On being thin

I had lunch today at a mostly-vegetarian place in town with some friends. I scanned the menu and noted that there were an awful lot of beans and rice, and not much in the way of hamburgers and fried potatoes, my eating-out meal of choice. I thought: well, I should probably have some veggies anyway, considering how infrequently I eat them. I ordered a side order of them, cooked, because salad as a meal is for Californians. I was walking in to grab some silverware for our table, and the cashier stopped me and asked if I was, you know, eating enough. “You’re so tiny,” she said.

I turned bright red. “Um, no, I eat,” I said “I already basically ate lunch anyway.” Yes, my mid-morning snack was a decent helping of gluten-free lasagna.

“I struggled with it, like, four times,” she replied “it’s not worth it.”

I had no idea how to convince her I probably ate more than she did by twice, so I just said, “I’m paleo. I eat, like, three things of meat a day.” Hence why I wasn’t ordering much at the vegetarian joint. I don’t think she bought it, so I just slunk back out to join my friends.

And I sat there thinking, I’m not “so tiny,” thank you very much. I was half-tempted to roll my sleeves up and start flexing to prove it. Or rip my shirt off and yell, “how about now; do I look anorexic now?”

I’m 5’7”, and right now I weigh about 116 pounds. That sounds small, I guess, but for me it’s completely healthy. I think I’m 34-25-36, which theoretically is pretty close to voluptuous. Since adulthood, I’ve hit below 110 pounds, and up to 150 pounds.

When I was a kid, I was scrawny and short enough that my parents were worried there was something wrong with me. I had my first blood test at age 8 — they checked my thyroid and found out I was normal, just small for my age. I ate a lot — meat was my favorite. And, slowly, I grew. Eventually, I was taller than average — I who had been the runt of every age-appropriate class I’d ever attended.

In college, I started gaining weight longitudinally rather than merely latitudinally. At the time I thought this was really weird given how skinny I’d been for so long, because I would go to the gym three days a week, and I ate pretty healthy. Well, kind of — my main concern was being cheap, so I ate the most nutritious prison-style food I could find — raw oats, lots of potatoes, whole wheat bread, a $4 block of cheese, bulk soy powder, dried beans, and the least expensive meat I could find, which was primarily of the hot dog variety. Then, of course, if I had access to free food, I ate it, even if it was pure starch (as free food often is). I spent $30 a month on food, but I was getting very little clean animal protein and little to no decent fat. I rarely felt satisfied, but I kept gaining weight, even if it was just a couple of pounds a year.

I topped out at around 150 pounds in the summer of 2002 when I went to Taiwan and ate fried food and sweet bubble tea for a month. It was so humid that doing anything outside, even going on a short walk, was agonizing — the one day it rained, I danced in the courtyard with my friends, getting drenched, relieved beyond measure to be out in the open with a moderate body temperature.

Me in early 2006, second from the right

In 2004, I moved to France to teach for a year. The French eat differently than Americans, with less guilt and more butter, and the pricing scheme of their food meant I bought higher quality ingredients for less money than I’d spend shopping in the processed aisle. I walked everywhere — nothing new, but Rouen, at 400,000 people, was much bigger than my college town — and I frequently treated myself to fresh pastries, but when I came back to the United States in 2005, my friends asked if I’d lost weight. I wasn’t sure, but I thought so.

I started grad school in 2006, and I had enough money from my teaching salary that I could splurge a little more on food than I had as an undergrad. I bought chicken and veggies and generally ate more like I had when I was in France. I bought a road bike and used it almost exclusively. By the end of grad school, I weighed about 125 pounds.

In 2008, I got a real job and married a lawyer, which meant our food budget was enough that I could splurge. Between that and the stress, I dropped another ten pounds in a year and a half without ever meaning to. I was too stressed and in physical pain to work out anymore; running and biking hard made me feel ill, so I lost most of my muscle mass.

I got divorced in 2009, alarmed at how little I weighed — the lowest since age 17. I made an effort to get healthy again, and cured myself of my debilitating chest pain. I was still pretty skinny, but I looked and felt OK again. I remembered that I’d been skinny for most of my life, so I ate whatever I wanted and called it good.

Me in 2010, fitting into my Grandmother’s 22-inch-waist dress from the 1940s.

There were a lot of people who apparently thought I was still too skinny, however, and they made a point to tell me so. They asked what I ate and gave me plenty of non-expert medical and nutrition advice. They suggested I do more squats at the gym. They suggested I eat until it was uncomfortable. In fact, everyone had a different approach I should take to gaining weight. Some of them listened at the bathroom door to make sure I wasn’t bulimic. I started protesting, automatically, whenever anyone brought up how small I was, “I’m just small-boned.” I started wondering, am I the only person who thinks it’s weird that people are allowed to pass negative moral judgement on thin girls this way? It seems way more culturally acceptable to give me unsolicited nutrition and weight advice up close and personal than it would be to stop an obese woman on her way to grab silverware and give her unsolicited nutrition and weight advice.

