Why I use the “S” word

by | Jun 25, 2012

Photo by Charlotte Astrid

In response to last week’s post How To Eat Dessert And Still Stay Skinny, I got an email from a reader asking why I use the word “skinny” when it undermines my message of health:

“I’ve been following your blog etc for a few months now. I love it and have shared your posts widely…. Unfortunately, your emphasis on being “skinny” really puts me off, not just in this article but in your bio and elsewhere in your writings.

To me, and folks in my world, to value “skinny-ness” is to encourage excessive — and often obsessive — emphasis on body size without regard to health. This dangerous message is everywhere in our society, and not consistent with the rest of your message. Do you see how this undermines your credibility — despite your academic credentials?

Please consider changing your language from “skinny” to “a healthy weight.”  I don’t think this is just semantic.”

This is a very important point, and I want to thank the reader again for bring up her concerns. Since I’m sure there are at least a few of you with the same question, I wanted to share my response:

“Thanks for writing, I really appreciate your input. I totally get your point, but there are a few reasons I make the word choices that I do.

First, I’d guess that given your stance the reason you enjoy Summer Tomato at all is that I actually do make a concerted effort to not use the words “skinny” or “thin” in the text of my articles, particularly when I talk about goals and motivation. (My bio is a different story, I was intentionally trying to illustrate the thoughts of a chronic dieter.)

But I do occasionally use these words in headlines. The reason is that one of the major categories of people I’m hoping to win over with my message is dieters. I want them to focus on being healthy and stop dieting.

The problem is, to get their attention in the first place I need to speak their language. The word skinny rings bells with these people and draws them in, and then my message is different from what they expect and that’s how changes are made.

The phrase “healthy weight” does not even come close to bringing in the click throughs as the word skinny, which I’ve seen in my Facebook and Twitter traffic analytics. I’m less interested in preaching to the choir then helping lost people find a new way to live.

Another important point is that I feel the phrase “healthy weight” has been greatly over-used and has come to mean something a little bigger than it should. Sadly, the latest statistics suggest many overweight people believe they are a healthy weight, simply because the average has been so skewed in the upward direction over the past 20 years.

Health is definitely my message, but I’m very careful to not let people off the hook just because they are the same size as their friends and family.

I’m walking a very tight rope with my message balancing health, weight loss and quality of life, and I’m acutely aware of the power of words. I hope you understand that to make the biggest impact I need to reach the people who need me the most, even if sometimes it comes off as less academic and more mainstream.

My hope is that I’m in a position to bridge these two worlds and get diet trends headed in the right direction again.”

To be clear, I read a lot of great blogs that do preach to the choir, and I share them here regularly.

But one of the best things about the Summer Tomato community is that it includes people from all walks of life, from young college students frustrated with their bodies to baby boomers and academics with more letters after their names than in them. We also have foodies trying to balance their love of food and need for health, and geeks just trying to get fit enough to beat their friends at Kinect.

Most people that come to Summer Tomato for the first time don’t know that the solution to all these goals is the same. My main mission here is to help people see that healthy habits (not dieting) is what makes you both thin and healthy, and provide you with the tools to create a healthstyle that works for you.

I hope one day these points will be obvious to everyone, but in the meantime my experience has shown me that the best way to capture someone’s attention is with the promise of looking great and eating amazing food.

I was happy to get a sweet reply back from this reader signed,

Even a bigger fan than before,


What do you think about the “S” word?

Originally published May 30, 2011.

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44 Responses to “Why I use the “S” word”

  1. thomas says:

    when darya writes skinny, she really means skinny like this: http://www.bodyrock.tv/


  2. E. Foley says:

    It’s bait and switch of the best kind. Keep up the good work, Darya. 🙂

  3. CT says:

    Absolutely agree. In fact I made the same point to some of my friends, after reading an article about forcing design students to use size 18 mannequins, in the UK. Making size 18 (UK) appeal “normal”….. I questioned this from a health perspective.

