Being naturally skinny and thin isn’t always a blessing. It’s usually far from it. Just like those on the heavier side, a number of us skinny people often get grief and discriminated over the way we look.
For my whole life as an Australian of Chinese heritage, I’ve been skinny and never had an eating disorder. At school in Melbourne (and later Malaysia and Singapore), I was always the thinnest among my classmates. Skinny bones, twiggy, stick, flat chested like a surfboard…I heard all those nicknames back then and felt like a walking freak show.
Today at twenty-something years of age, my collarbones protrude when I wear wide scoop neck T-shirts. When my arms are bent, my elbows look as sharp as the corners of a rectangular glass table. When I sit, my two kneecaps stick out on my chicken legs, looking like the tops of mushrooms. Only once in Australia have I met someone as skinny as me. According to a national health survey conducted in 2012, just 1.7% of the Australian population is underweight.
Some people look at us who are skinny and think we’re unwell, think there’s something physically wrong with us even if we exercise and eat well. Having a non-skeletal-looking body is favoured in some Asian cultures – it’s symbolic of affording to eat well and living a fairly well-off life. At Chinese family gatherings, it’s not uncommon for someone (usually from the older generation) to loudly gush how “fat and big” (féi zuó / 肥咗) the long-time-no-see cousin/aunt/brother/blood relation looks after packing on a few kilos.
Over the years, my parents harboured this sentiment. Dad worked outstation a lot when I was younger and on the occasions he came home, he asked me, “Have you put on weight? If not, you’ll become a dried monkey”. Water mixed with Appeton weight gain powder was the breakfast drink my parents made for me each morning when I was in high school. However, my weight didn’t balloon at any point. It’s understandable some might feel concerned for those who are skinny: people who are stressed are known to lose (or gain) weight. Research shows about one third of underweight Australians over 14 years old experience stress regularly, more so than those who are overweight.
There are some who think skinny isn’t a good look, that a skinny body is an undesirable façade. This isn’t much of a surprise since “skin and bones” is the common face of death. Growing up, my mum nagged me to gain weight and said if I didn’t, my face would become “ugly, sunken”, akin to the hollow cheeks of numerous waif-thin Caucasian women. In Asian cultures, round cheeks are prided upon, usually giving one a youthful look that is lusted after by many in this cultural group.
Being skinny, we might feel unloved in the realm of physical affection. Countless times when I hugged someone, they said, “Stop hugging so hard!”. When I sat on people’s laps as a kid, they muttered that I felt like a sack of rocks draped over their thighs. As the laws of physics state, for a given force, if the surface area is smaller, the pressure is greater. Maybe spindly arms and legs do inflict much pain on others.
There are some who think skinny people are lucky to eat what they want and stay in the pink of health. For some of us on the thin side, this is true. For others, not so – a skinny person might have hyperthyroidism, Crohn’s disease or other health ailments affecting their figure. Most of my life I’ve suffered from stomach ulcers and eat small meals as medically advised. It’s anyone’s guess if this has anything to do with my reedy figure.
Some of us of Asian heritage tend to be skinnier than Caucasians for arguable reasons. Serving sizes are smaller in Asia compared to Western countries, so Asians living in Asia are inclined to consume less calories and perhaps resulting in thinner figures. Moreover, it’s customary to have at least a dish of veggies with many an Asian meal. When I moved back to Australia after ten years in Asia, each time I ate out in Melbourne I could never finish what I ordered. However, growing up my mum made way more meat than veggie dishes.
Many in Asia still make a living doing manual labour, which takes a toll on bodies. For instance, in China millions of farmers stoop under the sun planting rice. Genetics and high metabolism are also debatably reasons why some Asians tend to be of skinny stature.
These days desired beauty is unfortunately idealised stereotypes. It’s ironic how the world applauds certain skinny people and shames other skinny people. Don’t we always applaud athletic sprinters with dainty-looking muscles and nod understandably at those who are lithe and into exercising and dieting? Don’t we often express the least bit of surprise when we find out a skinny someone eats a lot but isn’t the physically active kind? Thinness is associated with the negative, especially eating disorders. In Australia, almost a quarter of young women develop anorexia nervosa and 5% of the population suffer from bulimia, and the fact these disorders can be overcome is often overlooked.
The hate on skinny (and curvy) is partly due to insecurity, jealously and our desire to fit in. We compare ourselves to others to learn from them and better ourselves. It’s no surprise we are tempted to emulate those we idolise, emulate their mannerisms and even body shape. “Look good, feel good”, as the saying goes and a phrase constantly featured in weight loss ads. Why not “feel good, look good” instead? Feel good with a bit of flab around the waist or feel good with ruler-like arms?
A few years ago I asked a doctor how to gain weight; she put me on a new eating plan – an extra serving during each meal. For the next month I threw up after each meal and carried around a lethargic body. A visit to another doctor soon followed. She checked me from height to toe and scrutinised my medical history…and told me I was healthy the way I am.
In a world so obsessed with body image, it’s easy to forget what “healthy” really is. Healthy is a lifestyle and different for each of us, depending on health conditions we may have – exercise, food, sleep, choices we make that affect how we feel physically and mentally. There are millions of things we can do if we have good health, a million things to be thankful for. As dancing violinist Lindsey Stirling who overcame anorexia and the dilemma of looking “perfect” said, “No matter what you look like, that isn’t where your happiness is sourced.”
Beauty knows no boundaries. Beauty, is intricate. There’s no such thing as a perfect body, and there’s also no such thing as an imperfect body. Our bodies change our entire lives: we pack on the pounds, pack it off or vice-versa as we age. Hormonal changes affect our weight too and so at times we can’t help the way we look. When I was ten, I noticed cellulite resembling race tracks etched on my chicken-leg thighs. Today these marks are wider. I’ve never done anything about them. Don’t care since they don’t affect how I see, walk, talk and my ability to write stories as a writer.
And I don’t care anymore that my skinny body resembles the physique of the typical twelve year old’s. Or that my wrist measures less than 5-inches. That’s the way my body is. That’s me. In defense of naturally skinny people, being thin isn’t always a disease. Being thin, curvy or a shape in between isn’t something to be ashamed about. We’re all individuals with different looks, different talents.
Beauty. It’s about accepting who we are.
Have you struggled with being skinny? Do you know people who are thin?