Today I packed away my “skinny” jeans. I love them so I’m kinda sad that they don’t fit anymore, but I’ll admit that I didn’t want to buy them in the first place. The years that I wore them taught me some interesting and surprising things about skinny—and fat—and how people feel about them.
For most of my life I’ve maintained an average weight, with occasional “overweight” years (according to the CDC’s definition). Several years ago I started having health problems, and while none were life-threatening, over time I lost weight. To deal with illnesses I had to make changes to my diet which led to even more weight loss. I bought jeans a size smaller, and smaller, and then a third size smaller; even my shoe size changed. My 20-something, SlimFast-slurping self would have been delighted with these changes, but I was sicker than I’ve ever been. I felt awful. It was even a little scary losing weight without knowing when it would stop.
What’s interesting is that at my sickest point, the compliments began. “You look great, have you lost some weight?” was a common question if I hadn’t seen someone in a while. I always said, “Thank you,” but felt strange accepting the compliment. I felt I hadn’t “earned” it. My weight loss was unintentional; not from being “good” and choosing the correct foods, or doing the work of exercising, but a simple side-effect of illness. Should I feel good about it? Should I explain what was happening? The whole situation was awkward.
Things got even more awkward when I started running to try to improve my health. I wanted to support my efforts by connecting online with other people in exercise programs, but found that almost everyone was trying to lose weight. Improvement to me meant gaining weight, or at least slowing my loss. How could I explain? I realized pretty quickly how I might be seen: comments about “skinny bitches” were common, so I gave up trying to participate. I remembered making similar comments years before when I had 10 (15? 25?) pounds to spare; it always made me feel better to say them, but it was pretty different being on the other side of them. I felt guilty about being thin, even though I hadn’t chosen it. I felt like I had to apologize to people when they said, “I wish I could have your willpower.” I couldn’t eat what I wanted to, when I wanted to, unless I wanted to end up in the hospital. To me, that isn’t willpower. I didn’t have a choice.
I have a 12-year-old daughter and I have been determined to spare her from body image baggage (if that’s even possible). We never used the word “fat” around our kids until they were old enough to understand how hurtful it can be. I didn’t talk about my weight, or hers. When she was 8 some of her 8-year-old friends were already talking about dieting with their moms. We just kept talking about everyday foods and special occasion foods, about exercising for fun and to stay healthy. We tried not to focus on what people looked like or what they weighed.
And that’s why I packed up the jeans. As I’ve started feeling better and have gained back some weight (yes!), my clothes just don’t fit. There’s nothing more irritating than too-tight clothing (especially jeans), and I was starting to complain about it. “Fussing” was giving it too much attention, so I put them away. While I always imagined it would be good to be thin, the experience was not what I expected. I felt guilty and isolated in addition to feeling sick. Being skinny, I’ve learned, doesn’t necessarily mean being healthy. And being healthy is exactly what I want for myself AND my daughter.
I know that this is a complicated issue and that my experience is only one small part of a much bigger picture. I’d love to know what you think. How do you feel about weight and body image? Do you feel that you’re healthy AND that you have a healthy view of yourself? If you’re a parent, how have you helped your kids to feel good about themselves no matter what shape they are?
My mother was obese, so there was always an obsession with food and weight in our house. For her, it was about losing weight through every diet that came along. But she also obsessed over what I ate so that I’d never be in the same boat. The combination of her enforcement of my eating and inheriting my father’s metabolism left me as a rail-skinny kid, but with a strange understanding of how “fat kids” feel (her words, not mine).
I now have a 4-year-old son and I’m much more moderate with him. He’s a very healthy eater, and understands healthy foods vs. treats. But because I don’t tell him that there are forbidden foods, he’s much more moderate about his junk food consumption. Case in point: in April, Grandma bought him a container of M&Ms at the store in Vegas, the equivalent of about 2 small bags. He still hasn’t eaten all of them. I, on the other hand, would have gorged myself on them in the first hour because there’s that part of me that still thinks I’m going to get caught with the forbidden junk food.
Good for you to understand and teach your daughter that healthy is always more important than skinny. Always.
I grew up being overweight. I was teased in school and never felt part of the crowd. I know this is a big reason for my lower self esteem. I never feel good enough to do new things.