    “Research shows consumers react better to images of more realistic models. It’s really refreshing that this is coming from within the fashion industry, suggesting it understands the need for more diversity.”

    “React better” means “buy more clothes from” IMHO.

    Rather than “reminding the designers the average UK size is 16-18” The Government should be asking why? Not redefining “normal” and the reaping the associated health risks in the years to come. And if the established designers really care, they could use their millions to set up some free gyms for those unable to afford the prices.

  4. Kathy says:

    @thomas: I hope that’s not exactly what Darya means. When I see those pictures, I see bodies that most women can achieve only through obsessive weight training and unhealthy eating and hydration patterns. I do not aspire to look anything like those women.

    As for “skinny,” I can see using that word to draw in the converts. But yes, it still makes me a little uncomfortable. I also realize that is hooked into my own struggles and issues.

    I have been working to heal my body by eating more natural, whole foods for a couple years now. It’s still very much “progress, not perfection.” I have struggled with body image and weight for much of my life. My mother PUT ME ON A DIET at 9, when I was not even close to fat; I’m now a couple months from turning 49, and by anyone’s definition, fat. So I also have the issues of midlife hormonal changes to struggle with.

    Given how many pounds I have to go, my age, and the number of years I’ve spent screwing up my metabolism, I don’t know that I’ll ever be “skinny.” I may not even achieve what Darya would consider a “healthy weight.” (I should add that even though I am older and weigh over 200 pounds, my blood pressure, cholesterol numbers, and blood sugar are all well within the healthy range. I don’t have joint issues, digestion issues, or any of the other “issues” that are supposedly making people like me a drain on the health care system.)

    I’m noting that I’m going a little rant-y here–but it does bother me to feel discriminated against even on this site I mostly love, when I’m doing the best I can to eat well and move more, and I know that I still might never achieve the body that supposedly goes with those habits as a sure reward. I have better eating habits than many women who are thinner than I am, and therefore, more “healthy.” Yes, it pisses me off.

    • Alex says:

      Keep up the good work! Continued progress towards a goal is the only thing that matters; attaining the goal is just a bonus.

      If you’re healthy (blood work and what not), then you didn’t ‘screw up your metabolism’. Age and hormones do matter, but it won’t stop you from progressing, maybe just slow you down a bit. So keep eating a smart healthy diet, have some fun exercise, and watch your goals get closer every day!

    • Darya Pino says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Kathy. Thomas definitely doesn’t speak for me. He’s referring to a conversation we had on the blog awhile back with some of the Paleo dieters, who tend to be very muscular. He considers them “big” and I got on his case for being judgmental against people who are obviously healthy. Discrimination is certainly not welcome here.

      As you probably know my main goal here is to get people eating well and be happy with their lives. It sounds to me like you’re taking exactly the right approach, even if it can be frustrating at times. Keep up the great work, you have a fan here.

    • Spartus says:

      Kathy, you and I (as a young, fit, male) are probably about as opposite as you can get in our life experience and circumstances. I don’t want to be offensive or impertinent, but your comment raised my hackles a little. I’m a first time commenter. I’ve got no idea who that first poster is (thomas), his reputation or the context of his post. But as a fan of BodyRock.tv I feel the need to speak up in it’s defense.

      Sure, on first impression it may seem a bit shallow. I admit to being first drawn to it because of that. But I found that there’s a really great community built up around the site, which is actually run by this wonderful husband-wife team — Freddy and Zuzana (he’s the technical wizard, she’s a personal trainer).

      The community’s slogan is “The Home Workout Movement”, which emphasizes simple home body-weight training (little to no equipment required), with lots of variations and encouragement for beginners. Their food and diet philosophy is in line with much of what I find here on Summer Tomato (whole natural food, portion control and moderation, etc.).

      The “Body Rockers” section of the site features personal stories of fans (Body Rockers) from all over the world who are getting fit and reclaiming their lives, from ages 18 to 50+ (I think you might like this girl’s just posted story: http://www.bodyrock.tv/2011/05/25/bodyrocker-liz-how-mindful-eating-changed-my-life/).

