A version of this piece is up on HuffPost.
When I was really skinny, people were always telling me about it.
“You’re so skinny!”
Just in case I’d forgotten.
Sometimes they said it like a compliment. As though if you peeled those words back the words underneath would say “you’re so beautiful.”
Sometimes they said it like they were sort of pissed off at me. Like, who did I think I was, being skinny like that? Just who the hell did I even think I was?
Sometimes they said it and then they said, “You need to eat something. I’m worried.” And looked all worried.
(me, at 16 or 17, not particularly wanting to be thin at all, and wearing annoyingly large pants that would in a few years be too tight to pull past my thighs)
I learned that I was skinny through other girls and women constantly pointing it out. Until I was told what I looked like for the thousandth or so time, I actually hadn’t given my weight any thought. Because I was, what? Thirteen? And homeschooled. And had already decided that I was probably a perfect goddess and had moved on to other things, like practicing piano and cutting the perfect slingshot from a branch and trying to sew just one, please god just ONE, awesome golden elfin gown.
And then it turned out that I was skinny. Which was probably due mostly to my metabolism and partly to the fact that my parents cooked vegetables from my mom’s garden and chicken (always chicken! Unless it was, please, please no, fish. Ugh) for dinner.
It turned out that I was skinny. But more to the point, it turned out that being skinny was important. It said something meaningful about me.
And it continued to say all sorts of important and meaningful things about me, right up into college, when I could eat sugary cereal at ANY TIME, for any meal. It meant “at LEAST you’re skinny” when I didn’t feel pretty. And “skinny IS pretty” when I felt that everything else about me wasn’t that attractive. And “you must be a runner” to the people who attributed it to discipline and activeness, neither of which are words that really describe me at all. It meant “sexy” sometimes. “Better.” It meant “you’d better not get heavier.” It meant “why are you better than me?” from some women. It meant “you don’t deserve it” from others. It meant “why do you think you’re better than me?” from even more.
And honestly, I don’t think about all of that very much these days, because it’s been years since I was really skinny. It’s been years since someone said those words. “You’re so skinny!” with the squeaky exclamation point. And for the most part, I can’t say that I miss it. I’ve had to figure out that I might be beautiful anyway. I’ve had to figure out that I might not be, and that might be OK, too.
But the other day I saw a friend who I hadn’t seen in a year, and she was really skinny. And I thought those words. I kept my mouth shut, though. Because I should know better.
At brunch she said, suddenly, “I know, I’m really skinny. I’m not doing it on purpose.”
“Oh, god,” I said, awkward, “I wasn’t going to say anything. I mean, you look great. I mean, it doesn’t matter.”
“It’s just that people are always telling me how skinny I am,” she said. “And they act like I’m working at it, but I’m not. And I think they’re a little angry at me.”
She is thin anyway—it’s just the way her body works—and also she just went through a tough breakup. She was starting to feel a little better when we met up. I watched her wolf down a bagel and scrambled eggs and fluffy honey biscuits with plenty of butter. She told me that she’s self-conscious about her skinniness.
So often, the world doesn’t seem to let women have their own opinions about their bodies. Not everyone wants to be really skinny. Not everyone tried really hard to get there. Not everyone is worried that they don’t look thin enough in their wedding gown.
When I tried mine on, the saleswoman kept saying, “Oh, this one makes you look so much thinner!” And I kept thinking, “No, no, I’m not worried about that. I just want it to look good.” But I didn’t say anything and finally my mom, who was standing right there, said, “She doesn’t need to look thinner!” And I was embarrassed. Which reminds me that I never wrote a thank you note to that saleswoman. I think you’re supposed to. This is now officially a tangent.
OK, but anyway: I had been judging my friend. Which is a bad thing to admit, I guess. I mean, my observations relating to her weight weren’t articulate and meaningful, they were just the blurry backdrop of whatever else I was thinking. They were the strainer through which I drained my impression of her beauty. Or something. Do you know what I mean? Her skinniness registered, impressed upon me in this generic, lightly negative way. But if my thoughts about it had been less abstract they probably would’ve sounded a little like this:
Well, shit. My arms are about twice the bulk of her arms, and I’m wearing a tank top, and she probably feels sorry for me for having my arms. I could never wear that shirt she’s wearing. It would never look good on me. Everything looks so good on her. Maybe she’s trying to be skinny. Well, it’s working. Maybe she thinks I don’t have any discipline. And I guess she’s right. God. Why don’t I have any discipline, ever? Did I actually eat an entire bag of chips the other day, while watching Breaking Bad on Netflix? Yes. I have become this. A person who needs to eat a bag of chips while watching TV. I am a couch potato. Chip.
(can this be the couch to my potato? source)
But I didn’t really think that because we were talking about other, more thoughtful things, and I was glad to see her, and brunch tasted delicious and so on and so forth.
But I almost thought it.
And when she said that thing—about her own body—I felt suddenly guilty. I suddenly suspected that I was very close to becoming one of those women who take the time to care about how skinny other women are.
I had forgotten the particular weirdness of being an accidentally skinny girl.
It’s so easy to think that someone else’s body is a commentary on your own. When it’s definitely not. When it’s definitely just their body.
So, to my lovely and skinny friend, I’m sorry. The years that I spent as a skinny girl and the years that I’ve spent after that have taught me something. I know there’s more to the story. You don’t have to apologize to anyone for the way your body looks. Your body is your own, the rest of us shouldn’t get a say. I don’t think you have an eating disorder. I think you are beautiful now, and if you gain lots of weight later, I will think you are beautiful then, too, in a different but serious way.
And to all the skinny girls reading this—there’s more to your beauty than that one thing. I swear.
And to my arms, you looked fine in that tank top and no one was looking at you anyway, so get over yourselves.
I think that’s it.
Oh, wait. To that bagel with the scrambled eggs and sable, and those honey biscuits (I had the same thing as my friend)—I miss you. I miss you so much. I’m thinking of you even now.
(nothing in the world is better than a good bagel.source)
* * *
Have you been judged for being skinny? Have you caught yourself judging someone else for being skinny?
NOTE: I want to point out that of course not all skinniness is accidental. Some of it is very complicated. Some of it is unhealthy and dangerous. Some of it is going to be OK one day, and some of it is already fine and some of it isn’t and never will be. And I’m still not sure what the correct response to that is– there have certainly been times when I wished I could say something to someone who was clearly ill, and times when I said something to a friend because I knew about her eating disorder and saw that she was dieting again and that ended very badly.
Unroast: Today I love the way I look in a tank top under a skimpy summer dress. This is the first time I’ve tried it, and it actually works! I am shocked! It’s the little things!
If you didn’t see it before, think about entering the giveaway to win a cool, innovative bra that you can bravely jog in!
And here are some rousing cake pics from reader Becky, who says, “This is a pic I took at my band’s 10th anniversary party! It was delicious cake, too! (We’re Three Quarter Ale, a Celtic band that got our start at a Renaissance Faire, hence the funny costume. We threw ourselves a weekend-long Performing Arts Con to celebrate.)”
I totally want to hear this band. And yum!!