Monday, November 8, 2010

Are Skinny Women Happy?

I’ve had an obsession with being skinny since the year I turned 16 and began to gain weight for the first time in my skinny childhood and pre-adolescence. I had enjoyed freedom from this obsession during all those magical summers of childhood and through junior high school, hanging out at the swimming pool at the country club in my two-piece and water-skiing with friends, without a thought to what my hips or thighs looked like. (I didn’t have any hips or thighs to worry about, actually.) It was a time of innocence and freedom from self-absorption that I miss dearly. I’m never more aware of this lifetime issue than when I’m at the beach.

For the past eleven days I’ve gone on one or two hour-long walks on the beach every day. On sunny days, I wear a swim suit—hoping to catch some sun (tanned cellulose looks better than white cellulose) and just enjoying the unencumbered freedom of being close to nature—without the barriers of clothing. Sometimes I think about Adam and Eve and how it must have felt being naked in the garden. It’s taken me a while to lose my self-consciousness enough to enjoy the ecstatic feeling of the sun on my skin and the wind blowing through my hair as I walk along in my big girl (Lands End) swim suit, watching for dolphins jumping in the ocean on one side and the lovely architecture of the beach houses on the other.

I’m a friendly person, so I always speak to other beachcombers as we pass one another on our walks. “Good morning!” or “Hello” or “Hi, how are you?” seem as natural to me as greeting someone at my front door or the clerk in the grocery store. But on many visits over the past few years, including this one, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Not everyone returns my greeting. Some people don’t even look up from the ground, but press onward as though I’m not even there. And now here’s the trend I’ve observed:

It’s the skinny women who often don’t look at me, smile, or speak.

Most all the men will speak. I think, for the most part, men are more comfortable in their own skin than women. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re sporting a six-pack and proud of it, or showing the signs of two many six-packs in the bellies hanging over their baggy, knee-length swim trunks. They’re just hanging out, and happy to exchange a greeting and a smile.

But the pleasing(or unpleasing)ly plump women are the most friendly. The ones with skirt-bottomed swimsuits or leggings with over-sized tee shirts. They’ll smile and make eye contact and return my cheerful greetings with their own. Sometimes I feel like we’re exchanging subliminal messages:

“You go, girl!”

“Yes, we have a right to enjoy the beach as much as those skinny, bikini-clad girls!”

But yesterday on my walk, I began to wonder if there’s another message we’re communicating. If somehow we’re trying to cover up our shame, our embarrassment, by pretending that we look okay out there with our thighs rubbing together as we walk and the fat on our upper arms jiggling. I wonder if our friendliness is a front, a way to keep our insecurities at bay.

And then I began to think about what might be behind the unfriendly expressions on the faces of the skinny women. I’m not talking about the joggers—I get that—they are in the zone and not out for a social constitutional, but the women of all ages (especially middle-age, it seems) who have slim, toned bodies, and carry themselves with an air of confidence in their swim suits. Most of them will not look me in the eye. Occasionally there’s a half-smile and less often a brief nod or “hi,” but mostly I feel invisible to them. And so I began to wonder, “Are they really happy?” And if they are, why won’t they smile or speak to me? Am I intruding on their world with my imperfect body, ruining the view for them as they take the beach in stride?

If you’re thinking, well maybe now she’ll lose her obsession with being skinny, you’re wrong. After over forty years of on-again, off-again dieting, endless exercise programs, and an on-going struggle with eating disorders and body image issues, I still want to be skinny. But I’m beginning to finally believe that being skinny won’t make me happy. (Yes, I’ve known that, intellectually, all along.) I guess I want it all-to be happy and skinny. And I promise that if that ever happens (the skinny part) I’ll still speak to everyone I pass on the beach.


Carol said...

Could it just be an age difference? Perhaps the skinny girls are younger than us and with all this new technical social networking, they have lost (or never been taught) the art of face to face social networking? Just a thought.

Lou Freshwater said...

Being skinny doesn't make you happy. I'm skinny via freaky genetics, yet whatever luck I got in that department has been more than equaled out by the rest of my life.

I do think sometimes women who put their appearance in front of everything else may become resentful of those who make a different choice and seem to love themselves the way they are.

And finally, I say it sounds like those walks on the beach mean finally realizing we can never gain happiness when we judge ourselves through the eyes of the other, and you should just pity those skinny girls who haven't been able to get there yet.

Cindy said...

nice blog. i don't think anyone is truly happy in the looks department. we always wish for what we don't have. people with curly hair want straight hair. people with dark hair wish for light hair. short people want to be taller. and with media and culture telling us what is beautiful and acceptable, we are always trying to measure up to that standard. so even if you are skinny, you may not be happier because according to everyone else there is always something that could be better.

Emma Connolly said...

Interestingly, Susan I've always thought of you as being "skinny". The fact is, your're skinnier than me. Isn't it odd how we are never pleased with ourselves, and it's either our bodies or our hair or our wrinkles, or our feet, or our skin tone or something we find unacceptable. Our generation, and the one just behind us on down to the young ones just approaching puberty, have been bombarded with media attacks that we should look a certain way. Notice how none of those Victoria's Secret models are smiling? I look at the NY Times Style section and those models all seem miserable. Perhaps it's just a certain "look" they're after, and those you are passing have adopted the same "look". Humans are all so odd, aren't we?

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts, Carol, Lou, Cindy and Emma. All very good reminders that, as Emma said, "Humans are all so odd."I have a friend who used to be thin but is now considerably overweight. She told me once that since she gained weight she has noticed that people just ignore her in public quite often. She's a very friendly, genuine person, and she says she feels "invisible." Maybe none of us want to see our own imperfections reflected back to ourselves through others.

dubuas said...

Susan, The memoir I'm working on in my first semester at VCFA is "Fragile", and the seed of it was from a 2008 journal entry. I drove 6 hours to Kentucky in a snowstorm to be with my family at my sister's bedside on the 5th day of her coma; she'd again attempted suicide, taken 300 (yes, 300!!) pills (Vicodin, Xanax, Valium, muscle rexalers, etc). That night, I wrote about standing at her bedside and watching her for what I was sure had been the last time I'd see her alive. The next day, she woke up! I was the first family member she saw. As I walked in the room, she said, "At least I'm skinny." She was 47, recently tattooed, tongue & navel pierced, hair chopped & spiked, dyed black with purple & scarlet highlights, cheekbones threatening to pierce her skin, leathered from tanning beds, weathered from a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse. But, at least she was skinny.

Julie S. said...

I think being comfortable in your skin takes time- and age. We may never be completely satisfied due to what I call a "fat head", or thinking that you're fat no matter how thin you are (love the skeleton cartoon!)The media plays a big part in this anorexic facade. There was recently a photo in Glamour Magazine of a pretty, middle aged woman who was nude , but sitting so her private parts were covered. The side view showed her tummy hanging down a bit. Glamour said they never got so many thank you cards from women
expressing their relief that a woman can be beautiful and real!