      I hope Darya forgives my proselytizing (I don’t mean to be spammy or sound like a salesmen — I’m just a passionate fan). I find for me that Summer Tomato and BodyRock.tv go quite well hand-in-hand together as fantastic health and fitness resources.

      Although I’ve never struggled with weight, not so long ago I was lazy, unfit, ate like a pig and was apathetic about much of life. Both have helped me in waking myself up, achieving my goals and finding more fulfillment in life.

      I least of all am qualified to speak on matters of women’s fitness. But who knows, if you give the BodyRock community a chance it might turn out to be just the thing you’re looking for.

      All the best.

      • Spartus says:

        That link I posted went to the wrong (oops):

        Again, all the best.

      • Kathy says:

        Darya and Alex, thanks for your encouraging responses. Yes, I have been frustrated lately with a months-long weight plateau. Although I keep having people ask if I’ve lost more weight, so perhaps I’m just not keying in to some subtle shifts in my physique.

        Spartus, I followed the link you posted and took another look at the BodyRock site. I spoke too hastily; the young lady in that story looks amazing, and good for her in achieving healthy eating and exercise patterns. I was referring more to the women framing the site–very muscular abs, very large breasts for their size (which look, to me, enhanced.)

        I was curvy before it was a synonym for overweight. Even if I weight train and become toned, I won’t have those very cut, six-pack abs. I know those require a kind of training and eating in which I have no interest. Nor will I have the very narrow hips. I’m just not built that way. I’m glad Darya and the members of this community realize that fit and healthy can come in many shapes.

      • thomas says:

        @darya: i am obviously not speaking for you but i am also not referring to the conversation we had on this blog. didn’t remember it until you just mentioned it to be honest.

        > very large breasts for their size (which look, to me, enhanced.)

        to you and the rest of the world 😉

        > unhealthy eating and hydration patterns

        how do you reckon she achieves such low body fat through unhealthy eating and hydration patterns?

        > months-long weight plateau

        out of curiosity, how many calories are you eating per day?

  5. Tom Yedwab says:

    I appreciate the thought you put into this issue. Your goal is to encourage healthy eating and it’s laudable that you want to champion that message to as large an audience as possible.

    On the other hand, I can understand the sensitivity around the word ‘skinny’ (even though it’s not a term applied often to men). One of the challenges of writing about food is the ambiguousness of the terminology: ‘healthy’, ‘diet’, etc. But as long as you make it clear, as you have here, what values you stand for, your message will get across.

  6. Alex says:

    Perfect response to that reader. There will always be a really difficult struggle with “skinny”, because the true healthy “skinny” is based on your frame. People with different body types can be in great shape and healthy without being “skinny”, and vice versa. I blame the modeling industry. Modeling industry = Disaster for health and body image.

    Lastly, Darya is awesome.

  7. juny20 says:

    I prefer to say it like it is. Skinny is healthy as long as it is not the result of an illness. Healthy weights are a lot less than what most people realize. The equation is simple; eat just enough of well balanced nutritional foods and exercise daily. If you over eat you will gain weight; period. Years of carrying the extra weight will catch up with anyone sooner or later.

  8. Madison says:

    Your response rings true. I really enjoyed your explanation. So many people out there are offended by so many things these days it’s hard to keep up. I actually found your blog because we both love summer tomatoes! 🙂 But you opened my eyes to all the wonderful veggies out there at farmers market.

  9. Google: “healthy weight” – 88 million hits. “skinny” – 145 million. 🙂 Point proven, yes.

    But speaking as someone who has struggled with his weight for the last 10 years and has now slimmed down to something approaching the healthy kind of skinny…I have no problem with that word if it’s associated with the right road to skinnydom: sensible exercise and good food. Despite the dictionary definition (“too thin”), these days we all understand it to mean “lean” of some kind – and placed in a context of healthily toning up your body and running it on the right kind of fuel, we can stick the word “healthily” at the beginning of it. The good skinny = “Healthily lean” – and the bad skinny = “ruinously, artificially thin”.

