Image provided by Catherine Shu
Over the Lunar New Year break, many stores in Taipei played classical Chinese music (or modern remixes of classical Chinese music). The songs made me feel uneasy and I wondered why. Was it because the melodies sounded atonal to my Western ears? Or was it because the music reminded me of being the fattest kid in my traditional Chinese dance class?
Since toddlerhood, I’d been classified as chubby “for an Asian girl.” I was larger than all my female relatives. Classmates called me the Pillsbury Dough Girl; my traditional Chinese dance teacher pulled my Mom in for a private meeting to tell her that I needed to shed 10 pounds or more. Every morsel of food I put in my mouth was monitored.
By third grade I was using a tape measure to track the girth of my thighs. A couple years later, I went on my first diet. My diet buddy was another Taiwanese American girl whose mother constantly admonished her in front of our friends for being “fat.” Our strategy consisted of not eating and weighing ourselves after each trip to the bathroom.
Before I moved to Taiwan in 2007, I fretted about many things. I worried about being lonely and homesick. I worried about doing well in my Mandarin studies to keep my scholarship, my sole source of income for the next nine months.
But most of all (and I’m embarrassed to admit this), I worried about my size 8 figure being seen as fat in a country that I assumed would be filled with tiny, bird-like women.
My then-fiancé told me not to worry. Sure, average sizes skew smaller in Asia than in the US, but I’d still be well within the mean. I found it hard to explain to him that I wasn’t just worried about considered fat or not being able to go shopping. Being called chubby didn’t just mean I was rotund -- culturally, it also implied that I was lazy and lacked self-control. It signified personal failings that went well beyond body size. I was almost 26 and still found it hard to ignore what I’d been told as a little girl.
When I landed in Taipei, I found that my fiancé had been right. I’m not considered skinny here, but I’m not seen as fat either. I relaxed a little and had a cup of almond-flavored bubble milk tea from time to time.
But I still found that I was living in a culture where extreme thinness is held up as the ideal. Many clothing chain stores only carry two sizes, the US equivalent of petite sizes 4 and 6 (or sizes 2 to 4 in some boutiques). I saw a newspaper ad for a weight loss drug where the “before” weights of the female models was 130 pounds. The photos showed these “fatties” dressed in unflattering tank tops and shorts, slouched in chairs so their bellies pouched out. A diet feature in Popteen, a magazine targeted to adolescents, featured young women who’d slimmed down from an average of 130 pounds to 90 pounds by limiting their food intake to five small bowls of white rice a day or using diet aids like a fiber-filled jelly that expands in your stomach.
Body weight is also scrutinized a lot more intensely here than it is in the US -- or at least people feel more comfortable bringing it up in conversation. When I lost two dress sizes in the US after joining the gym, no one noticed -- even when I pointed my weight loss out to them. When I lost five pounds in Taipei, however, everyone commented on it -- and by everyone, I mean my landlady, my language partner, the owner of a restaurant my husband and I frequented, my tutor, etc.
At that time, I wrote a blog entry about how this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe the ease with which people discuss each other’s (and their own) weight means that there is less moral significance attached to body size here. But I’ve also noticed that it is men and people over the age of 40 who talk about weight the most freely. Young women -- the people who feel the most pressure to stay slim -- don’t.
Last year, my Mom gave me a USB drive filled with hundreds of family photos that my parents had scanned. Because I’d grown up hearing myself described as fat, I expected to see a rotund little girl in those photos. But I didn’t. I was just an average-sized kid and many of the photos were of my brother and me biking, roller-skating and skiing. In latter photos, however, I saw an awkward teenager in oversized sweatshirts and corduroys; by that time, I’d internalized the comments about my body and did everything I could to hide it.
It’s taken years for me to feel comfortable with my body. I eat healthily and run regularly. But it still makes me angry that I was made to think my body was grotesque, that it was held up to a cultural standard that was simply unrealistic for me. It drives me crazy that 130 pounds is considered disgusting here (and, of course, size-ism is also rampant in the US).
But I’ve learned to harness those feelings. A couple weeks ago, I was running when I started thinking about those diet ads and all the times I was told to lose weight when I was a little girl. My adrenaline started pumping; I was so distracted by sheer fury that it came as a surprise when my timer went off, signifying the end of my run. I felt like I was flying and that I could have gone on forever. It was marvelous. Whenever I start lagging at the end of a run, I just tap into this wellspring of anger. If anyone thinks my healthy body is fat, they can, in the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, “kiss my curvy yellow butt.”
Catherine Shu is a US-born Taiwanese American currently living in Taipei and working as a features reporter for the Taipei Times. She blogs about her experiences in Taiwan at shu flies.