On Beauty and Being Thin

One of the more exciting things that happened when I first started fencing was miraculously, without consciously dieting, losing almost 30 pounds. Having tended for most of my life towards the plumper end of the average weight range for my height and build, this was an occasion for a considerable degree of rejoicing. Now I could go to the store and try on all of the clothes that I had always envied my sister for being able to wear. Curiously, however, although everything now looked "good" on me, I did not want to wear it all. I still had particular colors that I preferred and I didn't seem to want to change my fundamental style very much.

Even more interesting, however, were the reactions that I got from family and friends. Most said nothing about my new size; only one of my relatives in fact remarked at how good I looked. But of those who did comment, it was more often than not with concern: "You don't look like yourself anymore." "You don't have any body fat!" Of course, I resented such comments. Did they not know how long I had wanted to be fit and lean like this? how, before I started fencing, I had more or less given up on ever looking as good as (I thought) I clearly did now?

But, after being (in my mind) wonderfully fit and thin for a year or two, I started wondering. Now, I could tell, I was as thin as all of the women whom I had previously envied, and yet, to my eyes, they started looking as I clearly did to the few of my friends who had made any remarks out of concern for me. Not energetic, but pinched; not youthful, but ill. Was it, in fact, possible to be too thin?

None of these thoughts helped when, after I had been fencing long enough for my body to adjust to the new demands, I started getting hungry again and feeling a desperate need to eat. I could almost feel my muscles crying out for more fat to cover them. It was too great of a strain on my metabolism to keep myself at what I began to realize was underweight. And so, horror of horrors, I began to gain weight. Soon, as all the anti-diet books predicted, I was back to my original, pre-fencing weight, feeling fat and not beautiful, but now with the memory--and photographs--of what I had been.

And then something strange started happening. The longer I fenced, the more fencers I encountered of all body sizes and shapes. Often, more often than I would like to admit, I would end up on the strip against a woman much bigger than me and find that, for all my thinness (relatively speaking), she could still beat me--and well. I might be proud (in those early years, at least) at how slender my legs were, but hers could move faster and be in the right place at the right time, while I found myself bumbling and missing the attack. And when she moved, it was invariably beautiful.

Beauty, it would seem, was not in the shape of the body, but in how it moved. Gradually, still hampered by tabloid images of slender stars, I started looking at all of the fencers I encountered differently. And, eventually, something wonderful happened. I started seeing my fellow fencers simply as different shapes, all equally beautiful, not "fat" or "thin" but simply themselves. My husband had commented to me once that this was the way he looked at women and I didn't believe him. Now, I was starting to realize how what he said could in fact be true.

I'm sorry to say that I do still, like almost every other woman I know, worry about my weight. And I still envy my sister for the clothes that she wears. But I am grateful to have been given a glimpse of what it might mean to be able to judge physical beauty by a standard other than thinness. Nor do I think anymore that to be beautiful it is necessary to be physically thin.

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