As you may have noticed in my scantily-clad picture of a few weeks back, I’m a pretty little guy. How small? Well, here’s Remy in a few digits. I’m 5’9 and about 150lbs. I wear small shirts (x-small in the US), and 28” waist by 32” length pants. I’m not easy to shop for, but when I mention how annoying it is most people reply “I wish I had your problem.” While most would never think of saying “you’re so fat” to someone, they don’t hesitate to remind me about how skinny I am. People ask me if I’m healthy, or if I eat properly (indeed, most of my family is certain that I don’t). Let me clarify something on the record: calling someone “so skinny” (or the even less pleasant “too skinny”) is not necessarily a compliment, especially when that someone is a man. Now, I’m not going to imagine what it’s like for women who are called skinny. I have female friends who have told me that people speculated that they had an eating disorder, for example. But rather than going into depth on an issue that could no doubt use attention, but about which I am not particularly well versed, I’m going to focus on what it’s like to be a skinny man.
Since childhood I’ve always been small. I was never big into sports and liked salads over cookies as a kid. Aside from during a few growth-spurts, I generally wasn’t a big eater; I even remember teachers writing home because I didn’t seem to have much of an appetite. Jump forward to 2013, I’m vegan, fairly active for someone who doesn’t go to the gym (I cycle everywhere and work on my feet, for example). I’m 30 and in the best shape of my life. Basically, I eat whenever I feel like it and never gain weight. Some might say that it’s a nice problem to have, right? Well, I guess, until someone pulls the S word – SKINNY.
Let’s think about this, what guy wants to be “skinny?” Maybe a few, and that’s ok, but let’s look into what this word means when examined alongside the gender ideals that most of us grew up with. Men are supposed to be strong, able to defend themselves, burly, masculine, tough. Skinny, on the other hand is listed in my thesaurus as a synonym of thin, lean, (these first two aren’t so bad, but it goes downhill fast…) undernourished, emaciated, scrawny, skeletal, scraggy, or lanky. Yeah, doesn’t sound so pretty now, does it?
I’m a man, I’m 30 years old and in great shape (yeah, I know, I already said that). I’m not lanky at all and I certainly don’t see scrawny, skeletal or emaciated when I look in the mirror. I like to think that I can defend myself and I certainly have proper food and nourishment to sustain my basic needs. I’m not starving for a lack of ability to provide. Still, objectively, I have a narrow waist, so why all the fuss about it being articulated? I guess that boils down to the second part of my title, when one person’s compliment is another person’s embarrassment.
What angers me about these comments is the condescension that comes with them. People don’t use the term “skinny” (in reference to men) as a compliment most of the time. Instead, people point out my skinniness to comment that I should eat more, or go to the gym. “You’re too skinny, you’re not getting enough protein,” some say, or, “you don’t want to be skinny. You should just do a little exercise. You’d tone up so fast.” When people comment on “skinny” as the symptom of improper choices on my end, we have a serious problem. The obvious problem is that most of these people were never invited to comment on my body or life choices to begin with, but it doesn’t end there. I don’t imagine that many of these people would ever dream of commenting on others in the same way. I have a wide range of shapes and sizes in my family, for example, yet no one thinks it’s acceptable dinner conversation to talk about how dietary or lifestyle choice may lead someone else to gain weight, why some people in the family have big boobs and others small ones, or why I am, at 5’9, also one of the shortest in the family. Why then is it ok to single out my “skinny” body in particular for scrutiny? I could speculate, but I think what’s important is to articulate that for many men, the idea of being “skinny” is very charged. When I close my eyes and picture a “skinny” guy, it’s not a toned yoga instructor, it’s not a lean swimmer. It’s a gangly, lanky or bony geek who gets pushed around by the school thugs. It’s a guy who can’t take care of himself.
Now, what I’m saying isn’t that lanky is bad, or that gangly is unattractive. On the contrary. If I’ve learned one thing in my time doing costume design for the theatre, it’s that Mother Nature has an amazing way of creating each of us uniquely, and that that uniqueness is beautiful. What I am saying, however, is that when someone who may view slimness as desirable uses the term “skinny” to describe me, they are choosing to put emphasis on a term that in my mind is a reflection of weakness. This is not objective at all; it’s just my own experience. For others, there may be different words that are equally charged. So the next time you think it’s ok to point out someone’s small waist size, remember that though that may be a compliment for some people, it isn’t for everyone, and a lot of that has to do with the tone of the comment. After all, I’m pretty sure that any “compliment” that starts with “you’re soooooo….” or “you’re getting too…..” might not be such a compliment after all.