Skinny Fashion: How to Flatter Your “Figure”

22 Jul

twiggy“It’s not what you’d call a figger, is it?” — Twiggy Lawson

Those women who never grow out of the “gangly” stage can strongly identify with the above sentiment of Twiggy, uttered as she reflected upon her own famously thin frame. However, unlike Twiggy (who ultimately did develop a womanly figure), the rest of us probably don’t have stylists on hand to help navigate the waters of fashion, nor do most retail clothing associates know what works best for the super-thin (unless you are shopping on Rodeo Drive).

Shopping for clothing as an extreme ectomorph can be very frustrating, especially for the ladies. Pants are generally designed to accommodate hips that we don’t have. Ditto for lingerie and breasts. And shopping in the juniors’ section only works if you are short and desire to continue dressing like a child well into adulthood. Ahem.

Fashion magazines aren’t much help, either…unless you can afford the clothes the models are wearing on the catwalk. Advice columns for the general population will not feature any words of wisdom for the ultra-thin (sadly, if they did, they would probably experience terrible backlash from their readers).

So what’s a skinny gal to do? Turn to The Skinny for a little guidance! I have long wanted to address the topic of fashion because it is so difficult for skinny women to find information of this nature.

Let’s start by covering the ground rules:

(1) Never EVER waste your time in a store that simply does not make clothes for your body. In general, these clothiers cater to the American general public, which means all their pants will fall off of you and the shirts will be loose and baggy. In my experience, this includes Levis, The Gap, Banana Republic, and pretty much all department stores.

(2) Wear dresses and skirts as much as possible. Pants, and especially jeans, can drastically accentuate thinness. You’re either swimming in baggy pants or cursing the clinginess of jeans that leave nothing to the imagination regarding the size of your legs. Skirts and dresses are your savior in this dilemma. The right cut adds femininity, can make you look curvier in the hips, and only exposes as much leg as you desire. I find just above- or below-the-knee to be most flattering.

(3) Regarding pants/jeans: it is difficult, but not entirely impossible, to find a pair of pants that strikes the right balance. These will most likely be found at expensive clothing stores, but they are worth every dime. Avoid tapered ankles, and especially stretch and/or skinny jeans, which will make you look utterly ridiculous. Stick with slim fit (i.e., narrower hips) in straight leg or boot cut. I’ve had the most success with pants and jeans from Bebe, Fossil, Theory, and 7 For All Mankind.

Debra looks great in horizontal stripes. So will you.

Debra looks great in horizontal stripes. So will you.

(4) Yes, horizontal stripes really do make you look bigger. So wear them! Striped long sleeve tees and sweaters are particularly cute. Think Debra Morgan, who makes perfect use of the horizontally striped tee in almost every episode of Dexter season 7 (I’m really glad she’s out of the plaid phase).

(5) Layers are great for adding a little “weight” to your frame and for helping you keep warm or cool as needed in various environments.

(6) Unless you want to look like Ronald McDonald, steer clear of chunky and/or wide shoes. This can be difficult when sneaker shopping, but stay vigilant and you will succeed. Additionally, really high heels, aside from being terrible for your feet, will elongate your already non-existent calf muscles for a stork-like effect. Aim for a shorter heel or flats instead.

(7) Don’t be afraid to buy something that looks great on you but doesn’t fit quite right in a couple of areas — you can always have it tailored. This is especially straightforward for shirts that are loose around the neck, arms, or breast, but just about anything can be fixed if it’s not too extreme.

Wearing the right clothes for your frame can make an enormous difference in how others perceive your body, which can reduce unwelcome comments. And, as everyone knows, looking good = feeling good! I strongly encourage all people to make an effort to wear clothes that flatter their particular figure, and I hope that the above information is helpful for those super-thin women who, like me, have struggled to figure out what works for them and where to find it. Please feel free to add your own experiences in the comments section!

Future fashion-related posts will showcase specific ensemble ideas and clothing comparisons.

How to Add Curves

11 Jul

If you are a very underweight person, you have probably been told many, many times by many, many people how to gain weight. Just eat more.

Frankly, that is a very simplistic approach and I am here to tell you that there’s more to it than that.

