Body shapes

by Kate Woodford

The English language is full of words that describe the shape of our bodies, some of them positive and some of them less positive. Let’s take a look at some of the more commonly used words for body shapes.

Probably the most commonly used adjective to describe someone who has too little fat is thin. ‘Thin’ is often used in a negative way: She’s very pretty but she’s too thin.  Skinny, a slightly informal word, means very much the same: I don’t like his looks – he’s too skinny. Even thinner than ‘skinny’ is scrawny (also a slightly informal word). Someone who is scrawny is so thin that their bones stick out: He was a scrawny little kid. Gaunt, meanwhile, is used to describe a very thin face, sometimes a face that is thin because a person is ill: Her face was gaunt and grey. The adjective emaciated describes someone who is dangerously thin, usually through illness or extreme hunger. It describes the whole of the body: Some of the patients were quite emaciated.

The above adjectives are generally negative, but there are as many adjectives to describe people who are thin in a way that is positive. Probably the most common of these is slim. If someone is slim they are quite thin in a way that is attractive: Charlotte was looking lovely and slim in the photos. Other synonyms for ‘slim’ have an extra meaning in addition to ‘having little fat’. Slender, for example, means ‘slim and graceful’: She was small and slender, like a dancer. Lean describes someone who is slim and strong: Long-distance runners are usually fairly lean. Petite, which is positive in tone, means ‘short and slim’ and is only used for women and girls. Slight, meanwhile, which is neither positive nor negative, means ‘thin and delicate’.

Of course, there are just as many words to describe the opposite situation. Fat is probably the most commonly used adjective for describing someone who has too much flesh but, it is very direct. We sometimes use other, slightly less negative words to describe someone who is a little fat. Stocky, for example, means ‘strong and wide’: He’s got the stocky build of a rugby player. Solid too is often used in this way: As a child, James was always quite solid. Similarly, big is sometimes used as a less direct way of saying ‘fat’: Sophie didn’t use to be so big, did she? Plump and chubby mean ‘slightly fat’ but both sound almost pleasant and are often used of young children: She was admiring the baby’s plump little legs./Look at his lovely chubby cheeks!

Some ‘fat’ words, on the other hand, are very direct. Overweight is an adjective that a doctor might use to describe a fat patient. It is slightly clinical in tone. A patient who is extremely overweight might well be described by the doctor as obese.

So many ways to be fat and thin!

22 thoughts on “Body shapes

  1. And then there is ‘behemoth’, ‘portly’, ‘thunder thighs’, ‘wide stride’. ‘heavy duty’, ‘plus size’, ‘Wanda’, ‘Margret’, ‘Miss Piggy’, ‘Yo Mamma’ & ‘Yolanda’!

  2. The fashion industry can always find terms to sell to customers who don’t fit their usual model. (Yes, the pun is intended.) “Full-figured,” “Juno-esque” (for the goddess) and “Rubens-esque ” (for the Flemish painter) are often used to refer to women with large breasts and broad hips. Let’s note as well, that in many parts of the non-Western world, large breasts and broad hips are considered highly erotic.

    1. Alba

      I totally agree with you. Actually, large breasts and broad hips are biologically determined to be perceived as erotic, as they represent some very clear advantages for the conception of children. Just another proof that it’s in the Western world where this weight obsession has gone too far.

  3. Alba

    Am I the only one who has noticed the absence of terms to name somebody who is just normal? Maybe we should stop and reflect on what this means. We’ve got plenty of words to name the extremes, but almost none to name what’s normal. Maybe this is the way we have of fitting people into absurd pre-designed categories so that in the end nobody feels fine about their body. If we classify everyone as thin or fat there’s no way we’ll ever create a healthy perception of weight in society. We seriously must stop labeling things like this.

    1. It’s a common phenomenon that we take the ordinary for granted but focus attention on the unusual. In golf, for instance, par is the expected score, so the colorful vocabulary is reserved for scores under par (“birdie” and “eagle”) and scores over par (“bogey”). Similarly, we know what an ordinary person looks like, so we tend to emphasize the unusual in our choice of descriptive adjectives.

      And since an earlier commenter added terms about large people, I can add two for the slim set: “willowy,” which implies natural grace, and “svelte,” which is borrowed from French, so it must be elegant.

    2. Wil

      Normal is subjective. There are different types of normal, with which could be co-jointed with any of these adjectives. In such case, these adjectives serve merely to describe, its not necessarily malice. It becomes impossible to standardise normal in the end (as it is normal is not one, but varied). So everyone essential is as normal as can be.

      People can label you based on what they see, its up to you to try to match what you know of yourself to what they are trying to say about you. There lies the whole truth. There’s hardly any need to be royally discontented, because both perceptions are true in essence. Love your body! (I wander what shape you are now 🙂

    3. Lorenzo Fritz-Francisco

      My thoughts, exactly. Well-said. We need more words to describe body types between fat and skinny. I’m not talking about subjective observations or feelings here. I’m suggesting that words to describe a “middle range” of physical body types are lacking in the English language. The dog is thin. The dog is fat. The dog is… what? Average? Normal? Medium? Those terms are subjective. Where’s the word for a physique that lies between thin and fat?

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  5. Kaue

    Hey somebody please help me with these sentence. I always though lithe is like someone lean and flexible but in here it seems a little contradictory:
    “He was resembled his father, being dark-haired, strong and tall, but lithe.”

    1. Hi Kaue. The sentence would not be much of a difference. this is how I would say.
      “He was resembled his father, being dark-haired, strong and tall, but thin.” what do you think of it.

      1. see gee

        Hi Jack. Doesn’t “thin” imply being slightly underweight, or at least a bit less than the ideal for one’s skeleton size? Many people go through a “thin” phase when growing up, as they may be growing taller faster than they gain breadth, but a thin adult would probably be healthier if they were able to gain just a little weight.
        “Slim” doesn’t have the same slightly negative tone & is generally used for someone in the lower half of the healthy weight range for their height.

        Hi Kaue. Lithe doesn’t imply being underweight or weak.
        Cambridge dictionary online gives this sentence as an example: “He had the lithe, athletic body of a ballet dancer.” Male ballet dancers are expected to be slim, fit and flexible as well as tall enough and strong enough to lift another adult while dancing!
        Similarly, gymnasts, athletes & trapeze artists (male or female) could be described as “lithe”.

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  7. Dear Kate,
    Thank you very much for the article. I found it really helpful, since it is extremely difficult to get (find or presume) such kind of information, especially when you live in non-english country.
    I have created a piece of infographic which, I belive, can illustrate this article:
    I would very much appreciate it if you could look on the diagram and share your opinion if every word gets a proper place. Maybe I should add some more words or remove something what looks inappropriate.
    Thank you in advance.

  8. Pingback: Adjectives (lexis) | ELT Infodump

    1. IworshiptheLord

      That’s a very good idea, Joyce !
      But I am not Kate Woodford, sorry !…

      That’s funny, because I know 2 persons who call Joyce, whose one of my cousins ! 😀 😉

  9. San

    Thanks ma’am, your blogs are such a great way to understand words and their usage. Really appreciate your help.

  10. Veronica Dutton

    Rangey was a word I grew up with in reference to the build of a man . It was a man that was thin but well muscled with great flexability.. not bulging muscle but definitely defined.

    1. DalaWald

      Spindly, size 0, bony. Athletic, muscular, beefy, heavy-set. And then there is the one and only “large and in charge, chunky yet funky”, you know.

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