Too Skinny?

Becs
asks:
I'm a 15 year old female and my whole life I've been skinny. Recently I've been trying to educate myself about social issues and in doing so I've come across a lot of body positivity-type stuff and most of what I see and hear about is body positivity for fat girls. And I'm totally down with that, like I think that everyone's bodies are beautiful and unique. But since I started high school it's kind of hard to remember that MY body is beautiful and unique, too. One of my best friends teases me incessantly about my skinny arms, any chance he gets he reminds me that my arms aren't strong, that I could hardly lift anything at all. I know it's a joke but I'm insecure about it. I'm very athletic and a lot of the girls on my soccer team comfort one of the bigger girls by telling her that being skinny is gross, it's better to be 'thick,' girls should have an ass. I know that girls are all different and no one should feel gross and girls with a butt aren't somehow better than me but it's hard when it comes from my friends. Recently when I go shopping, I see clothes and bathing suits and I know that I won't look good in them because of my body type. Some days I look in the mirror and I love my body. Some days I look in the mirror and I see stick arms, bony hips, no ass. And I try but it's really hard to ignore the negative thoughts. So I guess my question is: How can I feel better about my body when nothing's really wrong with it?
Sam W replies:

The crappy thing about ideal body types is that they are designed to be unreachable by 99.9% of the population: they're unrealistic.  They're about satisfying one's conception of what is perfect; that's the very definition of ideal.

Unfortunately, some ideals are also really common, especially once any kind of marketing has been involved, which is why so many people right now believe that a big butt is hot but the belly rolls that accompany it are gross, or that a skinny waist is best but skinny arms are not.

What can you do to combat how you're feeling?

For a start, you can take the stick of self-examination and poke your thoughts about your body like they are a weird creature washed up on the beach. It may feel a little repulsive at first, but if you push past that feeling you can discover some interesting things. For instance, what is it, on those bad days, that tells you that your frame and weight are bad? Whose voice does it sound like?

Sometimes, it sounds like your friends. The useful thing in that situation is that you can tell that friend to quit making cracks about your arms. Even if it's genuinely meant as a joke, that doesn't mean you have to find it funny. One brief, "Hey, could you not joke about my arms being weak? It makes me feel self-conscious," should be all it takes to get them to stop. If they keep teasing you you about it after you set a boundary, you might want to rethink how much of a friend that person really is.

What that voice probably doesn't sound like is white, western society-at-large. While some chunks of that pervasive culture are becoming more accepting of fat bodies, the majority of it still has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, towards even the idea of accepting the idea that thin is not the only "good" way for a body to be.

If you're skinny, there are still a ton of images and commentary that praise your body (although it might not feel like it when your friends are teasing you). You're also under less scrutiny; your eating, exercising, and dressing habits are not constantly monitored and strongly judged by everyone from your doctor to the cashier at the grocery store. Those phenomena are part of why body positivity focuses on fat bodies: to counteract all of the nonsense inflicted on anyone deemed "too big." It sounds like part of you knows this, but you're still struggling to feel good in your own skin.

I encourage you to take the underlying philosophy of body positivity and apply it to yourself.

Body positivity, and the fat-positive movement it emerged from, are about pushing back against several ideas. One push is to erase the belief that the world can be divided into "good" bodies and "bad" bodies. Another is to smash the idea that fat bodies are inherently shameful and unhealthy. Body positivity promotes the belief that regardless of health or size, people have a right to exist in their bodies without being constantly made to feel terrible for it, and that ALL bodies are good bodies.

You'll notice that nowhere in there is the phrase "make skinny people feel shame/skinny people are unsexy and gross." It seems like a simple process to take what body positivity says and apply it to yourself, no matter your size. But you're not the first skinny person to come away feeling like the philosophy is knocking you or excluding you, and there may be a couple big reasons for that.

First, humans -- especially westerners -- have this weird tendency to want the universe to be apparently balanced so that everything is binary, with one thing good, and its opposite, or other, bad. A lot of people struggle with the idea that all bodies are equally good because then HOW WILL THEY KNOW WHO TO FEEL SUPERIOR TO? The notion that your body is as valid as mine is radical because it removes our ability to make a hierarchy. We can't place ourselves above others based upon our physical shape: life shouldn't be a beauty pageant.

Awareness of this way of thinking, especially our participation in it, can create discomfort, even if we weren't sorting people into better and worse groups on purpose. Our need to rank things also leads to what you see on your soccer team; we're so used to thinking in terms of better and worse that a lot of people attempting to be body positive exchange one misguided idea for another. Curves are good, so no curves must be bad.

The second reason you might be struggling goes back to what I said at the start. The ideals sold to us are designed to make us feel as though we are never enough. Not skinny enough, not busty enough, not tall enough, not pale enough. No matter how much our bodies match the cultural definition of attractive, there's an advertisement somewhere designed to make us see a deficit, to see imperfection, so we'll buy whatever they're selling that can apparently make us perfect.

Even those who meet current cultural ideals of hotness are often walking around dragging a wagonload of manufactured or inherited insecurities behind us.  When we see or hear people who don't match conventional beauty standards being told they're valid or beautiful, it sets off our insecurities and makes us feel cruddy. We end up blaming how bad we feel on the person being told they look good, rather than all the cultural messages we're lugging around that made us feel that way, because the person is easier to see.

With that in mind, I'd like to suggest some things you can do internally to combat how you're feeling about your body.

You mention looking at clothes and thinking they'll never look good on you, something plenty of people have experienced. For most of my life, I've been what people call "petite." I've gotten a bit larger in recent years, although I'm still skinny enough that no one is going to give me guff for eating a hamburger or wearing a bikini, or any of the other B.S. bigger women put up with. My frame filling out does mean some clothes fit me better, but more often it means that I'm digging and digging to find things that do fit me. It was a lot easier to find pants before my butt changed shape. (Newsflash clothing makers: butts are a thing, they are a nice thing, and many of us would prefer they not feel like they are trapped in a denim Panini-press). This is the long way of saying: if you're skinny, you have more clothing choices.

Your brain is being a jerk and lying to you. Right now, you're feeling down on your body and thus have a serious case of confirmation bias. Were you to try some of those clothes on, you'd see yourself as unattractive because your jerkbrain has already decided none of them will look good on you. When you feel your brain falling into that pattern, that's the time to bring in the ideas you've learned about body positivity. Try and get into the habit of looking for the parts of yourself you like and push all the shoulds (this should be bigger, this should be smaller) out of your mind.

Hanging our self-worth on our bodies as a) objects of appeal to others and b) the others to whom they do or don't appeal doesn't usually help create or nurture a positive body image. See if you can't start working on breaking that habit.

That might feel weird, given that I just told you to focus on your body and find things to love. But a lot of us grow up with the message our value is tied to how desirable our appearance is to others. I'm betting some of that mindset is making you feel worse about your looks. Instead of thinking about whether your body is the "right" shape, think about the things you're good at or are proud of. What makes you you and not one of the billions of other people on this planet? Find those qualities and abilities, nurture them, and you'll realize you have less interest in looking in a mirror and cataloging your flaws.

There may still be days you wish you looked different, and that's okay. Nobody's completely confident about their body day in and day out. The more you unlearn the ideas causing you to feel insecure, the easier it will be to embrace all bodies, yours included.

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