Why Being Naturally Skinny Is Hard. And Why Some Asians Are Skinny

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.

No matter how skinny or curvy we look, we're all beautiful in our own ways | Weekly Photo Challenge: Intricate.

No matter how skinny or curvy we look, we’re all beautiful in our own ways | Weekly Photo Challenge: Intricate.

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.

Sometimes when we're skinny, it's hard to feel beautiful as we feel like we don't belong.

Sometimes when we’re skinny, it’s hard to feel beautiful as we feel like we don’t belong.

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.”

When we love ourselves for who we are, skinny or curvy or in between, the world is at our feet.

When we love ourselves for who we are, skinny or curvy or in between, the world is at our feet.

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?

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174 thoughts on “Why Being Naturally Skinny Is Hard. And Why Some Asians Are Skinny

  1. Growing up in a Western society and fed very well and not blessed with “skinny” genes… Le was aways called “fat” by Asian people who felt that it was a compliment they were dishing out. And you are right as long as we accept who we are, it really doesn’t matter what other people think of us? PLUS as long as we stay healthy – that is most important!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You say it so well and better than me – that “fat” is a compliment according to some Asian people. Sorry to hear that Le was on the receiving end of this word quite a bit…but that’s just how many Asian families roll. As long as we’re healthy, we have wealth. As simple as that!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Mabel, I have been trying to get over here for so long and now at last I’ve made it! What a fascinating article you’ve written here. Firstly, I am very sorry to learn of your suffering from stomach ulcers for most of your life but it sounds as if you know just what you need to keep in the best of health, which is great. I was super-skinny most of my young life. When I was 13 my then best friend was curvy with boobs while I was flat chested with skinny legs and knobbly knees and frizzy hair. My grandfather used to tease me and call me ‘sparrow legs’ which I detested and I hated being skinny. But as I grew into my teens I didn’t give being skinny much thought as my friends used to constantly talk about their diets and tell me how ‘lucky’ I was not to gain weight. In fact, like you, I went through a phase of trying to gain weight. For me, the first time I ever did was during my first pregnancy but I lost it really easily. By the time I had my daughter, my third, some 10 years later and me in my early 30s, the story was different and for the first time in my life I actually struggled to lose weight. I’ve been losing and gaining those extra 10 lbs ever since, ha! You have written an excellently balanced post, asking us to look at ‘skinny’ in a new light and I thank you for that. Ultimately, it is our health that is of the most importance and not the obsession with how thin we are. As you say, not everyone who is thin is healthy. And some people who are far from thin are actually in good health and fitness. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very sorry to hear that the ones closest to you called you names for being skinny. But perhaps they were a bit concerned for you and I’m sure they didn’t mean any malice. You sound very confident with the way your body is Sherri these days, good on you. I’m sure you are healthy the way you are but when in doubt, a GP’s opinion might put your mind at east.

      I had frizzy hair too as a kid, believe it or not. Then as I grew older the frizz faded away and now it’s straight 🙂

      Thank you Sherri for taking the time to stop by, and for the kind words. I know you are very busy writing your book. I hope that is going well. Always a pleasure visiting your Summer House ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ahh, no worries Mabel, that was all so long ago and my feelings have changed dramatically since those days! And yes, my frizz disappeared too. I blame it on hormones 😉 Hope you had a wonderful weekend and a lovely week ahead, and see you again soon. Take care 🙂 ❤

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  3. I did struggle with being skinny. My natural built is that so I for years, I tried gaining weight to put more muscles but have failed. Although I already gained compared to what I looked like a decade ago, I still feel skinny.

    People who have not seen me before always say I am skinny. They only take back the statement when they see my pictures on FB and WordPress–shirtless. That is why up to this time, I am trying my best to gain more weight. I eat and ate lot but I never got the result wanted relative to my objective. Nonetheless, I love what I have at moment but I am not stopping at this.

    As for me, I think I’d rather be skinny…

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    • Gaining weight – or losing weight – should always be taken seriously. Gaining or losing weight very quickly usually isn’t healthy as our bodies need time to adjust to our new physique. So good on you for doing that over time – I think you look very confident with a beautiful masculine body in your photos.

      Sometimes gaining or losing weight depends on the kind of food that we eat (and how our body reacts to it at different stages of our lives). It can be tricky finding out exactly how our body reacts to certain foods and whether to food we eat has nutrients to fuel the weight loss or gain process.

      In my opinion, you look like a healthy person in your photos who loves eating good food and exercise.

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    • Being skinny is not the end of the world. Being positive and focusing on what we want to achieve helps, as I found when it comes to accepting yourself for who you are 💕

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  4. Hi Mable.

    I myself know what it’s like to be skinny I have tried lots of times to gain weight but it’s not as easy as it sounds. At 25 I’m still super skinny despite what people think I do eat, not huge meals but small healthy ones. I am naturally skinny so have never been into gyms or lots of exercise, I now know that being skinny doesn’t mean I’m fit in fact I need to get fitter. I really believed I was reasonably fit till about two weeks ago.

    I work with another lady who is my age unlike me being underweight she is overweight, too be honest I thought I would be much fitter than she is but I was wrong there, I already new she was physically stronger than myself but I thought I was the fitter one being skinny.

    About two weeks ago she invited me to go walking with her after work, I thought that would be good not but not so good for me. I had to keep stoping for a rest I was exhausted. I tried so hard to walk with her but I just could not keep going up those steep hills, she wasn’t walking fast just normal but it was a long steep walk. I just felt beat I had nothing left in me at all, in the end I had to ask her to turn back my legs felt soo weak I couldn’t believe she was that much fitter than I am, she is almost twice my weight but yet twice as much strength and energy as I had, it really shocked me it’s not like it was close and she was getting tied,she told me I can keep going for a long time yet.