    I’d like to be the good skinny, please. Thanks. 😉

  10. Rachel says:

    I am a person who is often described as skinny–often by people who think I must be unhealthy to be the skinny-ness that I am. I’m quite healthy, have energy to run several miles a day and walk everywhere, am a major foodie, I’m just thin, skinny, little, etc. So I’m really pleased when Darya uses the word, because she stands for healthy habits (I practice them, and am really proud of myself). Some people may not understand that skinny is often used in a hurtful way by people who think they know something about me (that I must eat cottonballs or can’t lift heavy boxes–I don’t and I can), and to hear a health-and-eating advocate use the word with a light, happy tone makes me feel accepted in the circles I want to be accepted within. I don’t feel much positive emotion when I hear the word coming from TV ads, model shows, etc. because it does not necessarily go with a positive outlook and lifestyle. But as I’m saying, when Darya uses it, it makes me feel like I can be proud of my conscious lifestyle choices that make me SKINNY.

    • juny20 says:

      Nice post Rachel. I am a guy, but I’ll say the same should apply. Huge muscles or being bulky is unnatural. It is all about optimum health and good habits.

    • Natalie says:

      I agree. People always say I am too skinny. And they way they say it is not a compliment. So I don’t like the S word too much, it is too subjective. I don’t feel skinny at all, especially when I travel to other countries.

  11. The truth is that we don’t have a good word for what you mean, Darya. I’ve always been on the slighly fat side of the coin. Recently, I shed 10 pounds of pure fat and now I am a size 8 with appropriate BMI and not on any obese scale. This means nothing unless I add this. I work out a LOT. I strength train, dance train, and cardio train so I’m very fit. But, “fit” is not a great word. Because I was “fit” when I was a size 12. I’ve been working out all my life and it has taken me a concerted effort to balance my love of food, my age, and my workouts to strike that happy place.

    For @thomas, I’m really turned off by your link. The girl has fake boobs. Such a low fat percentage forces women to purchase boobs because it strips a girl of her appropriate body fat. No thanks.

    I love you Darya, and I read your blog more consistently than any other, because you are smart and you care about the things I care about. I’m trusting you to continue this dialogue.

  12. Brian says:

    Lots of passionate debate here. I’d just like to weigh in with one point: the extremely low levels of body fat we see in models and fitness freaks (I use the term endearingly) is not a state the body “wants” to be in. People have learned that through a combination of diet and exercise it’s possible to basically trick the body into shedding fat and maintaining muscle. It’s sort of like a bonsai tree: trees aren’t naturally programmed to grow that way, but we’ve figured out clever ways to make them do so.

    In order to be ultra-lean one has to rigorously control ones diet for months on end. Again, the body does not want to go through this, and as soon as you start eating more the fat will come back. It’s a basic matter of survival, something our bodies are very, very good at. Fat is nothing more than stored fuel. Ask any professional natural bodybuilder about staying in contest condition all year round: they’ll tell you that nobody wants to subject themselves to the misery that would entail.

    Now, there’s quite a lot of psychology that goes along with this. Culturally speaking, we’ve gotten it into our collective heads that athletic, lean people are better, stronger, faster, happier, and just all around the bee’s knees. This is totally silly. All one has to do is check out that BodyRock.tv video. Here’s somebody who has achieved a very refined physique, yet is still obsessed over diet and is mired in a constant battle to maintain a certain “look.” If someone is interested in pursuing intense physical training as a personal challenge, then more power to them. But the idea that it will lead to greater happiness simply because you end up looking a certain way is pretty misguided.

    With regards to health: people should just visit a doctor and have a routine battery of tests to see what kind of condition their body is in. The truth is that plenty of folks with higher levels of body fat are actually perfectly healthy. BMI and body fat percentage are, by themselves, very, very poor ways to accurately gauge actual physical health.

