Jenna

Dear World, my body is not political commentary or any of your business, really.

I work at a University and deal almost exclusively with international students. I’ve also lived in several countries and found in those countries and my international students in general find it ok to comment on the ups and downs of my weight in ways that as an American I find very uncomfortable to hear. Over the years it has never gotten easier the easy frankness they have with pointing out the weight of others. I remember China was the worst. It was an unholy nightmare for the squishy fattie such as myself.  I stepped off the plane and immediately felt like a Sasquatch.

In China, I was laughed out of shoe stores, waved out of clothing stores and since I studied Chinese in school I could easily hear the comments about how fat I was on the bus on the street… my body was some kind of laughingstock… the proof of the fat and lazy American right there before their very eyes. Holy hell if I ever thought it was bad back home the US ain’t got nothing on the completely forthright questions such as, “Why are you so fat? Where did you get those clothes? They are ugly. What is wrong with your face? (I have freckles)” China took what little self esteem I had managed to gather around myself over the years and ran it right into the ground. It made me hate that country. It made me throw away years of learning a difficult language because I knew I could never go back again. Towards the end of the time I had there I was stalked by a Chinese dude who wanted to take pictures of me and when I asked him why, his response was, “Because you are so fat.” I had to leave under cover of early morning to get away from him to the airport.

But it isn’t only China; every country I’ve encountered has held something similar. My first day teaching in Turkey I was told by one of my students that he could help me with my weight problem as he was a physical therapist as a day job. In Korea I had students whisper about my fatness while I was within earshot… my weight was a social commentary, a political statement, a sign for everything wrong about my country which most people were pretty eager about pointing out.

Ladies and gentlemen these comments came while I was and still am… a size 14.

Mostly I got over these comments and learned to keep calm and carry on but every once in awhile my international students manage to bring these nuggets of commenting on my weight into my office. This morning (and what triggered this post) was a student I had not seen in about 4 months, she came in, gasped!, and said, “Oh my God you have lost a LOT of weight!” (In actuality I have not gained or lost weight but am about the same… as I always am). Today though I have a particularly curve loving dress long sweater combination which looks AWESOME on me. I replied to her, “No I have not changed weight at all.” Last year I had a student come see me, whom I had not seen in about a year and a half, He invited me to come to his house where his wife would could me Biriyani and I said, “I love Biriyani, thanks!” Then he looked me up and down and said in front of his son, “Wow you have really gained weight since I last saw you.” As his son stifled a laugh… the more Americanized son who understood how insulting that was to say to me.

But why do I feel like I have to say anything? Part of me is offended, “What you thought I was SO FAT before?” or if I lost a little weight… which as sure as the sun rises will come back… that you think I looked so terrible and when I regain will you again think of me in (insert whatever judgmental  thoughts you care to here) terms? When someone tells me I have lost weight I do not feel flattered in the slightest. To me in means that they have judged my body before and found it wanting. A less beautiful version of what I “could” be.

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  • lailale

    I felt this way, too, when I was working/travelling in SE Asia. Even though I lost a bunch of weight (work-related stress) while I was there, I was still much bigger than everyone else. Every store/stall I walked into, without any provocation, the clerk always looked me up and down before sneering, “We don’t have anything in your size” — assuming they knew my motivation for shopping (who knows? I could have been buying a gift!). It was really depressing. And while I want to go back to Vietnam to work/study, I really worry about the damage it will cause. It’s taken a lot of years and effort (thanks to FA) to build up self-confidence, and while I look back on my travelling experience as mostly positive, it’s easy to forget how nasty it also was. Being Asian-American in SE Asia is hard enough without the fat-hatred.

  • Allison

    Wow. I didn’t realize it until reading this, but I’ve been so lucky! I’ve lived and taught ESL in Korea for 2 1/2 years and I’m a size 20 (North American). While students, friends, and the odd stranger have commented on my size once in awhile, I’ve never been met with hostility or mocking (at least, not to my face!). In fact, I found it refreshing that they stated it so matter-of-factly. A student says; “Teacher, you are fat. She is tall. I am short. He is thin.” A friend says; “You must have trouble buying clothes here because you are large size.” Even the worst thing a stranger has said was; “Wow. Big arms!” while giving me a little pinch in the steam room.

  • Elaine

    I feel this way at Cornell, which has an extremely diverse student population; I have had some quite nasty things said either to me or within earshot about what I was eating or what I look like. Sigh…

  • Meerkat47

    In Japan, the worst thing anyone has said to me was the guy who communicated through gestures on the train that zomg my feet are huge. But I know someone who is a bit larger who has gotten a lot of crap from her students while teaching English.

  • Harinamadd

    Oh my gosh, sadly, yes. After traveling all through Europe nothing I experienced there could begin to prepare me for what I went through in India. Children in the village in huge gangs pointing & shreiking with laughter as I tried to make a sacred pilgrimage, screaming names at me in Hindi like huge-lady and being called elephant wherever I went. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on all the “friendly advice” given by elders, all of these people I couldn’t undertake a rational logical dialogue with because of language & cultural barriers… Whole groups of people all unabashedly swivelling their heads to stare slack-jawed as I walked across the school grounds or down the street, rickshaw drivers trying to charge me double or triple, the starving beggar children in the city hating me… yeah. I know what ya mean here. It’s taken about 3 years to finally build my self esteem back, and I’m NOT a size 14.

