(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 13.)
At the risk of revealing more about myself than you really want to know, let me tell you about my legs.
They are, not to put too fine a point on it, skinny.
They are so skinny that when I was a kid, my older brother, who had a much more robust set of pins, would taunt me by saying I risked being arrested for having no visible means of support. (That phrase means nothing to someone born after 1970, but in those days it was commonly intoned in court as part of the vagrancy laws.)
My mother, who had a typically Irish sense of humour, consoled me by pointing out that at least my legs reached all the way to the ground, which was better than nothing.
As I moved into that stage of life when one becomes aware of how one is seen by others, particularly girls, I grew quite self-conscious about my legs.
Packed off to boarding school at the age of 15, I quickly learned that boarding school pupils mercilessly homed in on any characteristics that marked someone as different from the norm, physically or otherwise.
I recall wisecracks about boys having pirate ancestry (they had inherited sunken chests) or having Bondi physiques (a long way from Manly). In my case, I was bestowed with the unflattering sobriquet “Twiggy”, after the spindle-shanked English model of the same name.
She became a celebrity, and a wealthy one at that, on the basis of her skinniness. Alas, all I got was the nickname.
Fortunately my image, in the eyes of my schoolmates, was redeemed by the fact that I could play the guitar and sing – the one ability, other than sporting prowess, that guaranteed acceptance.
It was sport that heightened the realisation that my physique did not conform to the New Zealand norm.
Decades of vigorous selective breeding in the bedrooms of a rugby-obsessed nation had produced a male body type perfectly adapted for rucks and mauls, with thick trunks and stout, powerful legs. I was about as far from this archetype as you could get.
I was useless on the rugby field, having the neither the physique nor the necessary instinct for the game. We du Fresnes were runners; rugby just wasn’t in my genes.
The fact that I had an uncle who was a New Zealand mile champion in the 1930s would have counted for nothing at my rugby-mad school. In contrast, one of my schoolmates enjoyed reverential respect because he was a great-nephew of the famous Brownlie brothers, Maurice and Cyril, of the 1924 “Invincible” All Blacks.
In later life, my non-regulation physique was to present me with a real problem when it came to buying trousers. My legs are long as well as thin, but New Zealand men’s trousers are designed on the assumption that all blokes are built like Sean Fitzpatrick, with waists – if they have any at all – barely higher than their hips.
Finding a pair of pants that come all the way up to my waist, without simultaneously strangling my scrotum, was virtually impossible. So these days I postpone buying trousers until I’m going overseas.
In Europe and the US, where men’s clothes designers cater for a much wider range of body shapes, I can experience the pleasure of finding trousers on the peg that fit me perfectly – and in some cases, even have to be turned up because they’re too long. It’s the only time I ever go on what might called a spending spree, buying more than I need because I never know when I’ll next get the opportunity.
As I advanced into middle age, my self-consciousness about my legs began to diminish. For one thing, I became less anxious about being attractive to the opposite sex. For another, I took up mountainbiking and road cycling and realised that as skinny as they were, my legs were far from useless.
They conveyed me around Lake Taupo seven or eight times in the 160 km Great Lake Cycle Challenge, in reasonably respectable times, and also got me through several gruelling Karapoti Classic mountainbike races.
I started feeling comfortable in shorts again, for the first time since childhood. Somehow, the knowledge that my legs were capable of propelling a bike over long distances, and up steep hills that forced many of my fellow riders to dismount and walk, made me less self-conscious.
It was oddly reassuring to discover, after a lifetime of feeling generally inadequate at sport, that there was at least one activity in which I could hold my own.
I even imagined that my legs might have developed a more pronounced musculature as a result of all that cycling. At least that’s how they look to me, seen from the right angle and in the right light, though my wife – who is always quick to bring me down to earth – reckons I’m being a bit fanciful.
I have to confess, to my shame, at a feeling of smug vindication when I look at some of my contemporaries who, in my college years, attracted all the best-looking girls because they played in the First XV. In middle age, their muscles have turned to flab and whatever sexual appeal they might have once has had long disappeared.
It was a bit of a shock to me, then, when an old friend commented recently, out of the blue, on my skinny legs. Good-natured ribbing from friends used to be commonplace whenever I appeared in shorts, but I hadn’t heard such a remark in years.
I wasn’t offended, and I know that the woman who made the comment would be mortified if she thought I had felt insulted. But it caused me to wonder again about a peculiarity of etiquette that, in my more sensitive days, irked me greatly.
How come it’s acceptable to comment on, and even make fun of, a person’s skinniness when it would be considered the height of rudeness to say to someone’s face that they were fat? Can someone please explain the difference?