Harrop:

This is a podcast, so you won't see my body, but I'm somebody who is what I consider in the kind of mid-fat range. I don't know if you've talked a lot about the fat spectrum, so I'll do just a super brief intro. But the idea behind the fat spectrum is that fatness doesn't just look one way, so people present in larger bodies, and they look a whole bunch of different ways. And they experience different degrees of discrimination based on how fat their body is, how large their body is, and how that fat is distributed on their body.

And one of the ideas behind fatphobia is that larger bodies in society experience discrimination, they experience stigma, they experience differential access to resources and places. So it is harder for a fatter person to travel, it's harder for them to get clothing. They don't experience protections under the law, unless you live in one of the 11 cities that has protections for fat people, or two states that has protections for fat people.

People who are fat are paid less than people who are thin with the same job. They're less supported in education. They encounter bullying from peers, from family members from physicians, they get less quality access to health care, their doctors spend less time on them, nurses are less likely to touch them. They are legally allowed to be charged higher in insurance premiums for the same care because their body is larger. And they are outright denied many forms of medical care, including things like gender affirmation, surgery, reproductive care, orthopedic surgeries, migraine medications, all of these are things that are kind of gate-kept by a person’s size.

And so when we're talking about fatphobia, I'm talking about that whole thing. I'm talking about society, employment, education, peer relationships, family relationships, medicine, like, the whole gamut. And within that, people in the fattest bodies experienced the most barriers and the fewest resources and the least supports.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

And when we talk about fat people, we often talk about health. And that’s a nuanced and highly debated conversation.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio):

I think there is that tension between people who say, ‘But wait, people who are heavier ,people with higher weights, do experience’—I don't want to say something incorrect—‘do experience these different medical complications, right?’ And they say, ‘Why not? Why not recommend to lose weight as part of the treatment of those problems?’

Erin Harrop:

Weight as a science—that is so much more complex and nuanced than the very simple version that we get from the media, this whole idea that your weight is determined by your calories in, calories out. And if you want to lose weight, just increase the amount of exercise you do and decrease what you eat, right? It's a much more complicated mechanism. And we know that beyond a doubt, and while there are some medical conditions that are associated with increased weight, often we interpret that as causal, that the weight caused that. Most of the time, what we're saying is that high weight and this condition, co-occur at higher rates together, and it might not be causal. And sometimes there's both feedback loops, right? Like it might contribute to a higher weight, and then lead to an increase in the health condition, and so we can have feedback loops.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

DU professor of media studies Rachael Liberman studies how the media deals with gender and sexuality—and how bodies are portrayed is a big part of that. She says there’s a name for our obsession with weight and body image.

Rachael Liberman:

There's a term—self objectification—that is used, that describes the ways that we, as humans begin to judge ourselves. We look in the mirror and we objectify the self, based on the messages that we receive in culture. So you look in the mirror, and instead of looking at yourself in ways that you've kind of developed, you're actually looking in the mirror, and surveilling the self and judging yourself based on messages that you've received from popular culture. Like, ‘Okay, so I don't have a big enough butt, or my hips are not narrow enough for my sake,’ it's the messages you're receiving from popular culture.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio):

Knee jerk reaction, first thing that comes to mind—what is the first thing that comes to mind when I say to you ‘Thin is back in’?

Rachael Liberman:

The first thing I think about when you say, ‘Thin is back in,’ is that—my knee jerk reaction is that it is just not attainable. I think that it is such an illusion. It is not afforded to everyone. Our bodies are not made for aligning with whatever body trend is projected by celebrity culture in a given decade. I’m definitely not excited about it. I mean, when I think ‘thin is back in,’ it's like, oh, here we go again.

It’s also boring. You know, I think that bodies are really beautiful and amazing when they're not just super thin. At the same time, if someone is thin in their body, that's beautiful, too. I'm just saying—the relentless attempt to look a certain way, in order to align with the expectations of popular culture or celebrity culture is, I thought that we were moving past that. I really did.

And so when we see the pendulum moving back, or kind of attempting to in this way, I'm wondering if people will look at this and laugh and say, ‘Oh, this is a desperate attempt by celebrities to be thin.’ Because there's been a lot of work that's been done, in different movements, in the ways that people are waking up to kind of hegemonic beauty norms, discourses on social media, there's been some movement away from that. So, I wonder if there will be a general pushback.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

This pushback Liberman is talking about could come from the communities that have been formed around body positivity, body neutrality and body acceptance. Social media is often credited with bringing together groups of people who are actively fighting against the idea that people should tell other people how to look.

