Friday, February 18, 2011

Western Women and Weighty Issues of Weight in Taiwan

The working title of this post was "Weighty Western Women" but then I decided that set a very wrong tone indeed.

Anyway, Shu Flies recently published a great post about body issues and living in Taiwan, and covered the issue quite well from the perspective of a Taiwanese-American (although it could be extended to include East Asian women in general). She also noted the launch of a new site aimed at discussing body issues in the Asian female community - a site I'll definitely keep tabs on, but as a Western woman (OK, white - I'm just gonna say white. I'm so post politically correct - I also answer to "Wonderbread" and "Correction Fluid J") it's not really my community, y'know?

I thought I'd write this post as a rejoinder on what it's like living in Taiwan as a Woman of Curvature.

I do not often talk about appearance or body issues on this blog because I simply choose not to. No, I am not entirely pleased with my body as it is, but I've accepted it in the way one accepts flaws in the personality of one's cat (not that I'd know anything about that) - yeah, it can be annoying but you love it anyway, because it's yours. I also do feel that the Internet can be a hostile place for women, and don't wish to put my appearance out there too much for the potentially nasty comments of an anonymous public who don't know me and have no right to judge.

Egypt 2009 (I'm the same size as I was then) - I never felt as though I was/am unacceptably huge but, like most people, a few sizes down would be dandy

But here, I'll talk about it. And here's how it is: I go on and on about how Taiwan boasts a more egalitarian, female-friendly society than any other in Asia. I've mentioned that feminity garners respect, that female politicians are judged based on their competency, not their looks. I've noted that their maternity and child-raising culture is more professional-female friendly, and that issues surrounding marriage and low birth rates say just as much in favor of women's equality as they do against it. I've noted that key positions in some very high-profile companies are often held by women and that women are encouraged to be business owners, lawyers, doctors, politicians and generally high achievers by their parents (most of the time). The situation is generally pretty good. There's room for improvement, of course, but it's a damn sight more palatable than in any other Asian country.

But here? When it comes to weight, body acceptance and respect regardless of size and body type? I'm sorry, Taiwan, but you've got it wrong. When it comes to this, you are just as backward and misogynist as the rest of the continent can be.

I'm not saying that Taiwan is worse than Japan, Korea or China: when it comes to women and size acceptance, it's equally bad. That's a sad thing indeed, considering how not size-accepting those cultures are. The pain it clearly causes Asian women of any size other than the expected one (on the short side, slender to a fault, boyish hips, tiny butt, no boobs) - not to mention any skin color or eye shape - is a travesty. When salesladies act like your ass changes weather patterns, as Catherine wrote, something is very, very wrong.

For a society that has done so well in accepting female equality and opportunity, I am still gobsmacked at medieval it all is. I'd say "patriarchal", and men of all races with unrealistic expectations do play a part, but let's be honest. Women bring this not upon themselves but they do so often foist it on others. Salesladies, Mean Girls, well-meaning elders who say exactly the wrong thing, frenemies - we do it to each other.

As a white woman living in Taiwan, I do have a "Get Out of Jail Free" card when it comes to body size. Being white means a certain expectation of being...ahem..."fat". It is true that the average Caucasian female can't hope, even through the unhealthiest dieting, to approach the size and body type of the 'ideal' Asian female - we simply have bigger hips, more boobage, wider ribcages and shoulders and we're taller and bigger in general. It wouldn't matter if I lost all the weight I'd like to lose - I'd still be "fat" in Taiwan. What can I say - I'm Polish and Armenian and built like I was meant to push a plow. Eastern European women just...are that way. At a weight I feel good about, I'm a 12. 12 is "fat" in Taiwan. At a weight that allows me to indulge in life's pleasures (if I want to be a 12 I have to never eat bread, drink beer or basically eat anything I like, ever, even if I exercise), I'm a 14.

At my thinnest, as in rib-countingly thinnest, I'm a size 10. I came back from India in 2000 after a bout of dysentery, six months as a vegetarian (my host family was veg, so by default so was I) and a month riding the trains and eating very little as a result. I was a 10. A 10 is "fat" here, too. This is one area where I'll disgree with Catherine - she said you can't shop in regular stores if you're above a 12. I have made Western friends in Taiwan who wore an 8 and they couldn't shop locally. "Normal" sizes stop at 8, but if you have the curves and height of the average white woman, that 8 is still going to pull in all the wrong places, strain at the seams around your womanly attributes, and probably be far too short.

