In 2016 fans of pop stars and celebrities dubbed their favorite stars “icons,” but in 2018 there’s no higher praise than being called a “skinny legend.”
A skinny legend can be any weight, any size, any gender. The phrase is used as a term of endearment by stans who worship particular celebrities.
Mariah Carey is known as the original skinny legend but the term is regularly bestowed upon Raini Rodriguez, Wendy Williams, Christina Aguilera, Kim Kardashian, and more. More recently “skinny legend” has become widely understood as a compliment that can be used toward anyone.
Fans who use the term often accompany their messages with skinny legend “snake edits.” These photoshopped images make the object of their affection look as skinny as a snake and warp the person’s body to such an unrealistic and surreal level that it ends up looking like the image has been dragged through a tube.
“A skinny legend is like, someone who is super-iconic but so much so that they transcend being what they actually are and become skinny,” said Joyce, a 14-year-old in New York. “It’s used to describe mostly female celebs like Taylor Swift or Mariah Carey. It originated on Twitter with all the fans and stuff but now people use it like a meme. Like, they’ll say it about someone who is not really famous, like a dog. It’s like, ‘Wow that dog is so cute, it’s a skinny legend!!’ It’s how you express you like something.”
According to Know Your Meme, the phrase was originally used to praise Demi Lovato before being co-opted by Mariah Carey stans. It slowly grew over time, reaching a fever pitch on Twitter and Instagram over the past three months.
Skinny legend snake edits dominate many young users’ Explore pages, depending on what type of fandoms they engage in. Teens have even begun making snake edits of any object of their affection, including inanimate objects and favorite foods like Wheat Thins snacks or a plate of nachos.
But as the term bleeds further into the mainstream it has also generated backlash.
In January a website called Revelist published a screed against the term, claiming that it promotes unhealthy body image and eating disorders.
“At first glance, the saying is seemingly only used to refer to celebs who have finally achieved thinness, or have always been thin,” the writer incorrectly begins. “This is obviously problematic because it implies one can only achieve true success and ‘legendary’ status when they’re thinner, which is clearly not true. But it turns out tweeters are using the phrase when talking about themselves, too, which is even more problematic. The wording perpetuates food and body issues on a harmful level... in fact, so much so that some stans have been seriously affected by this idea that ‘thin = important.’”
The writer, like many observers, completely misinterprets the term. The young fans tweeting “skinny legend” at everything aren’t themselves defining or perpetuating unrealistic body image or the ideal of “thinness”—rather, it’s society and the media who promote this harmful idea, and the phrase skinny legend is an attempt to skewer it.
“The point is it’s parodying whatever standards the media has,” explains Joyce. “When people go photoshop celebs like, ‘she’s so skinny, she’s air,’ they’re making fun of the way the media is like ‘oh she’s skinny, she’s amazing.’”
“Being a skinny legend actually has nothing to do with how skinny someone is,” agreed Mikaela, a 15-year-old in San Francisco. “Calling someone ‘skinny’ really just means they’re iconic. You usually call someone a skinny legend as a joke, like ‘Wow your makeup is SUCH a look in that photo, what a skinny legend.’
“The phrase is used ironically. Nobody who is called a skinny legend is actually a legend because they’re skinny,” Mikaela said. “It’s really just making fun of the unrealistic expectation that celebrities should be skinny by over-exaggerating the way they are praised. The term skinny legend is obviously a joke, just like basically everything online. It really shouldn’t be taken literally.”
As one user on Twitter put it, “Being a skinny legend isn’t about being what other people deem as thin. It’s a frame of mind. We’re all skinny legends.”