“She’s quite skinny, like me, but nice skinny. Roller-skate skinny. I watched her once from the window when she was crossing over Fifth Avenue to go to the park, and that’s what she is, roller-skate skinny. You’d like her.”
~ J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
The first time I heard the phrase “roller-skate skinny,” I knew that was exactly how I would describe me if anyone ever asked. I was 9 or 10 and cheering for our local little league football team and was just entering the phase of life where I felt like I was all knees-and-elbows all the time. I was also in gymnastics, had recently “retired” from swim team, hadn’t quite started dance yet, and walked or rode my bike everywhere. Aside from the seasonal allergies that still plague me, I was basically a healthy child. (As was my sister, 2.5 years my senior and equally knees-and-elbowy.) I have distinct memories of being in line at the supermarket and having other nosy people in line comment to my mother about how she just needs to feed us more. To her credit, she rarely did more than look pointedly at the full cart and shrug as if to say “feed them more than this?”
In fact, it wasn’t until I was in high school, on Drill Team, that I encountered the first person my age who was “watching her weight.” It struck me as a ridiculous notion: we were 14 and she was beautiful. I told her as much, and she responded by asking me if I had ever “just felt fat.” I told her that I had not, nor had I ever felt particularly “skinny,” but that I have always just filled my space. “That’s because you’re skinny,” she snipped. “Roller skate skinny,” I replied (probably smugly). From where I was sitting, though, so was she. I was just the only one of us who knew it.
My husband is of a similar stature to me: he is long and lean, with sinewy muscles and skinny wrists. He also grew up all-knees-and-elbows – running track, playing soccer, and now he cycles dozens of miles each week. He told me the other night that this is the first time in his life he’s been content with his body. For adolescent boys, it is the opposite conversation: to be the “90 pound weakling” is something to be avoided with gusto. (Between you and me, all of that cycling has done wonderful things for his legs. Trust me.)
Our son is already proving to be exactly like us: 40th weight percentile and 70th height at his last well-child check. He is long and skinny and full of energy . . . and there are days when I swear he’s eaten his weight at a single meal.
In our house, this is no big deal – he’s a skinny among skinnies – but out in the real world? The world that seems to draw a line in the sand between those who are forever trying to lose weight and those who are deemed “not real” because they don’t fit into a randomly chosen set of measurements? There he will be subjected to people’s opinions about how I feed him, and how well he cares for himself. Out there could be taunts about him being the 90-pound-weakling, bullies could see him as fodder for being reed-thin. Out there is a world of judgement that can be unbelievably harsh to those deemed “different.”
It is also realistic to think that he could be passing judgement of those who are shorter than him, rounder than him, darker than him, etc. I take comfort in my awareness of the possibility, because it allows me to frame our conversations now so that they embrace people of all shapes and shades. It is my job, as a parent, to remember the words I have heard my entire life and to give my child the tools to deal with them when they cross his path, regardless of whence they came.
The hard part will be finding the balance – it is ok to notice (and virtually impossible not to) that some people are tall or short, have mahogany or porcelain skin, curly or straight hair, and etc. I suspect that the key lies in taking a moment to see the beauty in what we’re talking about, then he will, too. Then maybe, all of our baby steps together will rub off on the world, and this whole debate over what is “normal” or “attractive” or “acceptable” for the human body will ground to relief-filled halt.