But social media is also a place where the body ideals script is written—and is being rewritten once again. This is especially true with the heavy influence  of celebrities on platforms we use every day—and the story being told about weight-loss drugs like Ozempic.

Think back to the absolute media circus surrounding Kim Kardashian’s fitting into Marilyn Monroe’s dress.

Rachael Liberman:

Once this moment with the Marilyn Monroe dress happened, we also had eyes on Khloe Kardashian, who has been working out and has slimmed down a lot. This is where you start to see questions around the thin ideal really coming back in a major way in popular culture, and then with Ozempic—this discussion has really opened up the ways that people will do almost anything, like take diabetes medication that they don't need. It's also for obesity, right, this medication is prescribed to people.

But there is a frenzy over not only who was taking Ozempic, but ‘Should I? So I can get those pounds off in order to embody a size that is really not natural for many people?’

I have to say, I'm not surprised. I knew that at some points the Kardashians would kind of move away—I knew at a certain point that they would switch up in terms of bodies, right, because of the role they play, the role they inhabit in popular culture as, quote, trendsetters. There’s been a moment with them, and I think this is just in general, where they've kind of hit a saturation point in terms of influencing. And it makes sense that there would be a pivot to something new, in order to kind of regain some notoriety. So now they're kind of setting the dial to the thin ideal, and we're starting to see more and more celebrities talk about Ozempic, and people are confessing their use of Ozempic. There's these witch trials happening as well. There's a lot unfolding with it right now, so it's interesting to watch.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio):

The word I would use to describe it—it's almost like a frenzy. It's a frenzy of people, you know, all these celebrities. Anytime anyone loses weight, now, I look in the comment section. Not for anyone, but any celebrity or major figure, I look in the comment section on Instagram, and there are people who say, ‘Oh, you look great and amazing. I love your dress.’ And then there are tons of people who say, ‘How does it feel to be taking this drug away from people who need it?’ Or ‘How's the Ozempic taste?’ I mean, obviously you don’t ingest [Ozempic], but you know what I mean? It feels like a frenzy of attention that has been given to, as you said, the pendulum swinging back the other way.

Rachael Liberman:

Some of those comments reveal the anxieties that continue to happen around bodies, and in particular, the shape of bodies, acceptance of bodies. We are very much judged by our bodies, and it is very gendered, racist, classist, ableist. The body that we inhabit—there are so many meanings mapped onto our bodies, and we spend a lot of time navigating this, navigating power structures.

All of this infighting—we end up forgetting that what really needs to happen is we need to push back on the overall structure that is limiting what is beautiful, limiting what bodies can look like, right? I haven't seen any research or anything come out about the comments and the discourse right now, but what it's really revealing is that there are anxieties always beneath the surface when it comes to bodies. And in particular, when people are achieving thinness.

I don't know if recently you saw, but Gwyneth Paltrow had a—there's a podcast, and she was talking about, ‘I ate bone broth for lunch.’ And people came at her like, ‘Oh, she's promoting anorexia and she's not eating and she's too skinny.’ And later on, she came out and said, ‘Well, I have long COVID and I'm working with a doctor, and this is what I have to eat to stay well.’

There is a lot of surveillance around what other people are doing with their bodies; it's like state-level policing all the way down to beauty. So, bodies are very much a site of tension; also, beauty.

Emma Atkinson (interview audio):

Something I’ve really been considering is, if we look at this as a pendulum, and it's swinging back the other way, toward thinness—toward extreme thinness—how can it be different this time around? How is it different this time around? What can people do? What can women do, especially to fight, as you said, the structure?

Rachael Liberman:

I think that I remain optimistic that this will be hopefully something that just kind of happens, but is not completely normalized, because there’s other momentum in terms of wellness in bodies that competes with the thin ideal.

And the beauty of social media, for all of its faults, is that it offers these alternative pathways and discourses and support around radically loving your body—not accepting—but loving the body as it is. And as that momentum continues, you can look at Ozempic and this thin ideal as fads, as a problem, versus it being an aspiration, or inspirational.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Thanks again to our guests, University of Denver professors Erin Harrop and Rachael Liberman. For more information on their work and the sources used in this episode, check out our show notes at If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing, liking and reviewing the podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Tamara Chapman is our managing editor. Debora Rocha is our production assistant. James Swearingen arranged our theme. I’m Emma Atkinson, and this is RadioEd.

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