on being “too skinny”

(This is not what I intended to write about this morning, but I watched a documentary called “Miss Representation” last night. It largely focused on women’s roles in power in the U.S. but there were portions of it when teenagers commented on the pressure they feel to look a certain way. I am endlessly fascinated by this topic.)

 

I do not comment on weight. It’s a personal rule of mine to never tell another grown-up human being anything regarding his or her weight. In some cases, this might make me a jerk. I apologize, but I will never point out that you’ve lost a lot of weight. And I absolutely won’t mention if you gain. I understand the former is considered a nice thing to say, but I find it best to avoid the topic altogether. I’d rather not tiptoe through a conversational field riddled with landmines, thank you. Plus we already put entirely too much focus on it and it’s damaging.

 

I can’t speak for men, but I have been a teenage girl so I get it. The women who were dubbed “chubby” as kids typically spend a lot of their life trying to overcome that label. The women labeled “too skinny” in grade school face a similar, albeit less common, struggle.

 

There was a period of my life, we’ll call it – all of high school-, when I was about the same height I am now but weighed 18 to 20 pounds less (depending on the day).

For some perspective — right now at the same height and my adult weight I hover between what all those doctor charts consider “underweight” and just a pound or two above the “healthy” line. For the record, those charts are dumb and I am very healthy and appropriately sized… but that’s an argument for another day.

 

In school I was skinny. People teased me for being too skinny. My mom fielded phone calls from school faculty concerned that I had an eating disorder. I did not, but I was small enough that it was a medical problem. This part gets a little personal, but I’ll keep it vague. My doctor noticed that my body was not getting sufficient nutrients because I couldn’t put them in as quickly as I’d burn them up so my hormone levels were out of order. My body was eating up muscle instead of fat because it couldn’t find any of the latter. In short, my health as a maturing young woman was at risk. So we doubled my normal daily calorie count and I ate every hour on the hour… even in class. I switched to whole milk. My mom started sending candy bars to school with me just to add some extra calories. It wasn’t bad, really. I love candy. At the time it seemed like a bunch of perks, now I realize my body was damaging itself and the mature adults in my life were trying to fix the problem before it caused irreversible damage.

 

Through all of that I was still a pretty healthy teenage girl. I played sports in every season. I ran, and jumped, and embarrassed myself on the JV basketball court. I didn’t think too much of the people who teased me for being too skinny. I’d already been through three years of middle school with people calling me anorexic.

 

I knew what anorexic meant because I’d seen a lifetime movie when I was young about a girl who nearly starved herself to death. She’d hide her food under her bed and in closets. Her sweaters slowly became too big and her legs got so skinny that leggings fit loosely. I remember being horrified and confused about why anyone would stop eating. I knew I wasn’t that.

 

But the year I played basketball one of my best friends was. People tried to talk to her about it, then they tried to talk to me about it. I was the last person to believe she had a problem because I knew that I’d been called those things before and I knew it hadn’t been true. I spent a great deal of time defending her to our peers, defending her to adults, ignoring the fact that she had a real problem. I couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t stop making claims about her, but I remembered how much those things hurt. So I cheered her on. I told her she was fine and not to worry about what people think. I watched her spiral out of control for several months before I realized there was a real problem and she needed adult help.

 

We were two 16 year old girls, and our bodies were destroying themselves in the same way for two very different reasons.

 

I haven’t spent much time around this friend in years. I know she lives a happy, healthy life now. I wonder if, like me, she still gets a little worked up when someone says she’s too skinny. I wonder how often people comment on her weight without knowing there’s a whole story of what her body has been through and survived.

 

It’s amazing to me, the things we find important. The things we compliment are often based on looks. I was in my twenties before I remember someone outside of my immediate family telling me I was smart. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t said, it just means I don’t remember it. It didn’t register, but I can still point to dozens of times someone told me I looked pretty or skinny. That’s the world we live in, folks.

 

I’m a cheerleader of my friends. I’ve been known to gush over people’s accomplishments. It’s just a thing I do. On my twenty-first birthday after I’d had a few drinks (I was 21… sue me), I devoted a great deal of time to telling the friends I was with all about the “first time I thought they were cool”. I’m not kidding. I went around the table and told stories using that exact prompt. I’ve been known to ramble on in emails to friends telling them how great they are. I can motivate. I can dish out compliments, but I recommend never coming to me for a comment on your weight — loss or gain. I don’t know your backstory. I don’t know what your body has been through, and frankly I don’t think it’s any of my business. As far as I can tell you are a living, breathing human being who is healthy enough to be standing upright and all I can hope is that you continue to stay that way for a very long time.

 

This is me, just being a high schooler with some great friends (none of whom are mentioned above)

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