Why You're Still Trapped in the 'Thinner Is Better' Way of Thinking and How to Get Out

While society is shifting toward body inclusivity, many of us still have a 'thinner is better' mindset. Here's how to change that.

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To get rid of the idea that thinness is superior, it’s important to understand how deeply rooted it is in our society.
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"You can never be too rich or too thin."


"Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels."

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If you haven't heard these chillingly insensitive phrases alluding to the "ideal" body size, you might be in the minority. They've been repeated for years — passed on from one generation to the next — acting as a framework for how we think about ourselves and each other.

Lately, though, you may have noticed a shift. There are body-positive influencers on social media, commercials and ads with diverse body types and media platforms opting to use models of all shapes and sizes. It's refreshing. And validating. And yet, many of us still think "Hey, that's great for them, but I know ‌I‌ should be thin."

Despite our best efforts at fighting against the perception of the (often unrealistic) ideal body, we continue to struggle. And it starts at a young age: When the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital published its National Poll on Children's Health in September 2022, the results showed that 64 percent of parents said their child is self-conscious about their appearance in some way. And nearly a third said weight was their child's top concern.


So why isn't all the recent "body positivity" making a difference?

In terms of movements, the concept of body neutrality — feeling neither positively nor negatively about your body, per the National Eating Disorders Association — didn't even exist before 2015 and only started to gain momentum in 2016, which is not long ago at all in the grand scheme of things.


Plus, concepts like "fit and fat" and the Health at Every Size movement are still fighting for airtime alongside waif-thin models, airbrushed images of six-pack abs and millions of #fitspiration posts on social media.

All that's to say, if you're wondering if you're behind the times for being trapped in the "thin is better" mentality, you're not. In fact, if you're aware of the body revolution going on around us and logically understand that the long-held body ideals of our culture are not the norm, you're on the right path toward healing your relationship with your body.



To get rid of the idea that thinness is superior, it's important to understand how deeply rooted it is in our society. Here, we'll dig into why you may be trapped in the "thinner is better" mentality and explore the beginning steps of breaking free from the hold of this way of thinking.

Why Are We Obsessed With Being Thin?

In Harriet Brown's research-packed 2016 book, ‌Body of Truth‌, she explores Western civilization's never-ending quest to defeat fat:


"We diet for one of two reasons, or both: Looks and health," Brown writes. "If (a) you're a woman, and (b) you want people to think you're attractive, you've got to be thin (or at least thinnish) by the cultural standards of the day. And whether you're a woman or a man, if you're not thin you've certainly been told in many ways that your health will suffer if you don't lose weight."

Here's how society has ingrained in us the belief that being thin is "good" for us.


We're Taught to Believe Being Thin Is Healthy

In ‌Body of Truth‌, Brown writes about how the medicalization of obesity contributes to the weight bias in our society. We all know that certain medical conditions are correlated with extra weight. After stepping on the scale at the doctor's office, you're accustomed to either getting a stern lecture about your high BMI or getting a high five for being in the normal range. All of which drives home the message: You must be thin to maintain your health.


With that gospel in mind, medical professionals have long tried to figure out how to "beat" obesity, with some attempts being rather extreme: "Jaw wiring was an...invasive procedure that gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s," Brown writes. "Today, we cut out portions of people's stomachs."


Even more recently, some doctors are prescribing off-label drugs such as the diabetes medication Ozempic to aid weight loss. These can be effective for people who need to lose weight for medical reasons, but some medical professionals are giving them to people in the "normal" weight range who don't believe they're thin enough for society's standards.

The medical industry has gone to extremes to "fix" fat. It's no wonder, then, that our brains are wired to believe that being lean is the only way you can be healthy.

"One of the biggest traps people get into is conflating thinness and health," says Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDS, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Intuitive Psychotherapy NYC, who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating.

But the messaging around health often has more to do with ‌perceived‌ health, she says, which can lead people down the wrong path mentally.

"People get trapped in the 'healthy' mentality without realizing that this obsession with thinness and health deteriorates their mental health — the stress over what to eat, when to eat and how much can take a lot of time and mental energy as well as create a lot of stress around food and your body in general."

Society Tells Us Being Thin Is Beautiful

Chew on this for a moment: Research done by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) found that children as young as 3 have expressed dissatisfaction with their bodies.

"Babies are not born with body image thoughts in the sense of judgment or critique," says Melissa Streno, PsyD, a psychologist and specialist in body image and disordered eating at Lantern Psychology. "I think from a very young age, though, our little minds are kind of molded to what we see in society, or what we hear, or how people are treated, or how people are described — which is that thin or lean is better."


But where did the idea that thinness is attractive come from? To oversimplify it, cultural standards of beauty evolve and people within those cultures conform. It's especially easy to fall into the thin trap now because of the continuous reinforcement of body standards.

"Our daily lives are filled with hundreds, thousands, millions of images depicting the unattainable thin ideal," Brown writes in ‌Body of Truth‌. "And it doesn't take long: One minute of exposure to an image of a thinner-than-average woman is enough to shift our perceptions of attractiveness to a thinner ideal."

