Because I’m a bigger girl who regularly exercises, seeing a skinny girl struggle gives me a small thrill. But just as fat doesn’t necessarily mean unhealthy, skinny doesn’t mean healthy. And every body deserves respect.
Confession: Sometimes, when I see skinny girls struggling with exercise, I gloat.
I’m not proud of it, but I can’t help myself. I pass a sports-bra’d runner with twiggy thighs on the lakeshore path—yes, it’s true, some people run slower than I do—and the gloat bubbles start to fizz in my belly. The pixie chick next to me in kickboxing needs a water break before me, and my inner cheerleader cartwheels with glee. I hold my plank a few breaths past the long and lean lady on the adjacent mat, and I grin in victory.
I know, I know, it’s not my best quality.
We live in a world that assumes you can tell how healthy someone is by their jean size. We assume that skinny = healthy, fat = unhealthy. How one got to be skinny is beside the point, as long as you’ve made it to the promised land. Instead of looking at a set of behaviors—exercise, diet, sleep, stress, smoking, drinking—we look at a single number and assume we know everything that matters.
Intellectually, I’m aware that my workout has nothing to do with those exercising near me, but as a big girl that exercises, I feel an extra pressure to be the visual reminder that the correlation between weight and wellness is very, very loose. So when an opportunity arises to illustrate the Big Girl Got Game phenomenon, I revel in it—there’s just something fundamentally invigorating about confounding expectations.
The problem is, my attitude sometimes extends beyond “Look what I can do!” into the “Look what she can’t do,” and that’s just mean-spirited. If I want to banish the expectations people have about my body, I have to recognize that the expectations I have about someone else’s are likely to be equally misguided. This would be my attitudinal cross to bear (and overcome), except for one little twist: I’ve decided to become a yoga teacher.
Letting the “skinny girl bias” percolate in my brain was one thing when I was a solo exerciser, but now that I’ll be responsible for guiding the workout of others, it’s got to go. It’s time to squash the bias and begin the challenging work of retraining my brain toward more productive, generous, compassionate thinking.
Part of the teacher prep program includes observing beginner level classes, theoretically to note the teacher’s technique. But last week, in one such observation, I couldn’t stop staring at a blonde girl in the back. And not just staring, judging.
She was supermodel thin, with jutting hip-bones, a perfectly flat stomach, thighs that never even thought about touching, and she was terrible at yoga. The teacher said right foot, she moved her left. The teacher said bump your hips forward, she bumped them back. The teacher said roll your shoulders down your back, she shrugged them closer to her ears. It was painful to watch her struggle, and instead of feeling compassion for her challenge, instead of feeling inspired to improve my teaching, instead of feeling embarrassed by my staring, I was gloating. See? I crowed silently to myself, being skinny isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be! Yikes.
I’m a yoga fan for millions of reasons, not the least of which is that yoga is for everyone. Literally everyone. It comes complete with modifications and advancements for all bodies. It offers messages of gratitude, mindfulness, body-awareness, and personal growth. It actively pushes back against all of the shit messages people absorb about how they should or shouldn’t look (ahem, Target), and instead emphasizes the radical act of self-care.
When you are a non-skinny girl in a skinny-loving world, it feels phenomenal to show people, with nothing but your biceps or lung capacity, how wrong their assumptions can be. It feels like your hard work is validated in the act of comparing and coming out on top. It can be intoxicating, this feeling.
But it’s not OK to throw someone else under the bus for self-validation. Not at yoga, not ever. The thin blonde girl I stared at, I don’t know her story. While the old me rejoiced in the momentary satisfaction of “winning,” the new me is beginning the hard work of remembering, every day, that every body is unique. Every body is worthy of care and respect. Even the skinny ones.
Photo of the author in a Parsva Bakasana variation.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.