Skinny. A quick Google search of the word throws up synonyms such as 'raw-boned', 'gaunt' and 'undernourished'. Shorthand for 'skin and bones', 'skinny' was an impudent term used by my busybody Jewish aunties as an expression of concern that I wasn't eating enough. A hundred or so years ago, you might have used it to describe prisoners of war. Yet today 'skinny' is often celebrated and, despite the body positivity movement, used liberally across advertising campaigns. Interestingly though, appetite suppressant companies or online diet fads aren't the sole culprits. It is also beauty products.
Whether you shop online or on the high street, it's difficult to avoid the slew of brands using the word 'skinny' to advertise their beauty offerings, from body care to cosmetics. Take the recent relaunch of Australian bronzing brand Skinny Tan. The brand's website suggests that its tan is created to be "enjoyed by every shape, size and skin type" and that 'skinny' actually refers to 'skin kind' ingredients, rather than physicality. But for those who aren't aware of the brand, not to mention the questionable but widespread belief that fake tan can make you look thinner, the word is potentially problematic. I reached out to the brand for comment, but didn't receive a response. Together with products like Amazon-famous Skinny Cream, Dr Organic's Skinny Body Scrub – both supposedly formulated to reduce cellulite – and the new Glamcor Riki Skinny Mirror, which magnifies your skin and provides lighting for makeup, it's clear that some brands now use this word to catch the consumer's eye, slapping it on their products like a badge of honour.
Health, beauty and nutrition consultant, Karen-Cummings Palmer, whose own body care brand, 79 Lux launched last year, agrees that there’s something slightly skewed about this, saying the positioning of 'skinny' as something to aspire to, can be dangerous. Charlie Hooson-Sykes, plus-size blogger and ambassador for the Be Real Campaign, seconds this. "'Skinny' is a pervasive term but it is not limited to beauty products. When ordering a coffee, we're asked, 'full fat or skinny?' We're made to choose between regular or skinny tonic with a G&T. There's skinny lager and skinny prosecco." Charlie goes on to suggest that the kind of beauty marketing we're now seeing is all interlinked with – and framed around – diet. "There is still the idea that thin is the ideal and words like 'skinny' feed into that, whether they actually have or are designed to have any effect on your weight or not. Because 'skinny' is such a common term, I believe it is casually reinforcing diet culture."
When it comes to beauty products, it appears this problem is ingrained. Millie Kendall MBE, CEO of the British Beauty Council, elaborates: "The beauty industry is well known for using negativity to offer up solutions. It is one of the things I would personally love to change, but 30 years into my career, it still keeps happening. Whether it is the term 'anti-ageing' or 'skinny', it is all trading on the solution to a perceived problem."
This is a pertinent topic, given that Beat, the UK's eating disorder charity, estimates that approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Of course there is a lot more to a person developing such a serious mental health issue than irresponsible branding, but for those suffering, it could tip the scale. Style and mental health blogger, Charlotte Rollin, who recently appeared on BBC's Panorama after being approached to collaborate with Skinny Coffee Club (despite being very vocal on her platform about her experiences with anorexia), told R29: "Diet culture is so interwoven into our society that we don’t realise the extent to which such language has shaped our perception of health, ideal body types and desirability. The use of 'skinny' in marketing promoted as positively improving your appearance simply fuels this."
So what exactly are the implications for vulnerable individuals or impressionable teens growing up surrounded by this language? Duncan Stephenson, director of external affairs and marketing at the Royal Society for Public Health argues that the issue is a serious one. "Even in a small way, using terms such as 'skinny' reinforces unrealistic and often unattainable beauty ideals, which can in turn drive some of these unhealthy or obsessive behaviours. When rates of body image dissatisfaction are at an all-time high and when people are increasingly resorting to quick fixes such as unnecessary cosmetic surgery and fad diets to achieve so-called beauty ideals, brands should be held accountable." This is something Charlotte seconds: "Teens are growing up surrounded by content, whether that's from brands, influencers and the media, which use language such as 'skinny' as the desirable end goal we should all be aiming for."
Many companies are waking up, though. Refreshingly, beauty brands like Glossier promote transparency and 'realness' over idealised body types. Glossier famously tapped plus-size model Paloma Elsesser to help launch its body care line last year. She commented on her Instagram page: "I did this for that young girl looking on Instagram, or walking down Spring St, [to realise] that she is fucking perfect despite the precarious and irresponsible versions of beauty we are urged to digest."
The beauty industry still has a long way to go in terms of representation, with words such as 'whitening' and 'lightening' quite rightly causing controversy and raising eyebrows, too. But while 'skinny' is still allowed to slip under the radar, brands will get away with fetishising an unhealthy body type and perpetuating an unhealthy diet culture. It is important to call it out. It is important to have conversations about diversity and body positivity. And it is about time the word 'skinny' was stripped of its desirable connotations and exposed for the ghoulish and sinister term that it is.