On Friday as my boss was putting out sweet bread for everyone to eat, she looked at me and said, “Teacher…” with this sly, I’m-going-to-tell-you-something-that-will-make-you-uncomfortable smile on her face, while shifting her weight from one foot to the other. I looked at her and started to shake my head. I knew the words that were about to come out of her mouth, and I thought, don’t do it. Don’t say it.
But she continued: “I’m telling you this because we’re so close… you’ve gotten fatter since you went to America.” I stared at her, eyebrows raised, jaw dropped. “I know that you haven’t been there in a year, so maybe everyone wanted to feed you and welcome you home, but you were losing weight when you left, and now you’ve gained it all back.”
There were so many things that I wanted to do and say in that moment. So many profanities, so much sarcasm, and a slew of middle fingers ran through my head. I either wanted to take that sweet loaf of bread and shove it all in my mouth like a crazy person or smash it in her face.
Instead I said, “Yeah, we are definitely not that close. Never say that to me again. Ever. I know that in this culture it’s ‘OK’ to tell everyone that they’re fat, but in my culture it’s one of the meanest things that you can say. I went back home knowing that I would gain some weight because I get to eat these delicious foods only once a year, and I don’t feel bad about it because I’m losing it as we speak, and it was awesome. And I would never ever tell you that you’re fat because it’s not nice and it doesn’t make you feel good.” She said that I could tell her that she’s getting fatter (as she taps her small stomach), and I told her again that I would never do that because it’s so horribly rude. I pointed out that I like to compliment her on her clothes or her hair because it makes her feel nice and gives her confidence; however, if I were to say that she was looking fat she would feel down and self-conscious all day – and there’s no point in doing that except to make the other person feel like shit. She said yes, OK OK, and then someone walked in the room and I walked to the bathroom.
And then I cried in there for a minute. Despite all I know about positive body imagine, self-love, different cultures and how I view myself, I just needed a second to let myself feel sad, hurt and offended.
This is not even close to the first time something like this has happened to me or others in Asia. Obviously things like this happen all over the world every day in all cultures, but because I’ve been living and traveling here for a few years, the bluntness I’ve experienced is still foreign and shocking to me.
At my first school in Seoul I was playing with the kids and sat in one of the cubbies on a bookshelf. Two of my co-teachers were giggling and told me that they were surprised I didn’t break the whole thing because I was so heavy.
At a lot of clothing stores the workers follow you around, and when you ask to go into a fitting room they often giggle, shake their heads, cross their arms in an X shape and say no. One worker followed me around as I was looking at sweaters, and when I would hold one up he would say, “Not fit. You too big” and would take the sweater from my hand and put it back. After the second or third time this happened I yelled at him to go away, stand somewhere else and let me shop in peace.
In Vietnam where custom made dresses are cheap, my friend walked in and the shop owner said, “You are definitely not getting a dress. I don’t have enough fabric in the shop for you.”
A few of us recently went to a restaurant, and we told them that there would be six people eating. They wanted us to sit at a round table meant for four people because the restaurant was a little full, but then he looked at us, stuck his arms out, puffed up his cheeks, laughed and said, “oh, very big” and pushed two tables together.
At one of the main bus terminals in Seoul there was a billboard inside with a drawing of a giant white lady with her fat pouring over her seat, and she was sitting next to a very tiny, annoyed looking Asian woman who took up a third of her seat.
When a friend of mine, after being in Asia for a few years, got off a plane and was walking around the airport in America, she suddenly burst into tears. For years she had been called ‘pig teacher,’ and she realized that after seeing so many people of different shapes and sizes she wasn’t, after all, a freak.
Another friend who was really into MMA fighting for a while got very thin and ripped. You could see all of the muscles and bones in her body, and was only eating a little bit of kale for some meals. Once she started to get back to her regular and healthy routine of eating and feeling better, her friends and co-workers called her ‘panda’ and kept commenting on how she was getting fat.
My Korean friend, after not seeing her University friends in a few years, met up with some of them, and the first thing that they said to her was, “Oh, you got fat!”
The stories are endless.
On one hand I know that I’m living in a very different culture than my own, and I need to adapt to their ways of life because I’m a guest here; however, the lines between accepting and adapting to their culture and being true to myself are not always clear. I’ve noticed that the way I dress here compared to America is different – I’m more shy and covered up here. In America I would wear sleeveless tops, but most of the time I can’t bring myself to do it here. Not only do people stare because I’m a foreigner, but sometimes people will get all judgy and make the fat gestures behind my back. Like I said, all of this is obviously not exclusive to Asia; however, in America I can smack someone in the face for pulling some shit like that and everyone will understand why. But, you know, I can’t go around hitting people all the time for being offensive.
So, where do we go from here? How do we stand up for ourselves and let things roll off our back at the same time? I have worked hard since adolescence to not play the comparison/wishing game (my thighs touch and hers don’t; I wish I was as thin as her, etc). I try to focus on praising my body for all the amazing things that it allows me to do. Hating on my body only produces negative thoughts, is not productive, and it often leads to under-eating and then binging. Do I have fat days? Of course, just like everyone else in the world; however, constant negativity and insecurity like this can project onto others, creating a shitty cycle for everyone. (Do I believe that my boss really loves her body and feels great about herself and is just being mean? No. And I know that she definitely has body issues and is surrounded by people and a culture that reminds her that she isn’t perfect all the time. Does she project onto others? Definitely. Is she the only one to do this? No. We all know people (or sometimes are those people) who do this.)
Change your thoughts. Surround yourself with supportive and encouraging people. Read positive material. One blog I look up to is written by Jes at The Militant Baker. Her body positivity and personal experiences are inspiring and extremely relatable. I also read magazines (such as Glamour, Marie Claire and Curve) that do not fat shame, but rather celebrate all shapes and sizes and show you how to dress your body so you feel your best.
Spread love and positivity, stand up for yourself, don’t shoot insults back at others even when they hurt you, and lead a happy life by example. Once you start showing yourself more love and encourage others to do so in their own lives, the effects can be universal.
Here’s a powerful and inspiring video from Dove called Dove Real Body Sketches. This went viral a few months ago, and this is the full version. Listen to their words and look at their reactions. How much do you see yourselves in these women?
What are your thoughts? How do you deal with your own body issues? What can we do to promote body love around the world so that it breaks cultural barriers? I’d really love to hear from you.
Go forth and be fabulous, people!