Image via Vice
Today I’ll be talking about a topic close to heart – fat shaming.
I think there are no other cultures more critical of ‘fatness’ than East Asian ones. The West has its fair share of impossible beauty standards, but in Asian cultures, fat shaming permeates every level, from the basest up to the highest, from family to the community and society as a whole.
Western parents rarely, if ever, point out that their kids are ‘fat’ – at least not to their face, and it’s always done in a subtle way. But what happens when it’s the family members themselves, the ones who are supposed to be supportive of you and keep you safe from harm, turn out to be the ones orchestrating it?
Ask any Asian kid, and chances are they’ll tell you that at least one family member (including their mom/sisters) have called them fat to their face. Reaching for an extra bowl of rice? “Don’t eat so much, you’re fat.” “You look fat in that dress.” “Why are your thighs so fat?” “Your waist is as thick as an oil drum”. These are actual, real-life quotes by the way, I’m not making them up. Many East Asians go by ‘tough love’, and here’s the thing – some of them honestly believe that by calling someone out on their fatness, they will be ‘shamed’ into losing weight and therefore lead a healthier life. Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way.
Coming from a Chinese family, I dread going back for gatherings because there’ll always be one or two obnoxious relatives that think it’s a good idea to point out the extra rolls on your tummy, as if you didn’t already know. I find it insufferably rude. You don’t go up to someone and say “Hey, your face is getting uglier these days, you should go for plastic surgery – ?” so why is it okay for you to call someone fat and tell them to lose weight? Maybe they are already working out and eating healthily, and the pounds won’t shed coz it’s a long and slow process. You don’t own his/her body anyway, so what’s it to you? Does it feel good to lord it over someone else?
When you think about it, it’s funny how things have changed. Once upon a time in ancient China, ‘fatness’ was prized, because plump women were deemed more suitable for childbirth/child rearing. But as we enter a modern age where many of us no longer have to worry about starving from lack of food, suddenly the ‘in’ thing is to.. guess what? Starve ourselves for beauty.
I was very skinny growing up, but hitting puberty was a different story. For one, I had well-developed assets – definitely more than your conventional Asian girl. My parents freaked out, afraid that I’d attract unwanted attention, and as an impressionable teenager, that fear spilled onto me. I walked around with a hunched back, and I was always dressed in long, baggy clothes. I was also very tanned (from playing basketball/Taekwondo), and was taller and bigger than my mother by age 14 (she’s 5” and less than a 100lbs). In short, I did not fit into the demure, small-boned Asian chick stereotype.
Suddenly, phrases like “Don’t go out in the sun too much!” and “Don’t eat too much, you’ll get fat!” were daily mantras, and I felt like a freak of nature in comparison to the white-skinned, skinny Chinese girls in school. This persisted throughout high school and college, and I think it contributed to my extreme weight gain when I started working.
After years of being told I was fat even though I was at a healthy weight, something inside snapped and the floodgates opened – I started eating to comfort myself, and it became a vicious cycle of eating, feeling depressed, and eating again. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And you know what finally broke me out of it ? Myself. Not family members telling me what to do, not society telling me what to do, not anybody else.
I remember waking up one morning and feeling like shit. Like, “wtf have I done with my life?” and “I have to fix this.” I had just come back from a health checkup and found that not only was I overweight, I also had a dangerous percentage of unhealthy body fat and was destined to die an early death if I kept this up. I sat my mum down and told her I wanted her to stop all the BS, to stop calling me fat in front of everyone, because she was doing more harm than good. I needed her support to help me lose weight, not add on to my depression. It took awhile to make her understand (tough love is so ingrained in traditional Asian parents – the same reason they cant look you in the eye and say ‘I Love You’) but at the end of the day, she was my biggest supporter of all.
Maybe that’s what it takes. Force our parents to sit down and listen to us for once.
That was two years ago. I lost some of the weight, although I’m still struggling to lose the rest of it and get back into the ‘healthy’ range. But I know this is different from all my previous attempts. Previously, it was always about being thin for someone, whether it’s approval from family, a boyfriend, friends, etc. Now, it’s about being healthy/fit for myself. And that’s what makes it different.
To anyone who has ever had food addiction and depression, we know that it’s a lifelong struggle. Some people will never understand that sometimes fat people eat not because they can’t ‘control’ themselves, but because it is a disease, just like tobacco addiction, or alcohol addiction, or sex addiction. Count your blessings if you don’t, but don’t be so quick to judge others, because you don’t know their story.
It makes me really angry when someone, especially someone you call ‘family’, blatantly disrespects others for their appearance, with not a thought about the struggles this person has gone through to get where they are today.
I was at a cousin’s’ wedding dinner when I overheard an uncle telling my dad “X’s daughter is so fat, does she have a boyfriend yet? She should lose some weight.” It’s this casual sort of fat shaming at family gatherings that are the most toxic of all, because we are there for a happy occasion, not listen to you berate others for their appearance and make them feel bad about themselves.
Already pissed off but attempting to bite my tongue as my parents were there and I had to ‘behave’…And then an uncle told me out of the blue “You know, Nim, if you lost some weight, you’d be really pretty.” I gave him a scathing response that shut him up. Of course, a subsequent lecture on ‘respect’ was due, but at least they know not to pull this sort of bullshit in front of me next time.
It’s not just about being fat, although this seems to be the most common grouse. Girls are either too fat, too thin, too flat chested, too big-boobed, chunky thighed, has skinny calves, flat-assed, big-assed, dark, pale, etc. Not a day passes by when we are not judged for our looks rather than our merits.
I get it, it’s an unfair world where looks DO matter, but I sure as hell am not gonna take that lying down.
Especially when it comes from my own people.