Note: This piece was shared with me by a young woman I am lucky enough to call my friend, and who has asked to remain anonymous. When I read I Am Not Skinny, I realized her experience would resonate with so many women–she could have been writing about me during the first thirty years of my life. I know her words will touch you, and I am privileged to share them.
Skinny is a word that has been applied to me throughout my life. Sometimes I have claimed this label myself, though it more often comes from other people. This may take the form of remarks on how my eating habits will benefit me throughout my life, or compliments from friends and family about my physique. On rare occasions someone asks if I am a model. What stands out most starkly is when, upon meeting me for the first time, somebody exclaims “You’re such a small person!” This actually happens with astonishing frequency. Feel free to substitute the word little, petite, slender, or any other variation of that sentiment, though most people say skinny. I really wish they wouldn’t.
For most of my life, I didn’t think about my size. When I was younger and less aware of social beauty norms and the impact of what it means to be skinny, I often claimed this label myself. I gladly sat in the middle seat, topped any and all pyramids, and wore belts cinched down to the tightest loop. I had friends with similar physiques, which lessened the awkwardness of adolescence. I grew like bamboo, gaining inches overnight without adding a pound. The gangly solidarity of my youth normalized my sense of being skinny. I never questioned why or how I came to be that way or whether there was anything unusual about it.
As I grew older, comments about my form took on a different tone. Skinny no longer meant scrawny, but began to serve as a synonym for healthy and beautiful, even sexy (all of which are problematic conflations). Compliments were geared toward the seemingly effortless maintenance of my physique. I deflected such comments by offering some explanation about my exercise or eating habits, but internally relished the acceptance. I craved recognition from society, from others, from my peers, and my chronic low self-confidence savored the external validation I received for being skinny. Left unsaid in these compliments is the necessity of staying skinny, but that condition is always implied.
Only recently have I become aware of my size and what it means in mainstream U.S. society. Constant attention from others about my size has now made me acutely aware of it. Worse yet, it has become integral to my sense of identity. When people regularly remark on my build, they reinforce the connection between my weight and who I am. It gives me the idea that I have to be skinny in order to be myself.
I am not particularly fond of this idea, nor am I fond of the consequences of internalizing this idea. Hearing from others about my weight causes a few different responses. When talking with others, I find myself making more and more comments about feeling fat. This creates a vicious cycle in which the people hearing these comments reassure me by reiterating the same insidious compliments that got me here in the first place. When I tune in to my internal narrative, I find obsessive thoughts about how my body looks and feels. How my clothes fit, how my reflection looks in the mirror, and what food I put in my mouth all receive too much mental space.
I want to be who I am without also being conscious of the size I am. The two are not the same thing. I struggle to separate them because as long as others continue to connect my weight with my identity (“You’re such a small person!”), external validation will fuel my low self-esteem and trap me with obsessive thoughts. I need to believe for myself that who I am is separate from my size, which means not only resisting but actively pushing back against a lifetime of social conditioning.
There is very little I can do to change other people, and nothing I can do to change those initial reactions to my size, so instead I have to change myself. What seems most problematic to me are the obsessive thoughts invading my head. As long as I continue to be preoccupied by size, I will never separate my self from my weight because I am trapped by societal norms. I have yet to cultivate the self-compassion necessary for accepting myself at whatever size I am, and loving myself is even more elusive. Instead, what has helped me to soften those thoughts is realizing the violence and disgust behind them. My body is not a battlefield. Telling myself on a regular basis that there is something wrong with the way I am, and concomitantly who I am, is a constant assault on my value and worthiness, and precludes the possibility of ever being enough. This realization does not prevent the thoughts from returning, but it does interrupt them, however fleetingly. Until I find the next step forward, those brief moments of respite will be my solace.