Body image has been on my mind a lot lately. Between my brief return to dating, recovering from my broken leg, I have spent a lot of time (unintentionally or not) thinking about my body and how it is perceived.
My struggle with body image is not typical. To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I’ll give a little history – I will try to keep it brief.
I was always slender as a child. When I was 15, I became skinny nearly to the point of skeletal. I did not have an eating disorder the way most people think of it – I didn’t have hang ups about food, I ate plenty of big meals, and I wasn’t interested in losing weight. I would forget to eat when stressed. And when you’re a fifteen, everything is stressful! I would have preferred to fill out and develop like my friends, but I remained in my rail-thin proportions. At my worst, after a particularly upsetting trip, I was 97 pounds and about 5’9″-5’10”.
Take a second and try to picture that. It isn’t pretty. Photos from that time are painful to look at. Often times I’m dressed in baggy clothes and an outside viewer could mistake me for a normal awkward teenager. But I know that it was much more than that.
If you see that photo and think “Oh, come on, lots of kids are skinny like that.” or “It isn’t that bad.” then please look at this second shot and keep in mind that I was about to leave for the trip that triggered my weight bottoming out. I was 10-15 pounds heavier in these photos than I was when I returned:
By the end of high school I’d managed to get up to a respectable 135 pounds. Still thin, knobby knees and elbows, but reasonable and healthy. It wasn’t until I reached college that I was able to put on any significant weight. I joined the rowing team and gained my freshman 15 in muscle. I could show you plenty of pictures from this era because I am damned proud of it. By sophmore year I’d put on enough muscle to make it to 160 and I was thrilled with every pound.
I’ve only been “plump” once in my life at 170 pounds. I’d graduated college and moved in with my boyfriend (now ex-husband). Instead of adopting my healthy eating habits, we somehow wound up with his propensity for heavy foods and very few vegetables. I got a little upset when shirts started rolling up my stomach. Really, there is only so long even a skinny bitch like me could get away with eating Ben & Jerry’s and homemade Buffer Zones the size of my head before shit caught up to me. So I scaled back the insanity and settled at a comfortable 155-160ish. Much less muscle than I had when I was rowing, but my shirts stayed put (mostly). Somewhere between my heaviest and my comfortable medium, I went home for Thanksgiving. My brother said “Have you gained weight?” followed by “You’re the only sister I could say that to without getting smacked!” He was right – weight gain wasn’t a sore subject for me.
As a (semi-recently) divorced, thirty-something, mostly mature adult, I have a healthy body and a good body image. But, while my history may be the opposite of what many women experience, I still run into people who make assumptions that are symptoms of society’s larger issue with body image.
When I switched to the Paleo diet in the Spring of 2014, I went from my “comfortable” 160 to a slender 140. I actually added white potatoes back in because I was losing more than I wanted (and didn’t like sweet potatoes enough to fulfill my need for carbs). I made the change as an experiment and I’ve kept up with it because of its effect on my overall health – not my weight. Believe me, with how much I hate clothes shopping, I did not consider going down a pants size a blessing. My shirts looked nicer after I lost a couple of “vanity” pounds around my waist, but otherwise, I wasn’t really interested in any outward changes. I saw a major improvement in my skin, allergies, energy, etc and that is what motivated me to stick with it. Still, I’m not sure most people believe me. If I was at a party and made a comment about avoiding some decidedly non-Paleo food, I’d usually get either a sarcastic comment about how I could “afford” it or implored to eat because I “needed a little more meat on my bones.” People hear a statement about food, they equate it to a statement about weight.
When I was dating (prior to meeting Dave), I got on to the topic of skinny versus strong with a guy. I told him I had a goal to gain 10lbs or so in muscle. I told him I’d had a history of being too skinny and focused on health and strength over body weight. I invited him to guess my weight. I was explicit – I would not be offended by a heavy guess, I would not be flattered by a low guess. What did he do? He guessed low and then congratulated himself for being under my real weight. I groaned and put another mental check mark in the “no” column.
Skinny is Not Strong
In late summer of 2015, after a couple of stressful weeks of divorce logistics, I weighed in at 135. I was pissed. I had no desire to be at my high school weight. When Jay commented at BJJ class that my long skinny arms were perfect for rear naked chokes, I was irked that he considered my arms “skinny.” I want to be strong – skinny is not strong. When I objected to the term, he made a light-hearted comment about eating a sandwich (which is funny, since he’s been into Paleo longer than I have). I worked my way back up near 140 and had a goal to get up to 150 because I wanted to be stronger – for myself and for my sport.
Then in the early months of 2016, when my leg forced me to be very sedentary and pain meds dampened my appetite, I lost weight again. This time, between a lot of muscle loss in my broken leg and a little muscle loss everywhere else, I was all the way down to 130. And it made me really frustrated. Dave tried to cheer me up when I mentioned how upset I was, telling me he thought I still looked good and he liked skinny. It didn’t matter that he liked skinny as well as fit body types – I had no interest in being the former.
In February I did my first Whole 30 (more on that another time, maybe) and a coworker asked if I was doing it for weight loss – I said I wasn’t and she replied with “Good, because if you don’t mind me saying, you’re already too skinny.”
Now (as in right now) I’m just under 140 and once again find myself with a goal of gaining 10+ pounds in muscle. I’m still missing about 1″ in diameter of thigh muscle on my left leg, so some of it is still simply my healed limb catching up with the rest of me. It’s amazing to me how “out of shape” I am so long after my initial injury. I can walk all day, but anything more strenuous tires me out in a hurry. Sidenote – ever try to say you are out of shape as a thin person? No one believes you. But I’m wiped out after only managing to do 1/2-3/4 of the warm ups at BJJ class. Maybe I should just start saying “out of condition” so people won’t feel the need to point out how twiggy I am.
Looking ahead, I have to figure out how I’m going to gain that weight – the elusive 10 pounds that I’ve now been after for nearly 2 years. I plan to pick up the pace of my BJJ training, but I don’t think that will be enough to get me there. I know what’s available but have to decide what’s feasible and worth my time. I have a Planet Fitness membership that hasn’t seen any use since I got clearance to go back to full contact. If I can’t go to class, I’m usually more interested in going home and getting some housework done than joining the sweaty masses at a “typical” gym. As the weather warms up, I’m hoping to go back through the Couch to 5K program. As a bonus, running means being able to bring Delta so we can burn some of her beans too.