I somehow managed to lose weight near the end of high school, but I still never felt skinny. I never fit into the skinny jeans but that didn’t bother me (did they have skinny jeans back then?). I managed to keep the weight off for many years but eventually I managed to eat myself up to nearly 200 lbs. Weight has always been a struggle for me. A few years after my daughter was born, I joined Curves but exercise wasn’t enough. I didn’t know portion control, so I joined Weight Watchers and lost 45 lbs. It felt great to fit into smaller clothes. I still struggle to maintain and now the extra 5+ pounds that I have gained back are the hardest to come off, but I am healthy and try to eat healthy.
My daughter is a little “over weight” according to the charts. I NEVER call her fat. We discuss what is nutritious all the time, but like me, she loves her sweets and bread. I too could eat the M&Ms in less than an hour, probably in just a few minutes. She could too, so we make sure to limit the treats, which is so difficult with everything just in your face when you go to stores. Now that it is summer she wants to go the DQ everyday.
It is important that she grows up feeling good about herself no matter what size clothing she wears.
1. I’m thrilled that you are getting healthier. I believe happiness and health go hand in hand, and I applaud you for being proactive and creating more of both for yourself.
2. My mother was a model. Now, I should be clear: I look like my father 😉 This gave her ample room to deliver very, very toxic messages to me about my appearance. It wasn’t weight, but it was plenty of other things. Same difference, really. I’ve never been obese, but I have had plenty of days I couldn’t leave the house. Thanks, Mom. Now I know better: it’s not about being the right weight, having the right nose or any other body part, or anything else like that. It’s about being the best YOU that you can be.
3. Therefore, I am SO happy to see a mom like you who delivers a positive and balanced message to her children. Thank you. Truly, thank you. My deeply injured self thanks you from the bottom of my heart.
4. I also applaud your courage for bringing up your own personal wellness on your blog. I know it isn’t always an easy thing to talk about. But our health shows in our faces and the rest of our bodies, in our voices, in our ability to work (ask me how I know LOL), and in what we can give back. And yet it’s taboo to talk about lest we seem like we’re “complaining” or clamoring for attention.
5. There are many people who will never understand what it means to be unwell. They can seem insensitive and/or ignorant. Our energy is too precious to devote to worrying about that 🙂
Many, many blessings to you, Emily.
Often I post something here and find that the comments add more to the “conversation” than what I wrote to begin with. This post is a perfect example.
I worried about writing this and have spent years trying to figure out how to share some part of my experiences. I can’t thank you enough for adding your own voices and stories.
Alisa, I love your blog. What you are doing there—encouraging people to start fresh every day, taking baby steps to feeling good about themselves and their choices—is huge. And of course, the ways that you encourage your “Tiny Kitchen Assistant” to participate in cooking and eating healthful foods are inspiring, too! You’re a great example for him and for all of us trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.
Missy, I knew some part of your story, but I’m sure I didn’t see all of the struggle or know how hurtful people were being. I know that even a little bit of “you’re too fat to wear that skirt” was enough to make me super self-conscious for years, so I can only imagine how hard that was for you. I didn’t try to diet before that, but afterward I felt there must be some particular “magic number” for people (read: guys) to like me. I was always missing it by 10 or 15 or more pounds. It’s hard to shut that off. It’s hard to focus more on how you feel than what the scale says or what size pants fit. Focusing on nutrition and exercise for yourself and your daughter is SO smart. I’m working on it, too!
Michelle, I’m trying to give a balanced message. Right now my opinion matters, but soon their peers’ comments will have more value. There’s this little window of opportunity to help them to understand that what they think about themselves is more important than any other opinion.
As I mentioned, I planned to share some version of this story two years ago, but “chickened out” because of comments I was getting. It was my thinnest point, I was under 100 pounds (I’m around 5’2″) and continuing to lose, and someone said they “wished they had my problem.” I didn’t know what to say, only felt that there is something seriously wrong with our world if women who are sick and wasting away look “great” while healthy women are encouraged to diet. Our attitudes about food and health and beauty need a major adjustment! I figure it helps us if we can talk about this issue from all sides; if we have empathy for each other and encourage each other, doesn’t it have to get better?