Social media has a unique way of spreading phrases—whether good or bad—around to the point that they’re fairly common. Within the last few years, “skinny fat” added itself to this roster of social media sayings. The phrase likely conjures up mixed emotions and feelings, even if you don’t have a crystal clear definition of what it actually means.
Not only do the words “skinny” and “fat” contradict one another, but they can also cause a number of negative emotions such as shame and guilt regardless of whether they are used together or separately. Yet, the commonality of the phrase is increasing at a regular rate, despite the fact that it is not a medically-accepted term.
“It also doesn’t quite make logical sense because the words ‘skinny’ and ‘fat’ contradict each other,” says Jenn Beswick, MHSc, RD, a registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor and body image coach, and owner of The Intuitive Nutritionist. “The way that people are using this term is to describe someone who is in a relatively smaller body, but also has a higher percentage of body fat and potentially lower muscle mass.”
Keep reading for the scoop on what people mean when they use the phrase skinny fat, how it perpetuates diet culture, and why you should stop saying it.
What Does Skinny Fat Mean?
“Skinny fat” is a colloquial phrase used to describe those who are “thin” and have a relatively high body fat percentage. Medically, the term is known as normal weight obesity, which means their weight is “normal” for their height. About 30 million Americans have normal weight obesity, which is often influenced by genetics, diet, and physical activity.
Despite the phrase’s description of a true condition, most experts agree it potentially does more harm than good. Instead of educating people about the risks associated with normal weight obesity, “skinny fat” shifts focus to appearance—an unwanted, unhelpful result of diet culture.
“First and foremost, as a registered dietitian who works with individuals on healing from disordered eating and body image issues, this phrase ‘skinny fat’ sounds like just another label people use to shame certain body types,” notes Baswick.
Why People Use the Phrase Skinny Fat
Most experts agree that there is no reason to use the phrase skinny fat. Yet, the shock value keeps its circulation fairly consistent, explains Laura Cohen, a CCI-certified eating disorder recovery coach and family mentor for Equip Health.
“In a society that shines being ‘fat’ in such a negative light, the phrase ‘skinny fat’ is such a powerful marketing tool,” Cohen says. “It is yet another way to fat shame—let’s call ‘skinny’ people fat, too!”
She continues, noting the phrase shames people into thinking that their bodies are not OK the way they are. This, in turn, causes them to believe they need to do something about it in order to be “healthy.”
“[This phrase] allows diet culture to have more victims to prey on,” Cohen adds. “[But this approach] will increase disordered eating habits and will also put more people at risk for developing full-blown eating disorders.”
Laura Cohen, CCI-certified eating disorder recovery coach
— Laura Cohen, CCI-certified eating disorder recovery coach
There are other ways to describe individuals than according to their body, weight, or shape, adds Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS, a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine.
“We don’t know someone’s health by simply looking at them and this term is putting a label on someone with two words that honestly have nothing to do with someone’s health,” Dr. Goldman says. “Health is so much more than one’s body, weight, and shape—so much more than one’s appearance.”
How the Phrase Skinny Fat Perpetuates Diet Culture
According to Baswick, the phrase skinny fat perpetuates diet culture on many levels. “It is always harmful to shame someone based on their body weight, shape, size, or appearance.”
What’s more, this phrase is a form of weight stigma, Baswick adds. And, weight stigma—independent of weight itself—has been found to contribute to poorer health outcomes, she says.
“[But] unfortunately, our society makes it seem that as long as you look good, that’s all that matters,” says Michelle Ricker, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and director of health education and training for a wellness company. “That attitude is exactly what causes people to [develop normal weight obesity] in the first place. The appearance of being ‘skinny’ seems to outweigh being fit.”
Individuals who are already struggling with eating disorders are hyper-focused on not only being “healthy,” but they also tend to place additional value on the size of their bodies, explains Cohen. “The phrase skinny fat now is saying that even though you are skinny, you are also fat. It makes the societal ideals that are already impossible to achieve even more unachievable. It is yet another way that diet culture can trigger more people and cause more damage.”
Michelle Ricker, RDN
That attitude is exactly what causes people to [develop normal weight obesity] in the first place. The appearance of being ‘skinny’ seems to outweigh being fit.
— Michelle Ricker, RDN
What’s more, this phrase is giving people another construct to compare their body to and make them feel as if they are not good enough, Baskwick adds. This type of body shaming can be incredibly harmful, especially because it may contribute to the development of disordered eating and eating disorders.
“Out of all mental health disorders, eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate, with opioid addiction being the highest,” she states.
What to Know About Health and the Phrase Skinny Fat
People use the phrase skinny fat to identify the fact that despite appearing to have normal body weight, a person may have underlying health issues like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, notes Dr. Goldman. But, there has been limited research on normal weight obesity and the risks associated with this condition.
“Research about weight or body fat percentage being a predictor of health is quite vague and does not indicate a cause and effect relationship, which many individuals seem to believe it does,” Baswick says. “I would suggest exploring specific signs and symptoms of any potential health concerns with your primary care physician or team—ideally from a weight-inclusive lens.”
That said, nutrition and exercise are important for everyone to live a healthy life, Dr. Goldman says. “Regardless of your body, weight, and shape, there are many physical and mental health benefits to eating balanced meals and moving your body.”
What’s more, one study suggests that it’s not your body weight and shape that really matters, but instead, your muscle mass. In fact, researchers note that regardless of a person’s level of fat mass, a higher level of muscle mass helps reduce the risk of death.
“In order for the body to lessen the risk factors of diabetes and heart disease, the body fat percentage needs to decrease and lean muscle mass needs to increase,” explains Ricker. “These [goals] can only be accomplished with proper nutrition and added resistance training.”
Why Nutrition and Exercise Are Important for All Body Types
No matter what your body fat percentage is, eating a balanced diet, moving your body, and building muscle can help you live a longer, healthier life—regardless of your body shape, or size. It is also important to have a healthy relationship with food, says Baswick.
“Our bodies thrive and function best when they are optimally nourished and moving in a way that feels good for each of us individually,” she explains.
Alongside eating to meet nutritional needs and moving your body, it is also important to consider how you feel about eating and movement, Baswick suggests. For example, if eating in a specific way is causing guilt, shame, or stress—that may not be the healthiest way to eat, she says.
“For anyone comparing themselves to this idea of ‘skinny fat,’ please know that you don’t need to change anything about yourself or your body based on what you hear in the media,” encourages Baswick. “Pay attention to how you feel, listen to your body when you can, and get support from a credible professional to support you in making any health or eating-related changes.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Why should you not use the phrase skinny fat to describe yourself or others?
The phrase “skinny fat” is not a medical term and can cause a person to feel shame or guilt about their body size and type. Ultimately, this can result in poor body image and potentially interfere with mental and physical well-being.
Is body fat percentage a good metric to use when determining health?
According to experts, body fat percentage is only one metric and does not tell the entire story about someone’s health and wellness. A person’s health is best determined with the help of a qualified healthcare provider who will consider the entire person including their medical conditions, genetics, blood pressure, blood work, lifestyle, mental-wellbeing, functional abilities, nutrition, sleep quality, and more.