  • http://www.axisoffat.com Zoe

    I can relate to some of this, having worked as ESL teacher in Japan for a couple of years, but it was more my own neuroses than any outright hostility. I was a size US18-20 for most of the time I was there, and I think I may have received one or two outright comments on my weight – I’m sure there were many many more when I wasn’t around, but to my face my coworkers, friends and students were very polite. It might be different in China and Korea though.

    I will say that Japan was an absolute wonder for improving my self-esteem. I went to onsens (hot springs) and indoor baths fairly frequently, everyone is nude. And no one gives a shit.

  • Emme

    I understand the negative feeling associated with public commentary on weight. Surely though its fairly obvious that what was occuring was a matter of cultural differences. I’ve lived and worked in Japan and I know I attracted a certain amount of attention. But then I’m sure still would have regardless of my weight due to my super fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. Its not easy to ignore such comments but it is important to interpret them in light of the culture from which the other person is coming from. We cant expect the whole world to adhere to our versions of beauty or to follow the same social/communication rules. I felt much more offended (and I think rightly so) when, here in Australia after many months of serious illness causing me to lose a lot of weight, I was repeatedly told how great I looked. Never mind the serious iron and vitamin deficiencies!

  • http://www.axisoffat.com/ Jenna

    Emme… even overweight people within each of these countries have the same issues. I have a Chinese student who by western standards is not fat but everytime she goes home the first thing her mother says is, “You are too fat lose some weight.” This girl cries and this causes her immense pain. We should be careful to not apply the broadly painted brush of “cultural relativity” when people are causing other people pain, when people think it is ok to shame others, when people do not respect the inherent dignity of another. By your argument then it is ok that women in Saudi arabia cannot drive, cannot be with unrelated men, cannot leave the country without permission from a man… hey it’s their culture! But at the end of the day there are human standards that transcend… and this Emme is one of them and this is why we are fighting to hard to put a stop to it.

  • http://www.axisoffat.com/ Jenna

    Emme… even overweight people within each of these countries have the same issues. I have a Chinese student who by western standards is not fat but everytime she goes home the first thing her mother says is, “You are too fat lose some weight.” This girl cries and this causes her immense pain. We should be careful to not apply the broadly painted brush of “cultural relativity” when people are causing other people pain, when people think it is ok to shame others, when people do not respect the inherent dignity of another. By your argument then it is ok that women in Saudi arabia cannot drive, cannot be with unrelated men, cannot leave the country without permission from a man… hey it’s their culture! But at the end of the day there are human standards that transcend… and this Emme is one of them and this is why we are fighting to hard to put a stop to it.

  • http://theskinnyonline.blogspot.com Belovedideas

    One of my Korean students handed me a diet along with his final exam. At first I thought it was a mistake that he’d handed me one of his notes from a nutrition class or something.

  • http://www.axisoffat.com/ Jenna

    UGGHHHH so “classy”

  • Piper

    I wonder what they would have said about me. I fluctate between a size 22/24 and a size 26/28 and weigh 305 pounds!

  • Piper

    I wonder what they would have said about me. I fluctate between a size 22/24 and a size 26/28 and weigh 305 pounds!

  • Crystal

    Lets face it ! When we are Fat everyone talks about us behind are back. we either accept it or complain about it . At least in asia they are more open to tell us what they think . We made ourselfs fat and its upto ourselfs to deal with it.

  • Anne

    Bit late to the comments on this but I’ve only just really found this blog. Wondering if anyone knows why the fat-shaming thing is so…overt, I guess, in Asia, compared to the west? (Not to say that fat shaming doesn’t go on here, obviously it does, but my experience is that people in Asia are much more direct about it).

    My guess is that being fat is more of an anomaly in Asian countries than it is here i.e. people in general are just much smaller (genetics? probably. I’m not a scientist) so a fat person and especially a fat white person stands out in a way that they don’t in a western society.

    Note that I consider the idea of cultural relativism to be bullshit that people use more often than not as an excuse for horrendous practices that step all over human rights. So, you know, I’m not trying to justify it, but I am curious…I mean, I would imagine that for the most part these remarks that people have posted about were not intended to be malicious. Maybe it is just the fear/intrigue that comes with the unknown? I remember as a kid seeing dreadlocks on a man for the first time and freaking out, asking my mum what was wrong with him and if he had a disease in full earshot of said man. Obviously not quite the same thing, but I think you see where I’m going with that. People can be surprisingly blunt when they feel confronted.

    But yeah anyway a long comment to basically just say I sympathise with you and I wonder if anyone actually knows if the reasons behind the Asian fat-shaming are anything beyond a culturally ingrained response…?

  • Flowers

    The Asian have no room to talk with their little bitty eyes!! They always walk around thinking their better than everyone else!!

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