My mom never even kept a scale in the house when my sisters and I were teenagers. And if we called ourselves “skinny” she'd say, “You aren't skinny, you're thin. I hate the word 'skinny' its a negative word.” She tried her best to protect us from having negative body images, but still my whole life I've been made to feel bad for being skinny. I'm sure more than half of you have just sarcastically thought in your head, "Oh boo-hoo! What a terrible burden, being able to fit into skinny jeans." So bare with me as I explain.
My parents (although they would argue that they have put on a few lbs over the years) are tall, thin people. My sisters are tall, thin people. Several of my extended family are tall, thin people. So not surprisingly I am a tall, thin person. Yet people seem to be shocked and often offended that I am this way. And many of them assume I manufactured the total that appears on the scale through vomiting, starvation, and exercise, aka Anorexia.
The first time I heard the word "anorexia" I was in elementary school. I was probably about 11 years old. I was walking home from a friend's house when a boy across the street started yelling, "Hey there's the anorexic girl! ANOREXIC GIRL! ANOREXIC GIRL! naa-naa, naa-naa, boo-boo, la-lala-ala-ala..." (OK, I added the "naa-naa's" and "la-la's" but you get my point, he wasn't saying it as a compliment.) I had no idea what the word "anorexic" meant. I had never heard it before but from the way the boy was taunting me I knew it was something bad, something ugly, and apparently something I was.
Over the years I had so many people tell me I was anorexic that by the time I was 18 I started to believe it. People's assumptions would unfold in the strangest ways. At one of my old churches there was a woman who at potlucks would load my plate full of food for me as if I were a child. Then she and her husband would sit next to me and watch me as I ate. Or I'd have concerned friends try and talk to me casually about anorexia as of they were gathering intelligence so they could stage an intervention:
“So I saw this documentary on anorexia the other day, what do you think of that?”
“Of what?” I'd ask.
Or the more awkward and my personal favourite, “Some times I don't feel like eating, do you ever feel that way?”
And if ever I dared to say that I needed to eat healthier or exercise, people would exclaim, “WHY?! You're not fat! If anything you need to eat a cake.” And then I would have to take time to educate them about health, nutrition, and trans-fat and just because a person is thin doesn't mean they're healthy and can magically digest trans-fat, bad cholesterol, and corn-syrup, or that they have enough energy to run a marathon and climb Mt. Everest.
At times I have actually been followed to the bathroom after a meal, I guess to see if I'd barf or something!
Essentially I was taught that my body wasn't “normal” and that there was something wrong with me. I felt so awkward and ashamed. I tried to gain weight, I wore over-sized clothing to hide my ribs and hip bones, and I rarely went swimming (if I did I was usually fully dressed). I eventually went and told a therapist I had an eating disorder. She asked me to tell her about it and I said, “Well I have always been very skinny and when I get stressed out or depressed I lose my appetite.”
She looked at me kind of strange and asked, “Do you vomit after eating? Do you exercise to excess? Or have you ever taken laxatives or starved yourself to lose weight?”
“Do you weight yourself daily or find yourself counting calories even when you just ate a piece of gum?”
“Do you restrict your diet on purpose to gain a sense of control in your life.”
“Do you think your fat?”
“Then you aren't anorexic. What made you think that you were?”
Beside “anorexic” I have been called a great many other things: bean pole, light-weight, shadow, stick-girl, string bean, bony, malnourished, scraggly, twiggy, skin-and-bone, flat-chested, skateboard, etc. and have had comments thrown at me like, "Hey pick up a fork" and, "Try eating sometime." What's weirder is that people seem to think their comments are OK as if I can help how I look, that this “mild” teasing does no harm, or that they are somehow complimenting me. But often their "compliments" are just sparsely veiled jealousy, concern, repulsion, pity, or bitterness. The first time I realized this was when a massage therapist was giving me a back rub and said, “You are so skinny.” I absentmindedly said, “Thank you” but soon realized as she kept commenting appointment, after appointment, that she was both concerned and jealous and what she really meant was, “You are too skinny and I'm too fat.”
I was never really told I was beautiful by my peers until my late teens when a guy at school told me I was beautiful and dubbed me “Legs”. He sincerely meant it as a compliment and I think I could of slept with him right there in the middle of the hall if he asked me too, that's how grateful I was to finally be approved off. Soon I started getting more compliments and was approached a few times by modelling agencies. And although the negative comments come less often now they still have the same sting. Even when I gained 60lbs during my twin pregnancy I still had a few people say, “You're too small to be having twins” or “All your weight is only baby. You have to fatten up the rest of you.”
When I need a chuckle I think about a friend of mine who told me that her son was already 6 ft by his mid-teens and people often said to him, “You are so tall! Do you play basketball?” (a comment I also got A BILLION TIMES). After awhile her son got so tired of it he would reply with, “Wow, you are short. Do you play mini-golf?” I can only imagine the shock on people's faces if I in turn said, "Yes, I'm skinny. But I can't help but notice how fat you are!" Or if I gave someone a nickname like "chubby-butt face" (and to be honest in my frustration and hurt I am tempted sometimes).
I don't want to give you the impression that I'm some kind of saint and that I'm don't judge others by the way they look. In fact every time I see an obese person in the McDonald's drive thru I want to throw myself on the hood of their car and scream, “DON'T DO IT!” and although I do have a similar reaction to the thin person in the car behind them its not as extreme – which is just crazy because McDonald has the potential to kill both of them. But the point is: its no better to go around saying, “You're unnaturally skinny!” and loading a thin person's plate up with extra food than it is to say to an overweight person, “Wow you are fat aren't you?” and steal their fork. Either way you are tearing the person down. And if ever I have torn anyone down for how they look, I am deeply sorry.
(To gain some understanding and compassion for those struggling with anorexia visit "Anorexia Reflections".)