I used to stand in front of the mirror and wish my butt was bigger, my thighs were fatter and I was about three inches shorter.
I was 13 and it was the era of skin-tight designer jeans—a fashion that didn’t complement my growing, stick-thin body. Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein and Jordache jeans—all the girls had to have them. And the tighter the fit, the better they looked. But with the body of a 10-year-old boy (which I still have in many respects), those jeans were anything but the hip-hugging, body-accentuating pants they were meant to be.
The butt sagged, the thighs were loose and the denim just drooped on me like a wet sweater hung out to dry. Wanting so badly to fit in though, I got creative. I learned how to use my mom’s sewing machine and took the legs in an inch or two on the inseam. Luckily it was also the era of thick terrycloth shorts, so I started wearing a pair under my jeans to fill out my backside. When that wasn’t snug enough, I wore two pairs. Imagine my dilemma when gym day rolled around and I had to change in front of the other girls, revealing my fake fat.
On top of my fashion plight, I grew up to the constant rhetoric of “you’re so skinny”, “look at those scrawny legs”, “don’t you eat?”, “You need to put some meat on those arms.” One friend even graciously nicknamed me “no butt” or “NB” as she used to address me. I’m pretty sure these people didn’t mean it as an insult when they commented on my thinness, but I’m also pretty sure they didn’t mean it as a compliment. Either way, my inner response when someone said, “You’re so skinny” was “You’re so fat.” Because to me, the statement was basically the same. It was saying something derogatory about someone’s body and judging them based on their appearance.
I spoke to body image expert and author of Good Girls Don’t Get Fat, Dr. Robyn Silverman, who understood this, saying when people comment on your body—no matter what size—it can be damaging:
People don’t want to be evaluated for one thing. They want people to see themselves for who they are. Skinny can mean over-controlled, not eating, over-exercising and/or someone who thinks she’s all that. When someone says you’re skinny, instead of it being a descriptor, it has baggage that comes with it. It feels like someone is judging you, or some stranger knows something about you when they don’t know you at all. Telling someone they’re skinny is so much more acceptable than saying someone’s fat in our country, but neither are correct.
All of those “skinny” comments made an impression on me during those troubling growing-up years and led to a negative body image. I mean, what woman really stands in front of the mirror and wishes for chunkier thighs? It made me self-conscious about my body and left me wishing I looked like someone else—until one day when I was talking to my high school softball coach, Mr. Brown. He had just finished a run, and I was curiously asking him why he drove home from the track with his windows up on a hot summer day (this was New York where his old Datsun didn’t have air-conditioning). I remember he said he liked to continue sweating—it made him feel like he worked harder. “You should run,” he said. “You have the build for it.” Wow. Just like that, my whole body image was transformed. His off-the-cuff remark had more influence on me to this day than so much else in my life. Instead of someone commenting on what my body lacked, he saw it as something that had potential, power and purpose.
It was because of Mr. Brown and that comment that I started running back then, and now—13 marathons, the Boston Marathon and countless age group wins later—I am still running. Those scrawny legs now have muscular quads that hoof up hills and sprint across finish lines. Those skinny arms now have toned biceps that pump in unison with my legs when I run. And that “no-butt”? It has tone and shape. And, I’ve finally found a great pair of Gap jeans that makes it look awesome.
How about you? How did comments about your body affect you growing up? Have you made lemonade out of your insecurities?