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.