Names that shame: from muffin tops to thunder thighs

Recently, I bought a pair of edgy, tight-fitting jeans. I was feeling pretty confident in them until my hand happened to brush against the fattier part of my hip on the edge of my jeans.

Immediately, my media-brain set off its sirens: “Muffin top alert! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a muffin top! Please evacuate the facilities and find the nearest pair of baggy sweatpants! Proceed in a quiet and orderly fashion so you don’t incite the muffin top into offending all people within 100 feet!”

Natural and healthy fat deposits around the body are portrayed as so taboo by the media that I had a visceral reflex to take my tight jeans off right then and there. And although my history with anorexia makes me particularly sensitive to situations like this, I started thinking of others who have had similar experiences—others who have been disgusted by natural parts of their bodies because of the oh-so-fun names the dieting industry has given to body fat.

From love handles to thunder thighs, muffin tops to saddlebags, we’ve all heard some downright weird phrases describing body fat. According to Slate.com, the Oxford English Dictionary added a fat-related definition for “muffin top” in 2003. “Love handles” have been around since the 1960’s. “Thigh gaps” became an online obsession in 2013.

The word “cankles” (a mix of calves and ankles) was first printed in Glamour magazine in 2003. The list goes on and on…apparently words like “back,” “stomach,” “thighs”, and “ankles” just aren’t personal enough for the dieting industry.

In the 1930’s, linguist Benjamin Whorf theorized that the words people use as labels actually affect what people perceive. Whorf’s theory was supported by a study that compared Russian speakers’ and English speakers’ perceptions of similar hues of blue; the Russian speakers were more quickly able to distinguish between the two colors because they had different words for each, but the English speakers had more difficulty because they only had the umbrella term “blue” to describe both colors.

Whether one thinks body fat jargon is helpful, detrimental, or even cute, Whorf’s theory shows that the media’s labels can affect what we perceive. By coining terms like “beer belly,” “saddlebags,” and “thunder thighs” the media makes us more apt to discern and label these features in ourselves and others.

Like the Russian speakers who had more names for blues, we have been given more names for body parts. These names cause increased perception of body differences and lead some people to base their worth solely in appearance, rather than actions. Blogger Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes, “We name it to shame it.”

The bottom line is, fat is a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle. Fat is not a crime or a disgrace, and a “muffin top” or some “love handles” are not going to stop you from being a good person. Media terminology can be triggering, but it’s up to us as consumers to figure out how to remain at peace with our bodies in a world that constantly tells us to be at war with them. My advice? Go out there, wear those edgy jeans, and love yourself! 

Elizabeth Frankel is a Minnesotan who loves psychology, theatre, and anything related to horses. She seeks to understand why the world is the way it is through critical thinking, and when that fails, she just employs sarcasm.

3 thoughts on “Names that shame: from muffin tops to thunder thighs

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  1. Absolutely wonderful.

    A remarkably true observation about media-brain and one that I have fallen prey to many times. This is an exquisite article and I loved the video you added 🙂 plus the psychology made me so happy. I love psychology

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