String Bean

“Thin people shouldn’t talk about their weight. It always sounds like bragging.”*

A few years ago, at a party I hosted, an acquaintance— all six-foot three, 235 pounds of him— leaned down to me and said, “Look at you! You’re just a wisp of a thing.” He meant it as a compliment, but I couldn’t stop old insecurities from flushing my face. I felt like every jock I went to high school with somehow crawled through 20 years of space/time continuum to slam me up against my own refrigerator.

I am a thin man. That’s not bragging. I have always been self-conscious about being “too skinny.” It sounds weird now in these times of skinny jeans and moob jobs and size-zero male models, but I grew up when “skinny” was a put-down. It meant frail and nerdy. Thin guys were called weakling or twig or string bean. And everywhere we looked in the media of the 1990s we saw powerful bodies like Mark Wahlberg’s and Tyson Beckford’s with arms the same size as their thighs and shoulders that angled out from their waists at impossibly wide vees.

“Everyone likes to hear how thin they look.”

Not long after that party, I went to the doctor for weird feelings in my extremities. Tests were done and a specialist informed me that I was pre-diabetic. She gave me no prescriptions; she wanted to see how I fared without them. Instead, she handed me a tri-fold pamphlet with an illustration of what good eating habits look like: half a plate of vegetables, a slice of meat that could fit in your palm, and either an apple or a dollop of mashed potatoes. It looked meager. She told me to cut out carbs and sweets, to eat more greens and less starch. No sugar or white rice and exercise more. In other words, the string bean was on a diet.

“Man, when you turn sideways, you disappear.”

Of course, I followed her orders: I started ordering Amstel Lights (the beer with the fewest carbs) at bars. I ignored the looks on waitresses’ faces when I quizzed them about low-carb fare. I secretly put back the cake and donuts that well-meaning co-workers brought to my desk. When friends offered to “fatten me up,” I laughed politely. I became known as a health nut, and swallowed the anger I felt due to my prescribed eating habits. They couldn’t know I’d kill for a heaping bowl of pasta, or a sandwich with regular fucking slices of bread. I kept my mouth shut about why I ate the way I did because I knew they would say exactly what I hated to hear: “But you’re so thin.” As if being thin made me invincible.

Around Easter this year, I started feeling thirsty all the time. Like an unrelenting fill-a-swimming pool-with-unsweetened-iced-tea-and-I-will-either-drink-my-way-out-or-drown kind of thirst. I waited for the thirst to pass, finally seeing a doctor when it was either that or clawing my throat out. As the doctor handed over a prescription to manage the diabetes symptoms, she nonchalantly added, “One of the side effects is weight loss.” I’m not sure what sound I let out, but her subsequent concern demanded an explanation.

“Look at me,” I huffed, motioning with my open hands from my chest to my waist. “People tease me about being blown out to sea by a strong wind. I just started gaining back the weight I lost after quitting carbs on your orders, and now you’re telling me I have to start all over again?”

“Oh, poor skinny dude. Can’t gain weight. Boo-hoo.”

I know. There are so many worse diagnoses to hear. I’m lucky to live in a time and place where I can manage my symptoms with a pill. But this just happened. The ink has barely dried on the prescription bottle. I need a day (or six) to wallow in my frustration. I need to tell people that “thin” is not a synonym for “healthy.”

Five Star Mixtape

*The italic sentences in this essay are direct quotes from various people at various times in my life.

Advertisements

18 Replies to “String Bean”

  1. Good writing!

    As far as being insecure, I want you to know that some people (ahem) find very thin men very attractive. I’d much rather date Adrien Brody than Marky Mark. Sadly, neither of them have called to offer, but a girl can always hope.

  2. I’m so so thrilled to see the great reception this piece got!! I’m glad you shared it, Nate. And I love what you did with it! That opening paragraph is a powerful start, the story is sharp and so well crafted and the final thoughts are perfect.

  3. Although I’m sorry for your diabetes and the stigma attached to being thin, I revel in your narrative. I hope that wasn’t a terrible thing to say, but writers, you know, it’s about the words first and you’ve done such a great job here. And really, you know I sympa/empathize with you. Hugs, my friend.

  4. May I apologize to you and will you accept on behalf of the people to whom I’ve been an asshole for having probably thought or said aloud those words that you quoted?
    I’m sorry to hear about the diabetes. I hope it is manageable and that you feel better on the medication without too many side effects.

  5. I’m sorry about your diagnosis, Nate. Diabetes is unnervingly common, yet little understood. Your writing is, as always, stellar. That last line in particular had me nodding furiously in agreement. “I need to tell people that “thin” is not a synonym for “healthy.”” Yes. Just, yes. I hope you’ll be turning this into a larger essay and sending it off for publication. You’ve hit so many points that are rarely spoken about.

  6. Such good writing Nate. I’m sorry about the diabetes and all of those comments that hurt your self esteem. My sister was super-skinny when she was a kid and used to get called knobby knees. People can be so insensitive.

  7. Dude, you get to wallow. Everyone gets to wallow when they’re just been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Skinny or fat, who cares? Good people are good people no matter what their bodies are or do.

  8. I used to know a woman, tall and toothpick thin. Her legs went for miles and every skirt looked like a micro-mini. I would sit there feeling inadequate and chubby while she was envying the fullness of my upper arms. It was a good life lesson – everyone has insecurities and things about themselves they wish they could change.

  9. I like how you punctuated your own thoughts and bits of your story with others’ words. Because those words play into the darkest thoughts we have about ourselves. Powerful writing, friend.

Tell me about it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s