If you are suffering from low self-esteem due to low body weight and the associated issues that come with it (not filling out any of your clothing, for example, no matter how small it is), you may be tempted — out of desperation and ignorance — to take this sage advice. So you do it. You “eat more.” You eat a LOT more. Mostly fatty, sugary, and dense foods. And when you can’t eat any more, you supplement. Weight gainers, Ensure Plus, calorie-laden smoothies. Whatever. The whole point is to get those calories in, right?

And you gain a little weight. You fill out a bit and people say you look good. But then something weird happens — you plateau, well under your target weight. No matter how many thousands of calories you cram into your “diet” the scales simply don’t go any higher. And what’s worse is that you feel. like. crap. You lack energy, feel bloated, and your skin may be oily and greasy. Your face gets rounder to the extent that you begin to look like someone else. And if you were to check your blood chemistry at this point, your doctor would probably yell at you.

I tried this tactic seriously when I was 26, consuming well over 3000 calories a day for about 5 months. Starting at 90 lbs., I plateaued at around 105 lbs. — still a good 20-25 lbs. under average weight for my height. I didn’t know enough about my metabolism then to understand why that was the case, but facts were facts. Unless I started gorging myself even more, the scale wasn’t going to budge further. And at that stage I already felt awful. I’m at least smart enough to know that if you don’t feel good, you can’t be doing yourself any good.

So I tried something new — bodybuilding. Turns out that’s the trick (for me, at least). Starting in April 2006 at around 93 lbs., I began hitting the gym 3-4 times per week for an hour. By August I weighed 112 lbs. And the best part was that I felt great. My stamina and balance improved, I had lots more energy, and my mood was through the roof. I looked fantastic — muscular, not soft — and felt even better. I fondly remember this period as one of the happiest in my life.

However, it was superceded by the happiest in my life, that of meeting my husband. With the whirlwind of meeting, courting, and marrying, I quit going to the gym. And quickly, not slowly at all, I lost all the muscle I had worked so hard to gain within a matter of a few months.

And it stayed lost. We celebrated our 6th anniversary in April and I had long been back at my body’s favorite weight to be– 90 lbs. For most of those years, I had been telling people who wondered about my extremely low weight that I can gain weight by giving those calories something to do besides burn. By giving those calories (especially those from protein!) some muscle to build, I can not only gain weight but also become less fragile, build stronger bones, and become less susceptible to injury. As a small frame woman at high risk for osteoporosis, these are nothing but good things to do.

So why wasn’t I doing it? For the same reasons anyone else isn’t in the gym, or any other place they can get some exercise. I was busy. Really, really busy.

Thankfully, I got a lot less busy last May. And I immediately knew what I wanted to do.

I started lifting again in late May, when I was struggling to stay above 90 lbs. This week I have been hitting 99 lbs. for the past few days consistently. Here’s what the difference looks like.

Before (left): 90 lbs and feeling okay. After (right): 99 lbs and feeling fantastic!

Before (left): 90 lbs and feeling okay. After (right): 99 lbs and feeling fantastic!

Obviously, the biggest change so far has been in my thighs, but I am also making impressive gains in upper body strength — particularly the shoulders. Importantly, I can tell you once again that I feel fabulous and look forward to each and every workout with renewed energy and enthusiasm. We’ll talk more in a future installment about why this is the case, and why simply “eating more” doesn’t work for people like us. But until then:

Quit stuffing your face and go to the gym, hard gainers. Do not be afraid of the weights, they are your friends!

Skinny Genes Identified

09 Jan

Some very interesting stuff concerning body weight / body mass index (BMI) is coming out of the deluge of data resulting from more efficient genome sequencing. In particular, I have found two recent articles of great interest:

Genetic variation near IRS1 associates with reduced adiposity and an impaired metabolic profile. Nature Genetics, Volume:43, Pages:753–760. Year published: (2011).

Mirror extreme BMI phenotypes associated with gene dosage at the chromosome 16p11.2 locus.  Nature, Volume:478, Pages:97–102. Date published: (06 October 2011).