So, back to the question of why the more inclusive images haven't shifted our perceptions of beauty: The effort is there, but it's going to take a lot more time and persistence to right this ship.

"To try and undo those neural pathways in our brains that have held those beliefs for so long is really hard," Streno says. "I think the push and the encouragement and changes that have been made to make sure that thin is not all we see and that there are other ideals and there's body neutrality is helpful. But it's definitely not enough when somebody's brain is so entrenched and so believing these thoughts that they've known for a really long time. It's asking somebody to do something to try and change their thoughts immediately, which, I think, is impossible."

"People get trapped in the 'healthy' mentality without realizing that this obsession with thinness and health deteriorates their mental health — the stress over what to eat, when to eat and how much can take a lot of time and mental energy as well as create a lot of stress around food and your body in general."

How to Fight Back Against the 'Thin Is Better' Mentality

Even though we have these deeply held beliefs about what thin means, we can make changes to improve how we view ourselves. It takes time, though, as well as patience and some hard mental work.


If you are really struggling with destructive thoughts about your body, nothing will replace the help of a mental health professional. But if that's not accessible to you, or you simply want to nurture a better relationship with your body and a more positive body image, there are some mental exercises and drills you can do to begin to heal and find a path toward body neutrality.

1. Assess Where You Are in the Battle

Maybe you're reading this because you recognize that your life could be more fulfilling without dieting or exercising for the perfect body. Roth-Golberg asks her clients to take an inventory.

"How much do you find yourself punishing yourself in the name of thinness?" she says. "Whether that's internally beating up yourself via your thoughts, whether that's not allowing yourself to eat something that you may want or not eating anything when you're hungry. If you are living in a state of punishment to get to your ideal body, that's a problem."

Take pen to paper and write out what behaviors you're struggling with in terms of body image. This will help you know your enemy and see what you'd like to defeat.

2. Define What Thin Means to You

Now figure out why you, personally, have the "thin is better" mindset. We know from research that it's ingrained in Western culture, but what keeps ‌you‌ from setting aside societal norms to accept your own body?

Journal about it. Roth-Goldberg says to pay attention to who in your life might reinforce the negative thoughts you have about your own body. Think about whose voice (other than your own) might be in your brain telling you that thinner is better.

In addition to chasing a thin body, a large part of what holds us back from self-acceptance is a fear of fat. We know there's external pressure to be smaller, and we internalize that.

Brown writes that many people don't want to give up their unhealthy relationship with their bodies because that means giving up the fantasy of being the "perfect" size or shape.

Streno agrees. "It's a fear of having to sit in a body that they see as either 'less than' or negative. That they feel is not enough. I think a lot of people see it as just giving in or just settling," she says. "And really, the hardest thing to do is say, 'You know what? I'm going to step out of the tug-of-war, lean into this and say, ‌this is my body. This is what I have, this is what I was born with‌.'"

Admitting that fear and thinking about if you're ready to be satisfied with your body is a crucial step in the process of getting out of the thin trap.

3. Show Gratitude to Your Body

Streno says one of the first things she does with her clients is to find what they like about their bodies. She asks them questions to help them find things to celebrate.

"I'll ask: 'What are things that you've really appreciated your body for?'" she says. "What does your body allow you to do in this current day? Is it that you can hug somebody, you can go for a walk outside, you can ski, you can type on the computer, which maybe is an essential component of work, right? Our bodies do many things that aren't related to appearance."

Try it for yourself: Write a list of all the things you appreciate your body for that have nothing to do with how it looks or what you weigh.

4. Bring Awareness to When You’re Having Destructive Thoughts

Streno asks her clients to pay attention to where feelings about their bodies tend to come up. She encourages people to ask themselves where these thoughts come up the most.

"When do you have that awareness that doesn't feel good — that brings up really unproductive, unhelpful, mean thoughts towards yourself? Is it just in the relationship with yourself, is it certain people in your life or certain relationships? Is it your job? Is it the sport you play? We're really trying to get a better sense of when this is happening most often and where and why."

From there, you can find ways to address the thoughts at the moment — to talk back and fight against the negativity. Repeat what you appreciate about your body in terms of function.

Of course, redirecting these thoughts is not easy. Streno says it takes repetitive practice but eventually gets easier.

5. Imagine Life Without the Quest to Be Thin

Wouldn't it be a relief to never have to think about your weight or size again?

In a world with so many cues and messages about how our bodies should look, this is likely impossible. We can, however, lessen the time and stress we allot to dieting, talking about thinness and bullying ourselves.

"I think the most difficult part of any sort of recovery is moving to a place of self-acceptance," Streno says. "But I think on the other side of that is such freedom. You can let go of the food thoughts and the body image thoughts that control and dictate your life. You can be authentic to yourself and what you feel you need instead of listening to a disordered voice or society telling you what you need to do in terms of diet and exercise."

Thinking about that freedom and autonomy is a powerful weapon against the thin-trap thoughts. Streno says it might lead to a revelation: "I think once you realize that so much more energy and time and effort can be put into other things in your life — that's the momentum shift that we want."




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