drawing of a girl casually reading a book inside of a fuel gauge

Alyssa Long / Daily Nexus

“Why did you get so skinny?” was the first thing my dad said when I walked through the front door with my massive duffel bag. My heart sank. Not again.

Exams had been appearing in my calendar incessantly. Routine took over my college days: class, work, study, research, work, study, sleep, repeat. The colorful EBT CalFresh card in my wallet had been untouched for a week … or two … and a half.

To me, “skinny” translates into weak. This direct correlation comes from growing up remarkably underweight. Eating was a daily struggle. My lovely grandparents who raised me had no choice but to force food down my throat to keep me from becoming dangerously malnourished. When left unsupervised, I shoveled rice into my mouth before sneaking to the bathroom to flush it down the toilet. I remember too vividly the countless evenings of sulking with my tear-streamed cheek on the wooden dining room table, not far from my chopsticks, small bowl of cold rice and various dishes of vegetables and Chinese sausages. I was genuinely repulsed by the thought of putting food into my body.

 My unhealthy relationship with food continued roughly until the beginning of high school. I wanted to focus on reading books, completing an endless stack of worksheets and organizing my chores. I wanted to get things done. I couldn’t afford to simply just sit there and consume various substances for so many minutes of the day. 

 And yet, I desperately wished that the people around me would state something besides the obvious; even at such a young age, I was sick of being defined by my strikingly thin figure. Why did my weight matter? What if I just had a high metabolism? What do they know? During what seemed to be the longest years of my life, I grew increasingly weary of people telling me that I had to eat. At gatherings, my aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends voiced the same annoying comment: “You’re so skinny!”

 Obligatorily, I began consuming the food that was placed in front of me without having a tantrum about it. Overlapping food groups in my bowl was still unacceptable, but I stopped passing the protein off to my sisters, living with the mindset that eating was just a required chore in order to get on with the rest of the day. I’m not sure what triggered my sudden desire to please the people around me. Or maybe I was just fed up. 

The unique biological nature of every individual makes it impossible for everyone to maintain the same figure, but that’s not what the media advertises.

 The differences were noticeable: As I gradually stopped handing off (and flushing down) my food, focusing on the present became significantly easier. Academics were much more tolerable; socializing was no longer so draining. I was daydreaming significantly less. Of course, the correlation between eating more and becoming a livelier person was not immediately evident but revealed itself over time. Eventually, I even started taking the initiative to make plans to go out and eat with friends. For the first time in my life, I was no longer 10 to 20 pounds underweight. My doctor was extremely proud of me. 

Like many people who struggle with being underweight, my extreme lack of appetite was and still is a massive side dish for my familiar main course: stress. From time to time, I find myself ignoring what my body wants and needs, especially when I am determined to complete a task or project before a deadline. Every individual responds to stress differently; I was briefly prone to stress eating, but I am learning that my body prefers neglecting food instead.

 I can tell when I’m losing weight: I go throughout my day subconsciously aiming to consume the bare minimum of each food group, allowing my thoughts and fears to feed my appetite instead. Sometimes, I check myself by thinking about my sister’s banana bread; I know it’s bad when even the thought of her baking doesn’t seem appealing. It’s important that I am aware of when this happens, so I can take a step back and reorder my priorities.

In today’s society, “skinny” is viewed as “healthy.” The issue with ideal body images is that weight is based on heavily malleable variables of standard body weight, shapes and other physical attributes. The unique biological nature of every individual makes it impossible for everyone to maintain the same figure, but that’s not what the media advertises. People need to feel more encouraged to work with, rather than against, their natural genetic compositions. 

Undoubtedly, people still call me “skinny” today, but I no longer care about how others see me. 

The biggest difference between my past-skinny and present-skinny self is my newfound focus on positive mental energy and physical strength. For my body, this combination can only be achieved by eating certain amounts and types of foods, such as by moderating my Hot Cheetos Puffs and strawberry-flavored Pocky intakes. After discovering the hard way how diet impacts my mindset and energy level, my goal is not to count calories. Adding up the numbers every day would not benefit my mental health, so I don’t do it. I know people who rely on numbers to keep them feeling their best, and I respect that. Each body is different, so do what works for you. But I say that self-care is the new skinny.

 Anna Zhou wants to increase her physical strength so she can haul her groceries up the stairs in one go.