The first article identifies a variation of the IRS1 gene linked to a low percentage of body fat. Not surprisingly, the article also corroborates my own experience that thinness, and especially extreme thinness, does not equal healthiness. Indeed, the researchers in this study found that people with the IRS1 variation leading to lower body fat still had high blood sugar and cholesterol levels — two important factors in the development of diabetes and heart disease. This may be due to the fact that while people with the “lean” IRS1 variant had lower levels of subcutaneous fat, they also had higher levels of visceral fat.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The second article is even more interesting. As reported in youbeauty.com’s featured article Skinny Genes: Are Some People Born to be Thin?:

More recently, researchers from University Hospital in Lausanne and Imperial College London, in collaboration with a wide network of scientists and clinicians, looked at the DNA of over 95,000 people and found a 28-gene region that also relates to BMI: an extra copy of the region indicated extreme thinness, while a deletion of the region increased the risk of morbid obesity (typically, there are two copies of all genes—one from the mother and one from the father—but genetic mutations sometimes delete a gene or make too many copies of it).

Holy shmoly! Being a member of 23andme.com, and having access to my raw genetic data, I immediately set forth in an attempt to find out if I have the duplication in question. Unfortunately, 16p11.2 is a rather large region consisting of 6,627,240 base pairs and 284 SNPs of 23andme data, and I can’t narrow down the SNPs in question without obtaining the article (anyone with a subscription to Nature out there wanna help me out?).

Importantly, this same region was found to play a role in schizophrenia and autism, with a duplication being associated with schizophrenia and a deletion with autism. This interests me greatly, since certain personality types and psychological profiles have been thought to be correlated with particular body types since the earliest days of medicine.

Indeed, my (very purposeful) use of the term “ectomorph” to describe a thin body type is in reference to the theory of constitutional psychology developed by William Herbert Sheldon in the 1940s (although ideas relating psychological profiles to body type can be found long before his time). In short, heavy people (endomorphs) are relaxed, even-tempered, and good-humored (i.e., “fat and happy”), while thin people (ectomorphs) are anxious, moody, and emotionally sensitive. The in-between (mesomorph) is balanced, energetic, and adventurous. These traits supposedly varied due to the ratio of body mass to nervous system.

As you may easily surmise from the brief Wikipedia entries linked above, Sheldon’s work has been handily dismissed by modern medicine. In the never-ending debate of Nature vs. Nurture, the past few decades have leaned heavily toward Nurture — the implication being that “the environment” is the cause of our psychological distresses and issues, and that we need only change our environment in order to conquer our problems.

With the dawn of genetic research rising, now is the perfect time to re-evaluate such associations. Although Sheldon’s own view that “physique equals destiny,” may be extreme, and his generalizations simplistic, dismissing the possibility that certain physical and psychological characteristics may be intrinsically related simply because it makes us uncomfortable may be throwing the baby out with the bath water. As someone who has struggled with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) since childhood, and a very characteristic “Type A” personality type, I would be more than happy to know for certain that these things are, by and large, genetically driven rather than just some peculiar flaws that I should somehow be able to overcome by sheer willpower.

How Skinny?

22 Aug

I have yet to find someone else on this planet as underweight as myself without their being either physically ill (i.e., wasting diseases) or mentally ill (e.g., anorexia nervosa). Believe me, I’ve looked everywhere. I’ve read the underweight message boards, where each person’s story generally comes with a description of the extent of the problem in terms of height and weight. I’ve observed the world populace as I move about in it. Heck, I’ve even scoured European fashion magazines — the haute coutre sections are definitely the closest I’ve ever come…but I still easily out-skinny even the thinnest French and Italian models. (I attempted to become a model myself as a young woman, but alas! Contrary to popular opinion, you can be too thin, even for the fashion world.)

“So,” you are probably wondering. “How skinny are you?”

Let’s start with the numbers. I am 5’9″ (175 cm) tall. With some brief exceptions, I have weighed close to 93 pounds (42 kg) since I was 16 years old. Although not the most accurate, the body mass index (BMI) provides a measure that allows for the comparison of individuals of different heights in terms of their weight. “Normal” BMI ranges from 18.5 to 25. According to the World Health Organization, a woman with a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 or less is “underweight,” and anything under 16 is classified as “severely underweight.” My BMI is less than 14. Even with consideration for having a small frame I am underweight by close to 40 pounds!

