Monday, November 2, 2009

Being Skinny

For the last few months, I have been having an experience that I gather would be envied by most adult Americans; I have been losing weight without trying to. A few small changes to my diet and exercise regimen have had the inordinate effect of causing me to drop about ten pounds, which is almost eight percent of my former body weight.

This weight loss has exposed me to something else that I wasn’t pursuing: unsolicited approval from casual acquaintances. This is especially true at one of my kickboxing schools, where I have been receiving a number of compliments.

A sweet but slightly unhinged middle-aged woman who takes every chance she gets to try to knock my head off with wide, looping haymaker punches appears behind me as I am warming up and pats me on the shoulder.

“You’ve lost a lot of weight,” she says, smiling, as I turn to face her.

“I suppose,” I mumble back, embarrassed at being complimented for this.

She smiles encouragingly at me. “You look good,” she adds, before heading off to grab a jump rope.

A friendly young kickboxer stops me on my way out of the gym. “You’ve really slimmed down,” he says.

I nod and shrug, not sure how else to respond.

“You’re not psyched about it?” he asks me.

“I wasn’t really trying to lose weight,” I reply.

Now he looks unsure of how to respond. We are clearly speaking different languages.

“Well, you look really fit,” he says finally.

This is a compliment that I can comfortably, even happily accept. “Thanks,” I say.

Of course, I have to appreciate their desire to say nice things about my physique; still, a part of me is tempted to respond with snotty answers:

I just got over pneumonia.
I have cancer.
I have an eating disorder.

After all, it seems to me a bold assumption that a person who has lost weight a) did so intentionally, b) did so in a healthy fashion, and c) is happy about it.

I’ve never felt good about being complimented on my weight, and I don’t compliment other people on theirs. Weight is bound to fluctuate, so the backhanded compliment is always implied: you look good now, but when you gain that weight back you won’t look as good.

The praise that I have been getting communicates to me that I needed to lose weight, which I don’t believe I did. Ten pounds ago, I was far from overweight; I was what most people would call thin, curvy, and athletic in build. I ate an extremely healthy and light diet, my weight was smack-dab in the middle of the “normal” BMI range, and I trained vigorously about fifteen hours per week.

I wasn’t trying to lose weight, nor have I ever tried to lose a significant amount of weight as an adult. The changes in diet and exercise were just to increase my fitness level, adding daily pull-ups, increasing my running speed, cutting some starch out of my diet. These were all things that I have done in the past, for limited periods of time; but for reasons I am not totally sure about, right now seems to have been the perfect time for these changes to stick. I can understand that I look fitter at this weight, but I resent the implicit suggestion that I was significantly less fit, or really less acceptable in any way, at my previous weight.

Perhaps the greatest reason I am not “psyched” is because I don’t feel that I necessarily look better at a lower weight. I have been enjoying looking more muscular and less soft, but I’m not sure this look is what I’d call attractive, at least not in any feminine sort of way. I associate my own skinniness with hard work, self-discipline, and a certain level of deprivation. Ever since I was a teenager, I have noticed that I am sexually validated for being skinny, yet I feel more ascetic and disembodied at my lowest weight. My figure is too spare to be sexy--my chest and hips are smaller, and my clothing floats around me like it's on a clothes hanger.

When I think of the woman and men I find attractive, they generally have a decent portion of body fat covering their nice, limber, hard-earned muscles. Sexuality seems like it should be associated with appetite, with indulgence, not with plain beans and steamed kale.

A friend of mine wrote an article once discussing women’s feelings of inadequacy when they compare themselves to models in fashion magazines. She urged women to think of these “perfect” models as objects of attraction, and to ask themselves: Am I attracted to this skinny, fashionable, painted woman? If not, what kind of women am I attracted to?

My own answer was easy: strong women, physically and mentally, smart women, creative women, women with wicked, clever facial expressions, brave women, women who are as wonderful with a BMI of 27 as they are with a BMI of 18.5.
Thanks to Sondra Gates for letting me use the drawing of She-Hulk, which she purchased at an auction benefitting breast cancer research. I was especially excited to learn where she got the drawing, since one of my favorite strong, brave, and creative women is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and yet somehow manages to throw crazy scary hooks and roundhouse kicks every week.


sondra said...

I go through this every year! I put on weight in the fall (often about 10 pounds) and lose it in the spring. It's hard not to like all the compliments I get in the summer, but I can't help but notice that those "You've lost weight--you look good!" comments are never followed up in the fall with "You've put on weight--you look good!"

Plus, it's weird to accept credit for something that requires no effort on my part. In the fall, I'm hungrier, so I eat more. In the spring, I'm less hungry, so I eat less. . . . so, in the spring I deserve compliments?

But then, I'm always torn about what to do when I meet someone I haven't seen in a year and that person has lost fifty pounds and gone from being above-average weight to average weight. Chances are that person has put forth some concerted effort to make those changes and would appreciate it if I noticed. It's a little awkward, though, to say, "Hey, you look as fabulous as you've always looked, but if you've accomplished a weight-loss goal--not to assume that you have--then yaay for you, even though it doesn't matter to me how much you weigh!"

The "fit" comments raise a whole nother issue. Perhaps in an effort to avoid conflating "thin" with "attractive," people conflate "thin" and "fit." I have a friend I see every summer who struggles to lose weight, and she always asks me, "How do you stay so fit?" It would probably sound a bit callous if I told her, "I'm not at all fit. I'm a sedentary blob whose amoeba-like body happens to morph itself into this shape through no effort of its own. Sorry. Wish it could be that easy for you."

Karin Spirn said...

I remember that same thing from when I lived in Michigan. I would gain weight every winter and lose it every summer. Coming from California, it took me a while to just accept that clearly my body NEEDED to gain some weight to deal with the winter--I had never before in my life had insane, insatiable cravings for macaroni and cheese! And then in the summer it would be so hot that I could hardly eat anything at all. This definitely affected my idea that our weight is meant to fluctuate and that we shouldn't always be at our skinniest.

I try to treat other people's weight the same as pregnancy--I don't say anything unless they bring it up themselves. (Usually--I have some rude moments where I bust out with, "Why are you so SKINNY!" or something).

Jessica said...

Ugh-- my neighbor is losing weight because of a bad and scary family situation. She has been trying to lose weight for a while but her situation-- which has killed her appetite and given her less time to cook for herself-- is not healthy for her. So, next time someone compliments you on your weight loss take it from my neighbor and say,"Oh, thanks-- my husband is in rehab and I have no time to cook because I'm stuck at home by myself watching our toddler! Glad you noticed!"

Anonymous said...

Sexuality seems like it should be associated with appetite, with indulgence, not with plain beans and steamed kale.

matt lucas

Melinda said...

Oh girl, I hear you. Everyone - and I do mean everyone, from family to absolute strangers - comments on my weight. I guess it's really obvious when I gain or lose; either that, or people assume that I don't feel annoyed/bothered/concerned that I should be the object of such scrutiny.

I never bring up someone's weight unless I know that they've been trying to lose it, or if they bring it up. But I really hate people who complain constantly about their weight. Because my work involves a lot of eating and drinking, and is basically sedentary, it can be difficult to keep fit but I generally don't freak out if I gain a few pounds b/c I know that I will get back to normal eventually.

Karin Spirn said...

I actually specifically remember how you never stressed about your weight in college, when everyone else did. But if your skin broke out the tiniest bit, you'd be like, "No drinking! No meat! I am eating nothing but fruit!" All of which was, needless to say, quite out of character for you otherwise. It always put my own particular version of vanity into a new perspective.