(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 10.)
There’s no point in mincing words about this. I have skinny legs.
There, I’ve said it.
At boarding school my nickname was Twiggy, after the waif-like English model whose emaciated face and body were the symbol of fashionable Swinging London.
My older brother cruelly joked that I risked being arrested under the vagrancy laws because I had no visible means of support. “Boom boom!”, as Basil Brush would have said.
I was the 90 lb weakling who got sand kicked in his face at the beach, as in the old Charles Atlas body-building ads. The girl I fancied at an earlier secondary school shunned me for a brawny member of the First XV. Who wouldn’t develop an inferiority complex in such tragic circumstances?
I could sympathise with the character in Spike Milligan’s comic novel Puckoon, who objected to the legs the author had given him.
“Did you write these legs?” the feckless Dan Milligan demanded to know. When the author admitted he had, Milligan grumbled: “Well, I don’t like dem. I don’t like ’em at all at all. I could ha’ writted better legs meself.”
All my life I have been self-conscious about my legs. Growing up tall and skinny in a culture where the ideal male body type has a low centre of gravity, a barrel-like torso and legs the thickness of jetty piles – in other words, the build of a rugby prop – I felt out of place.
I was often reluctant to wear shorts, although I observed that overweight people felt no constraints about exposing their surplus flesh. Some even seemed proud of it.
Somehow that was OK. Being beefy was culturally acceptable in a way that skinniness was not.
My mother, a practical woman, did her best to console me by pointing out that my legs reached all the way to the ground, which was all that mattered.
Later, after I got married, my wife often told me I had legs that would be considered highly desirable on a woman. Strangely enough, this was no comfort. What self-respecting heterosexual Kiwi bloke wants to be fancied by other men because he has shapely legs?
My physique posed practical problems for me too, and still does. The jeans and trousers stocked in New Zealand menswear stores are made for men built like … well, like rugby props. The waists are too low and the legs too short.
I wait until I’m travelling overseas. Then I go crazy, bingeing on jeans and trousers that actually fit me. I’ve found Germany good for this – there are lots of tall men there – and America even better.
Today, my wardrobe has several surplus pairs of jeans from the US. Set loose in American clothing stores with an infinite range of sizes, I’m like one of those grizzly bears you see on TV wildlife documentaries when the salmon are running upstream. I barely know which one to grab first. I gorge myself.
But here’s the thing. At my advanced stage of life (I’m 67), I’ve decided I no longer care what people think if I walk down the street in shorts. Who the hell do I need to impress?
Besides, after growing up feeling a bit inadequate because I didn’t have the right physique for most sports, I discovered a physical activity at which I was at least competent. I started riding a bike, and discovered my legs weren’t totally useless after all.
These skinny shanks have propelled me around Lake Taupo several times in the 160 km Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge. They have tackled some formidable mountain bike rides: the Karapoti Classic, the Rainbow Rage, the Haurangi Crossing, the Heaphy Track and the St James Cycle Trail, to name a few.
They once even stepped up on a podium when I finished second in my age group in a mountain bike race. I began to feel a defiant pride about my spindly limbs.
But while my legs are no longer the source of self-consciousness that they once were, I’d like to make a statement on behalf of skinny-legged men everywhere.
I’ve noticed many times that people don’t hesitate to comment on my legs – not necessarily in an insulting way, but bluntly making the point that they’re, er, rather deficient in the flesh department. Only a few days ago, my brother-in-law remarked on how skinny they were.
He’s a good-hearted, generous man, my bro’-in-law, but he’s Polish, and he tends to say what he thinks. It doesn’t occur to many Poles that just because you think something, you don’t necessarily have to say it.
I invited him to consider why, in our culture, it’s considered okay to comment about a person being thin when it would be deemed offensive to draw attention to the fact that someone is overweight. I think he got my point.
Incidentally, he turned up the following day wearing shorts himself. I was tempted to comment on the ghostly whiteness of his limbs, but held my tongue.