Being Strong in a Skinny World

Even though society seems to understand body types a bit better now, we still face a lack of representation in the media; Barbara Palvin is considered Victoria’s Secret’s first plus-size model at 5’8 and 120 pounds, Danielle Brooks called out the fashion industry for lacking representation for actual plus-size women and thinness is still desired as the current beauty trend in many parts of the world. While some have embraced (and call others to embrace) their whole bodies (including stretch marks and other "imperfections"), many men and women still feel crushed under the pressure of having a body that looks like those we see on screen, on the runway and in magazines.

With a lack of body representation usually comes a lack of personal positivity. This can lead to disordered eating and eating disorders, insecurity and unhappiness. Growing up, I felt the societal pressure to be skinny. A lifelong athlete, I felt masculine with my bicep muscles and my broad shoulders and my thick legs, as compared to most of my friends who lacked muscle and stood stick thin and tall. I have heard, either intentionally or unintentionally, hurtful comments aimed at me (anything from a judgemental “she likes to eat” while at a restaurant after a hard workout the day before, to “flattering” comments and catcalls about my ass and legs while walking down the street, to the “I’m glad I’m not with a skinny girl” statement I received last year), and they still stick with me. I lost an unhealthy amount of weight last summer due to a lack of exercise and eating, and I lost so much of the muscle that I used to be so proud of. Months later, I do take a lot better care of my body, but certain comments lead me back to those insecure thoughts. I am still continuing to grow comfortable with myself now, as I am becoming more aware of my tendency to compare myself to others and my habit of berating my reflection.

I have always been an athlete. I started with preschool dance classes when I was a toddler, then played on my city’s recreational soccer team for a few of my elementary school years, I was a competitive gymnast for six years, and then was a competitive cheerleader for another four years. After high school ended, I took up boxing and weightlifting, as well as cardio training. Athletics came easily to me; one of my cheerleading coaches said that I looked like I had been tumbling out of the womb. I could do the most pushups out of everyone for most of the gym classes I had taken. I loved feeling sore after a hard practice.

But, I didn’t like my body.

I would look at myself in the mirror and notice my broad shoulders, my muscled arms and legs, and my short stature. I would compare myself to my skinnier friends who weighed less than me. I would wish for slimmer hips, a smaller ass and thinner arms and legs.

I was in third grade when I realized that my eating and exercise routines were not like the other students’ in my class. My teacher gave us charts and we had to track what we ate and how much we exercised each day. At this point, I was having two hour gymnastics practices two or three times a week, and I was eating about four meals on practice days; I would eat breakfast before school, lunch, a snack and dinner before practice with my mom and my siblings, and then another meal after practice with my dad who stayed at work late to pick me up from my gym on his way home. I dutifully filled out my worksheets with the exact foods I was eating, but when we turned in our papers for the first day, I noticed that nobody around me was eating as much as I was. I was embarrassed and ashamed, and I remember coming home from school and telling my mom that I was afraid of what my teacher would think. My mom explained to me that I was a gymnast, and I had to eat more because I was burning more calories than most of the other kids in my class. She wrote a note to my teacher (who did not hold any judgment to me at all), and I felt better.

My insecurities continued throughout the rest of grade school, and they still (unfortunately) continue now. I desired a lower number on the scale, not realizing what actually constitutes as weight in the body–– I can hear my mom repeating “muscle weighs more than fat”  every time I think “I want to lose a few pounds”. I have decided to stop weighing myself for a while, and start focusing on better things: like how I can always eat more vegetables, I need to increase my protein intake, and that I need to drink more water. Intellectually, I know that my nutrition (which is pretty good) and my fitness level (I workout about four times a week), along with my blood pressure, blood sugar, and pulse are valued higher than an intangible number that is not necessarily an accurate measure of health.

Lack of body type representation and the increase of advertisements for “fit teas” and other unhealthy detoxes seem to increase the anxiety surrounding body image. Even now, we live in an era where body positivity is appreciated (or, sometimes, beauty standards are simply met with apathy), yet I still feel unhappy with how I look when I take too long by the mirror or when I compare myself to others. It sucks when I feel insecure about the parts of my body that I worked hard to build, and it sucks when I don’t like the way certain parts of my body look, despite the way my body was shaped and genetic factors that are out of my control.

While I may still feel weird about my muscles when somebody mentions them, I know that I should be proud of myself. I am never going to stop building muscle and working out just because I have received negative comments about my body, or because I don’t see too many muscular girls modeling for non-athletic clothing brands. Strength and conditioning are ways that I empower myself to be the best person I can be, and growing up as an athlete has provided me with discipline and courage; I would never change my athletic background for a chance to look different now.

I still feel the need to validate myself: to defend my weight gain over the past year as I have built up my muscle that I had lost over the past year, to justify my meals and eating habits and to feel confident in how I look, but I hope that that feeling of the need for validation doesn’t last forever. I hope that over time, I accept myself and grow more as a healthy person, I hope that the media changes its view of a desirable body, and I hope that the self-love movement grows more and inspires more people to love themselves for who they are.