I have just been reading The Social Animal by David Brooks, and was struck by the following description of a character: ‘She was thin, well-dressed in a conservative business suit, and extremely calm.’ In the context it’s clear that this woman represents an ideal to be aimed at. Since when did thin become a term of unqualified approbation for women? Slim, yes. Slender, of course. Svelte, absolutely. But thin? For women? It’s been a somewhat specialised term of approbation for men for quite some time, carrying suggestions of nervous energy, self-control and a hint of mystery. Dashiel Hammett’s The Thin Man piques the interest more than a fat one would; Bowie’s thin white duke sounds much more fascinating than a fat or stocky white duke. Cassius in Julius Caesar seems the more potent for his lean and hungry look.
But for women the word never seemed quite so complimentary, suggesting boniness, angularity, and general non-sexiness. The fact of being thin needed to be softened by an explicitly complimentary word such as slim. Wallis Simpson, it’s true, famously said that a woman can never be too rich or too thin; this always seemed to me a senseless, not to say tasteless remark, but it seems now to have become a sort of orthodoxy. A few years ago Paul McKenna, the hypnotist, published a book called I Can Make You Thin (not slim, slender, svelte or any of the nicer-sounding alternatives); and women, instead of saying ‘Why the hell would I want that?’ responded by buying the book.
This is a linguistic change that is driven by ideology – although it is rather hard to determine who benefits by the ideology that women should be thin. It doesn’t seem to be women and I can’t see how it’s men, either. Until there is a change in the strange belief that women should have as little flesh on their bones as possible, it looks as though thin will remain a compliment. Probably skinny would be taken as a compliment by most women now, too. In fact, is there any word denoting an excess of thinness that wouldn’t be taken as a compliment by most women now?