    So being super skinny Doesn’t mean we are fit or fitter than someone overweight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing, Suzy. “being skinny doesn’t mean I’m fit” That is so well said. Fitness depends on what we eat, whether we exercise and on any health conditions we might have at present or in the past. Being skinny doesn’t necessarily mean we can run or walk faster than those who are more heavier, and I think that’s a misconception a lot of us have. So glad you brought that up.

      It really does sound like you were struggling during that walk. Or maybe your friend is really fit and used to these kinds of walks. Or you could have been more tired than usual that day 🙂

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  5. Being Vietnamese I have no idea what whether fat or skinny is considered attractive in Vietnamese culture. Poems and songs have always celebrate women who look like “willow trees”, fragile, delicate and gentle, but at the same time with a bees back meaning very small waist and a curvy behind. This is quite a hard standard to achieve as you know many naturally skinny women have the straight up and down look. My mum’s friends are constantly trying to lose weight. My mum and I have natural skinny genes so gaining weight was as hard for us as losing weight for other people. When I was in high school there was a period where I tried to eat as much as I could in order to gain weight. Once I gained a little bit of weight my family started to say how fat I was and that I should go on a diet. Now that I’m back to my usual weight everyone gushes on about how skinny I am and that I should eat more. I feel like they have a special standard of beauty where anyone that doesn’t fit into the range is considered unattractive.

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    • It is so interesting to hear about being skinny from a Vietnamese perspective, and I never knew being thin was told over and over again in art such as poems in your culture. I’ve met a few Vietnamese females in my life, and they are not stick thin. Nor overweight. They tend to be somewhere in between and are physically strong. And they are proud of the way they are and into makeup and all things fashion.

      I am sorry to hear your family has teased you how fat you were. That must have hurt, not to mention confusing when they asked you to eat more. Sometimes the least we can do is take their opinions with a pinch of salt and move on with our lives.

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  6. Hiiii. I’m from Switzerland and I’ve found your article very interesting.
    All life i’ve been considered thinner compared to the average people. 3 girls said harsh things to me during school. : Like ” What are you? I think you are too thin. ( 1m64 & 48klg) When i hug you I feel like i’m gonna break something. You are sooo pale and skinny. ”

    Now I don’t care about it anymore. I don’t want to gain weight because of 3 stupid girls. I’m born like this, I know that i’m healthy, cute and what people think doesn’t matter. I went to several doctors and they all told me that I was perfectly fine how I am. So now I have my own ideal of beauty and I feel much more confident about myself.

    I think there is no need to worry too much about our body image.. Because the meaning of what beauty is can change from a person to another. The most important is to be healthy.

    ( Sorry for my basic english ) -.-‘

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    • Sorry to hear that you were picked on because you were skinny at school. I hope they didn’t hug you too hard. There have been times when people have given me hugs and it felt like they were suffocating me.

      I admire the confidence that you have now. You are certainly beautiful the way you are. Confidence is what makes us attractive and it is the trait in us that will get us far. Your English is actually great and I thought it was perfect 🙂

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  7. Well at least skinny people don’t feel like their being cooked alive. A small physique works best in the jungle or forested areas. This is mostly genetic. But the weird thing is my brother is skinny but he does not eat enough he used so skinny his cheekbones were showing he was only six. He is nine now still skinny but he does not look as bad as he used to. Skinny trouble makers get out of trouble easy because people are afraid they might break like twigs. Use what you got girl and make the best of it. I read a few articles that stated that asians had the highest average testosterone levels but one of the lowest sensitivity to it. Their testosterone receptors are weak in general. Testosterone burns fat and women genetically burn fat twice as fast as men and store fat more efficiently. Could it be hormone imbalance. Or more likely it could be that most Asians don’t eat enough of the right foods. Diet is 60% of overall health, my high school coach and P.E teacher would say. I think you should do the research and find out which foods can help you gain and keep on the weight and then do exercises that are not so cardio intensive as cardio for a person with your fast metabolism would defeat the purpose of it all. Consult a trusted and certified doctor and i wish you the best.

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    • Interesting to hear of the testosterone argument on the topic of why some Asians are skinnier than others, and so is hormone imbalance. Whether or not anyone eats the right foods with abundant nutrients takes a lot of careful decision making with food, and at times our body may stomach some foods better than others. But you are right – a healthy body starts with doing research and then getting a variety of opinions, and then tailoring that to suit our individual lifestyles.

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  8. Hello Mabel,
    Glad to read this article. You made a nice point. How many people do actually have perfect health? The answer is no one. At some point we all struggle for proper health. And being skinny or fat doesn’t affect your health. You can be healthy being skinny. Those who are physically fit, will definitely have some health issues. It is the way we are, and the point you mentioned to accept ourselves as we are is bang on. Whenever I see a person, I look at their values and thoughts, not their physical aspects, because bodies will never remain same, if not now, there will be a day when they will start degrading, but values will never leave you without your own consent. And that is what beauty is all about. Another great post from you Mabel, and a topic worth writing about. Be well. Enjoy your day.
    Shreyans

    Like

    • I think you said it so much more clearly than me, Shreyans, that none of us have perfect health. At different times of our lives our bodies will adapt to our surroundings and our lifestyle choices, and this can all in turn affect our weight.

      “because bodies will never remain same…values will never leave you without your own consent.” This is such a profound statement. Often we can’t permanently change how we are on the outside, but we can certainly change how we look inside and how we act. You are such a thoughtful person.

      Liked by 1 person

      • All that I said was just a reaction to your words, the way you describe things allows me to think more clearly and that is the reason I wait for your posts. I just hope that there was a gym for values, because people focus on their outer health so much that they forget about their inner being which feeds on values. Keep writing such superb articles..waiting for next.
        Shreyans

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