The Gym Is For ‘Skinny People’ Too

Naturally thin people aren’t dumping grounds for body image issues, because they live in the same ever-shifting whirlwind of impossible standards as the rest of the world, says Chelsea Cristene.

My morning gym-prep routine is pretty simple. Change into a pair of breathable shorts and a tank, pin my bangs under a headband, fill up my water bottle, and hop on the scale. After I do all of these things, I’m off bounding (or reluctantly trudging, depending on the previous night’s activities) into the weight or cardio room.

A few weeks ago, an older man was gazing out the window beside me as I stepped on the scale. He turned to me and scoffed, “I hope you’re not trying to lose weight.”

I stood there for a minute, baffled. No, I’m not trying to lose weight, part of me wanted to say, but that would imply that my weight is this man’s business. Which it isn’t. I have what most people would call a thin or even “skinny” body, meaning that I’m 5’6’’, hover around 120 pounds, wear a size four in pants, and have a petite frame. And over the past several years, I’ve received comments telling me essentially this: Practicing healthy habits as a naturally thin person is superfluous, offensive to others, or, even worse, signifies that I have body image issues.

Having my body or health practices scrutinized is nothing new. Growing up, I found it impossible to gain weight given my ridiculously high metabolism and modest appetite. My pediatrician inundated me with weight charts for my age and sex, pointing to the sad little dot that always trailed far below and behind the line of averages. “That’s you,” he’d say, and I’d nod, my gangly colt legs dangling off the exam table, and I’d wonder what I could do about it. My own parents had tried. Friends’ parents had tried, sometimes nicely, other times not so much. I distinctly remember a girlfriend’s grandmother throwing a fit because she didn’t think my parents had packed me enough to eat, and embarrassingly dumping half the contents of her own granddaughter’s lunchbox into mine in an effort to “fatten me up.”

The teasing I put up with in school sounded different than what the chubby girls endured, though I’m sure it was every bit as painful. I was told to “go eat a sandwich!” and frequently asked, “Do you eat and then throw it all up at home?” “Anorexic,” was the most popular insult, one that confused me (once I looked up its meaning) because I had never deliberately starved myself.

Eventually, I found my inner snark and began to tell these bullies that my parents locked me in a closet with no food, but that didn’t stop me from coveting the fuller, rounder female bodies of my peers. I wanted thighs that actually filled up the leg holes in my shorts; I wanted breasts and hips so that the boys might notice me too. I wanted to be a “real woman.”

Years after my first period and the accompanying body changes that followed, I have the breasts and the full thighs and all the fleshy wonders of womanhood. I also have—imagine!—a slower metabolism than I did at age 12, which means that if I indulge myself at a picnic or a greasy spoon diner, I try to even things out the next day with a nice jog and some fresh veggies.

Because of my thin frame, however, there are certain rules for what I cannot talk about or do without inviting a storm of commentary. I’ve gotten the rolled eyes, the sneer, and the “What on earth do you need to go to the gym for?” simply for mentioning working out in a conversation. I’ve been asked “What, are you trying to lose weight or something?” after selecting carrots instead of chips. And I dare not mention frustrating “problem areas” like tummy pudge or those annoying little pockets that appear below the armpits with the snap of a strapless dress, for fear of sparking a “You think you have chub?! I’ll show you chub!” protest that quickly degenerates into a body-hate pissing contest. 

The rationale looks something like this: I’m not satisfied with my body, and because I’d love to have yours instead, you must love it too. Skinny people aren’t dumping grounds for body image issues, because they live in the same ever-shifting whirlwind of impossible standards as the rest of the world. Building up fuller-figured women (think “Real Women Have Curves”) is not achieved by tearing down their thinner counterparts, whose weight, at some time or another, has probably been criticized.

I’ve been called “too skinny” for a lot of my life, and though I’ve never been called “fat,” there have certainly been times when I’ve felt fat. Ami Angelowicz wrote a very smart article for The Frisky recently on the distinction between “being” fat and “feeling fat,” noting that “[fat becomes] a state of mind synonymous with negative feelings or poor self-esteem.” This means that in spite of my size four waist, I do feel icky the day after I chow down on cheese fries at Denny’s. The gym is for those days, as well as for building strength, managing stress, boosting memory, improving mood, learning new routines, and forming friendships. 

What the gym is not for is managing the weight of others, because your response to their outward appearance is not what should motivate them to make healthy choices.

Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications living in central Maryland. She writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, education, and the media. Find her on Twitter.

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