UNPOPULAR OPINION: I Wish I Could Talk About Being Skinny Without Being Dismissed

If I sound sorry for myself, I really don't mean to. I'm just putting the thin side of the story out there: it is literally not always a piece of cake.
Publish date:
October 9, 2015
unpopular opinion, body politics, skinny shaming

My name is Tess and I worry about my weight.

So far, so normal. So far, I'm guessing that most people are with me on this: a lot of us worry about our weight. Right?

But here's where the story takes a slightly different course. I worry not because I'm overweight, but because I'm under.

And sometimes that changes things.

It has been my experience (and this is very much a personal perspective) that expressing concern about a skinny figure doesn't always get you much sympathy. In fact, sometimes it gets you shut down completely. Usually with a remark along the lines of either, "But what would you know?" or "Yeah, but you don't have to worry."

Sometimes said in genuine kindness, sometimes vague incomprehension, sometimes ruefulness, and sometimes downright bitterness. The upshot of it all is that I never feel that I can express my insecurities openly. Honestly, I feel a little excluded. But that's okay. I know how it feels to be confronted with a problem that doesn't look like a problem, or is a problem I wish I had because it seems preferable to my own.

I have wondered in the past whether people thought that I was mentioning my weight (which I soon stopped doing when I realised it wasn't a popular subject) in order to draw attention to it or to get compliments. You know, in that annoying kind of faux-modest "I-know-I-look-fine-but-I-don't-want-you-to-think-I'm-vain" way. I wasn't. I didn't think I looked fine. I felt unconfident about my flat chest (32 AA) and narrow legs, and I just wanted to share it with someone.

And I think this is where some of the line-crossing comes in. I've found, on occasion, that people don't consider it rude (or at least, as rude) to exclaim things like, "Oh, you're so thin! How are you so thin! You must live on salad!" and ask me direct personal questions such as: "Do you have food issues?" (Yes, that's happened.)

Some people will very obviously look me up and down, scanning me. Others do it a little more surreptitiously. You hear phrases and terms casually used in conversations on the street, on the TV: "skinny minnie"; "she's not a stick, she's a normal girl"; "she needs to put some meat on her bones."

One time at a party, greeting an acquaintance, I got rebuffed with: "I don't want to stand next to you, you make me look like a heifer." At which point she actually turned her back on me, walked over to the other side of our little group, and avoided me for the entire night. Her issue, not mine, but it definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. (How. Incredibly. Rude!) My point is: can you imagine the shitstorm if you asked an overweight person, "So, do you have a problem with food...? You must live on burgers!"

Another comment I've often received is the classic, "You can't put weight on? Oh, you're lucky." Normally I just smile and make some non-committal remark or other, usually a reference to genes (thus passing off all responsibility for myself), then change the subject. I realise that I'm lucky in certain ways, yes I do. But I also wonder if people realise the realities of this inability.

Apart from the aesthetics of wishing I looked more "womanly," my main concern is health. At 5.5" and 7 stone (98 pounds or 45 kg), I am clinically underweight. My BMI is embarrassingly low. I have no bodily resources to cope with a serious disease. None. In my mid-30s, this scares me.

People say, "So just eat more!" as if it's that easy (I imagine this remark is the mirror image to "So just eat less!" for overweight people - never as straightforward as you'd think). No matter how much calorific junk food I put away, the weight won't come on. Doctors hover around the possibility of a thyroid problem, but my blood numbers are always borderline normal so I'm never sent for further testing. Some doctors ask about an eating disorder, some don't. I don't especially mind that - they're medical professionals. But I do find myself making mental comparisons about what I eat to everybody else to see if it's a "normal" intake. On the whole the answer is yes. (Although to satisfy any curiosity: yes, I'm more of a grazer than a gorger; yes, I tend to eat on the healthy side although I don't exclude anything; and yes, I'm about as guilty as everyone else when it comes to not eating a proper breakfast).

But here's the rub: a lifetime of people mentioning my weight (whether nicely, rudely or in concern) has, gradually and imperceptibly, made me a bit self-conscious about it. I never really worried about it when I was younger (maybe because when you're a teen/early twenty-something, people still expect you to be thinner), but now I won't even wear a bathing costume on the beach. At the back of my mind, I'm worried that people will glance at my bony shoulders and protruding hip bones and think, "Urgh, bet she's got an eating disorder."

Being body-conscious - sound familiar? I guess it's not the nature of the worry that's important, but that we, as human beings, are worried about something in the first place. I look at women with boobs and curves and I feel a bit like a 14-year-old boy, but I suppose that all of us look longingly at the things we are not, or can't seem to have.

My fundamental belief is that we are all different shapes and sizes, and we all worry about something. Perhaps when beautiful girls talk about feeling ugly, or people with perfect hair bemoan their "bad hair life," maybe they really mean it. At the end of the day, it's all relative. What doesn't seem like a problem to us might be a problem to someone, and maybe it's just that we just don't see it.

I don't want to be seen as something to aspire to for impressionable teens who might be prone to developing an eating disorder. I don't think being underweight is healthy. I don't want people to assume I must be on a diet, or ill (although maybe that's understandable at first glance, I don't know).

But mostly I don't want underweight women to be pitted against overweight women, or pretty women to be pitted against plain women, or even childless working women against stay-at-home mums. I can't bear those magazines in which one page screams the headline, "She's slimmed down but she looked better before!" followed immediately by a page about which celebrities have got fat, a third on "accepting yourself as you are," and still a fourth on dieting tips. No wonder everybody's confused.

If I sound sorry for myself, I really don't mean to. I'm just putting the thin side of the story out there: it is literally not always a piece of cake. Ultimately, I want what everybody wants: to be a healthy weight that I can feel happy about, and for us all to accept each other as we are, kindly, without judgement, in whatever shape we come in.

Do you remember the Dove "real beauty" campaign that used "real women" in its advertising? I can totally understand its motivations: a protest against the beauty industry for using predominantly thin models to market its products; a voice of dissent that cried that these thin girls did not represent the vast majority of consumers. That is absolutely fair enough; I totally get it.

But from the perspective of an ordinary, non-model thin person, I felt a little left out. Was I not a "real woman" too? For the sake of female equality and solidarity, I believe that every size from 0 to 24 should have been represented. We're all real women, every single one, and we should be able to talk about it.