That’s how skinny I am.

If you’ve known me since childhood, this comes as absolutely no surprise. As a kid, my brother had several nicknames for me, including “Olive Oyl,” “Ethiopian,” and (my least favorite) “Wormy.” I heard every skinny joke in the book by the age of 8. Growing up in East Texas, where most girls are described as “healthy” and “corn fed” (innocuous phrases for overweight), I became extremely self-conscious of my gangling arms and legs at an early age. By the time I was in high school I had learned to refrain from wearing shorts for fear of comments about my “chicken legs” and rarely wore short sleeves for similar reasons. This was lots of no fun in 100+ degree Fahrenheit Texas summers.

Caution: Sharp Knees Ahead

Fast forward 15 years. I am now 31 years old and still struggling to stay above 90 pounds. I have spent my life searching for pants that don’t fall off (even the smallest slacks frequently drop straight to the floor when I attempt to try them on), blouses that don’t accentuate my elbows, and dress shoes with a AAAA width heel (let’s not mention the frustration of lingerie…aaargh!). Speaking of heels — at various points in my life, both my heels and rump have appeared permanently bruised from the necessities of walking and sitting without any protective padding at all. I also watch as my parents endure the effects of underweight as they age. Much more than most people, I must be hyper-vigilant of the associated complications of aging and frailty such as osteoporosis and loss of muscle mass.

Some of these things I have learned to accept and to live with, but others I refuse to. And so I intend to divulge here what I have learned so far about my body, as well as to continue my quest for optimal health by delving into personal genomics, scouring the scientific literature of metabolism, and contriving to cobble together a personalized fitness and nutrition regimen that supports my goal of gaining healthy weight, improving cardiovascular function, and improving my chances of living a long and fruitful life.

I’m excited about what we’ll learn along the way!

Born Skinny

10 Jul

Welcome to The Skinny. The Skinny is a blog primarily dedicated to “life as an extreme ectomorph.” That is, most entries will relate in some way to the particular circumstances of that extremely small subpopulation of people who are of very thin body build. The point is not to aggrandize this condition, but to promote the reality of the situation, which is that some people truly are, quite naturally, extremely skinny.

The extreme ectomorph was a thin child, a thin adolescent, and, without serious intervention, will remain a thin adult. The extreme ectomorph has as much, if not more, difficulty putting on weight as any heavy person has losing weight. The extreme ectomorph almost always has serious body image issues.

Most importantly, the extreme ectomorph has a very, very difficult time finding any kind of information pertaining to this topic. In a world where 98% of people struggle with the exact opposite problem, life as an extreme ectomorph can be a very lonely situation indeed.

That’s why The Skinny was born.

As an extreme ectomorph I have spent a lifetime asking myself so many questions and searching for the answers. Why am I this way? Am I healthy, or should I be concerned? What other health issues might be associated with my weight? Why do people react so negatively to my build? Is it possible to put on weight, and if so, should I make an effort to do so? What is healthy and what is unhealthy in terms of gaining weight? Is being extremely skinny different for women than for men, and if so, how? How do I deal with people who insist on making me feel badly about my body? How can I feel better about my body? What is the best way to respond to (rude) comments that friends and even complete strangers apparently feel totally justified in making about my weight? What style of clothes look best on me? And once I’ve determined that, where in America do I find clothes that fit me?

These are just a few of the topics The Skinny will explore over time. You won’t find these discussions in women’s magazines, and it is only very recently (i.e., within the last 2-3 years) that I have seen any kind of forums online for extreme ectomorphs to discuss these issues frankly, and most of these are on body-building sites and are decidedly male dominated. Even so, many are valuable for the sheer feeling of identification one gets from having found others in the same boat. And while I hope to engender a culture of support for my skinny sisters and brothers through this blog, I’m not planning to moderate any forums, so an effort will be made to provide links to those that seem most helpful and insightful.

As with most blogs written by someone with a stake in the subject, this will be as much about my own self-discovery as it will be about the subject matter in general. Bear with me, my ectomorphic friends. We’re all here for the same reason. And now, to begin the journey.

Chana de Wolf
Chana de Wolf

The Skinny

Life as an extreme ectomorph