    • Jenn says:

      Brian – absolutely, perfectly put! 🙂

    • Dee says:

      I was perfectly healthy with 43lbs extra of body fat! But now I know that less fat and a fit body feels o sooo good and has changed my life… By the way, I am still not skinny, but I like the word… And the pic Darya posted with this article…

  13. Karen says:

    You go girl!

  14. Kate says:

    I think there are many healthy body sizes to have, but I don’t have a problem with the “s” word…and I feel my best when I am not too skinny, not too plump;)

  15. Barb says:

    Hmmm… I sort of wondered about the “S” word too, but after reading your response, I fully understand the reasoning behind using it.

    It is sad when we have to use catchy words and phrases to get people to notice or to consider making healthier choices…. I am a nutritionist and do it all the time… 🙂

  16. lenny says:

    Change your language and you will change your life. Expecting others to change their language to suit your life will only lead to unhappiness.

  17. SoCalTraci says:

    Agree about the reasoning behind the ‘S’ word. I realize that sometimes you just gotta ‘get eyeballs’ to your site. If they learn something new and keep coming back, all the better!

    Btw, I just discovered Bodyrock.tv a youtube few weeks ago. Her workouts are intense and free (very important) I think the model has a body that’s VERY inspiring. I don’t mind fake boobs…whatever someone wants to do to their body is not my business. I’m not easily offended.

    Anyway, I’m a new summertomato reader that heard a plug from Mr.KRose. This is a great site, love the discussion here.

  18. SoCalTraci says:

    Sweet, I grew up in NorCal. Been here for almost 3 years 🙂

  19. ps says:

    One of my favorite posts on your site was the one by the lady who had lost a bunch of weight and been “skinny,” but hadn’t done it in a healthy way. She subsequently gained a lot of weight, so the next time, she decided to follow your philosophy of eating healthy — less meat, dairy, processed carbs; more veg, whole grains. She lost some weight this way, not as much as before, but she FELT better. It was so inspirational! (I tried to search for it, but couldn’t find it. My Googling skills are weak).

    Anyway, I love this site, but I, too, am wary of using Skinny to lure people in. I tend to ignore the headlines because I know there is good stuff to be found below, but I do find them to clash with your general philosophy (it’s my one very, very small quibble with your site — I really respect the work you’ve done, and like I said, I love the site. I’ve learned so much in the year+ I’ve been reading).

  20. Dee says:

    Skinny is good! People today like to be too diplomatic and politically correct…. Any other word to get the concept would be just helping people to fool themselves!

    • Dee says:

      And I wih I was Kinney, and am working hard to become skinny :)…. But right now I’m an just over healthy weight…

  21. Just dropping by to say hi and to tell you that I nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award: http://nutrisavvysblog.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/the-versatile-blogger-award/

  22. Cactus Wren says:

    I’m actively repelled by the word “skinny”. I’ve struggled with my weight all my adult life, and to me “skinny” divides the population into two groups: healthy pretty sexy “skinny” people, and disgusting horrible self-indulgent “fat” people who could magically metamorphose into “skinny” people if only they’d get up off their disgusting horrible lard asses and stop scarfing down doughnuts and bacon cheeseburgers all day.

  23. Nothing wrong with being skinny. I think it just connotes a slimmer physique. Anyway, the important thing is to eat healthy and feel good about your body right? Kudos to you for having an open heart and open mind to your readers!

  24. Yes, it’s not a “diet” it’s a change in lifestyle! Once you have that change in lifestyle everything else falls into place, your weight, your athletic ability, really everything. It’s so simple it’s hard.

    Live Active,
    Nick K

  25. m says:

    I’m less interested in preaching to the choir than** helping lost people find a new way to live.

  26. Zack Borger says:

    I’m impressed, I need to say. Actually rarely do I encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me let you know, you have got hit the nail on the head. Your concept is outstanding; the problem is one thing that not enough persons are talking intelligently about. I’m very glad that I stumbled throughout this in my search for one thing referring to this.

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