The thing of it is, I do have small bone structure. I’ve always had small bone structure. Even at less than 110 pounds, I still had curves. In that way, I’ve won the genetic jackpot, I guess. But in other ways, it’s a huge inconvenience — even aside from the unsolicited comments. I am so slight that I tend to injure myself at pressure points that would not even phase someone else; right now, I’m recovering from a cracked rib that wouldn’t have broken on a larger person. Before you start saying that’s probably my own fault, I’ve faithfully taken calcium in various forms and drunk milk my whole life. This actually was worse when I was heavier; I injured my wrists repeatedly trying to hang my weight from them and my joints hurt when I ran, which has not been the case recently. Now I can do pull-ups, no problem. Strength to weight ratios, baby.

All of the unsolicited advice affects me, as it affects anyone. I stopped doing cardio years ago, opting for the occasional sprint instead. I’ve played with things, stopped eating gluten, started eating more meat and fat. At one point, I made a food diary and checked in with a nutritionist, and she told me my diet was perfect. I got a few blood tests to check my thyroid, iron and so on, and everything was still normal.

This last winter, it got to the point that I literally tried to gain weight and literally lost weight instead — hence, despite being mystified and frustrated by my excess pounds for years, sometimes I have a hard time believing weight loss should be difficult for anyone. Apparently all you have to do is a little cold-weather recreation while you eat a ton of organic grass-fed meat, organic veggies, dark chocolate and as much butter, cream and coconut oil as you can get down.

Or maybe I just have parasites from all my travels. It’s something to consider. I’ll probably get that tested soon.

9 thoughts on “On being thin

  1. As a fat chick I can tell you that both ends of the spectrum get weird and unasked for comments about how to be more average. Good luck, I say. I’ve always leaned chubby as you have leaned thin. I’m gluten free and almost but not quite vegan. I should be thin. There we are.

    We are beautiful and rudeness should be punished with a cold eye and a “Why do you ask?”


  2. My sympathies. I am a bit bigger than you, though the same height, and I have gotten unsolicited comments my entire life. Some people have been downright vicious with their words but most have just been clueless about the cumulative effect of them. The three-thousandth repetition of “You’re so thin! You should eat more!” or “Gah! I hate you! You’re so thin…ha ha…” is 2999 times too many.

    1. I think so, but it’s less, shall we say, catty. I’ve certainly tried to “fatten up” various males by feeding them e.g. peanut butter milkshakes. I don’t think they minded much, however. And hey, if it’s in the form of free food (that I like) I rarely mind that much either. It’s really the pointed “for your health” commentary that annoys me.

  3. I have always gotten skinny girl comments–usually from jealous women who were older than me and hated their post-partum mom bodies. Now I am post-partum and still get the same comments! I started eating paleo about a year ago, when I got pregnant and my new husband introduced me to real nutrition. Hurrah for grass-fed meats and fresh cream and butter!!

    Just as an aside, it is so cool to find a sane Botkin! My cousins are also leaders in the quiverfull/patriarchy movement, and I just celebrated 1 year since leaving their church (a sister church to nearby BCA). I guess I feel that you and I are kindred spirits in a way, only I am much newer to the free world.

    I love your writing. Keep it up.

  4. Actually, I think one big reason there is so much more obesity among the poor in the U.S. is that those of us who have a more limited food budget, can’t afford the high-quality Paleo foods that you love. If we could all afford to eat Paleo, no one would ever have to count calories or limit their portion sizes.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean we’d all be as voluptuously-slender as you are, as there’s a tremendous amount of healthy variation among human physiques — it just means that we’d all find it a lot easier and more natural to stay within a weight-range that’s healthy for each of us..

    Here’s to hoping that the U.S. will quickly see the need to take the money they’re currently using to subsidize big agriculture, and start using it to support self-sustaining communities, where practically all of our food and other resources are grown/produced near our homes.

    Then food prices won’t have to keep going up whenever the price of gas does, and maybe the money we were paying for transportation can go for quality instead. Of course, there’s also the issue of outsourced production being so cheap that it totally offsets the cost of transportation…I realize the problems are not exactly simple, but I’d love to at least see our government moving in the right direction.

    1. I agree. It is more expensive to eat quality meat and veggies, or at least most of the time. I will say that my own food budget is currently low, so it’s always a bit of challenge and I end up buying a lot of about-to-expire stuff, for example, and buying bulk and freezing it.

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