The only upside to this is the fact that it's expected here: you're a Westerner, of course you're "fat". It's OK.

I've also got my height to my advantage. At 5'8", I'm tall for a woman even in the USA and, I swear, tall for a man in Taiwan. My Polish Brick Shithouse bone structure is good for one thing:

That's not to say that I don't occasionally get well-meaning but entirely irritating comments from Old Taiwanese Ladies - Old Wu, my favorite neighborhood ancient lady, once offered me some meat buns as I walked by. I said no, thanks, I just ate but thanks so much. Mmmm, she replied, "if you want to lose weight you should eat less and exercise more". Thanks, Old Wu. I totally didn't know that!

Another older woman - I don't know her name - likes to come up to me, smack me gently in the tummy, and give her sage crone's opinion on whether I've gained or lost weight. She does sometimes say "妳變瘦了呢!" but still...thanks, Old Taiwanese Lady. Thanks.

Over Chinese New Year, I got a Torture Lady massage out in Kaohsiung County. "You need this massage because your muscles are tired, because you're fat. You're fat because your qi is stuck," she said to me as she pounded away.

"Your qi is stuck. That's why you're fat." "Did she just call me fat?" "Yes. Sorry Jenna." "Argh.....OW!"

I will say that other than Old Taiwanese Ladies, though, I don't get judgemental comments, and those Old Taiwanese Ladies don't mean it the way a Westerner would take it: at least, I don't think they mean "you are unacceptable! You need to lose weight right now!" when they say "Oh, that's because you're fat" or "you've gained weight" - they mean exactly what they say without the catty undertones I might expect back home. (Catherine has a point that size acceptance has made great leaps in the USA, but the cattiness hasn't quite gone away. If you don't believe me, check Craigslist...pretty much anywhere).

I never have to deal with rude salesladies because I cannot shop in normal stores in Taiwan. Full stop. Not happening, ever. Even if I lose weight: I'd still have too-wide hips and be too tall. If it helps, I can't buy shoes, either, unless I go to Sandy Ho. I pretty much have to order my clothes from abroad, get them tailored or buy old lady clothes.

This makes me sad - I've lived here for years and met many Taiwanese women of varying sizes. They are not exactly a hidden subgroup, and while they may not be in the majority, they're certainly not such a minority that they deserve the retail treatment they get. This population deserves more than the teenybopper fashions at 5XL (what an offensive name, too), Crazy Dragon Lady Chinese outfits (which I totally wear) and the matronly clothes on offer at H&L (which is at least respectably named).

So in this way, Taiwan still has a long way to go until it can claim to truly be woman-friendly - as unfortunate as it is, size still is primarily a female issue, and greater expectations regarding i are heaped on women by their parents, magazine and newspaper pieces and ads, each other, men in their dating spheres and society at large.

Now, unlike Catherine, I have never suffered from depression, and while I'm not entirely satisfied with my body as it is, it's never been something I fretted too much over. I won't hide it, though - or rather, I will reveal here what I do hide: my insecurity is such that when it comes to photos, I apply the same old tricks to hide a size that I don't like being. I do the whole "lean into husband" thing:

Or the "cut off at the edge of the picture thing:

Or the "you may photograph my entire body but only in this outfit which is flattering" thing:

I will say that the expectation that I be "fat" is freeing in a way: if it's an issue of "oh, you're white, so it's fine", then it's racist, sure, but the attitude of "it's normal for you" makes me feel like, well, yes, I am built like Peasant Magda and so I'm never going to be thin, so in a way it is normal for me. Back home, there seems to be this idea that if I shed a ton of weight that it might be possible to actually look like those girls on magazine covers. At least here, everybody knows that's ludicrous.

One thing I do have to my advantage beyond height: I have more boob-tacular boobaliciousness than my Asian sisters. So hey, in at least one case, Polish genes for the win?

I'm not talking about accepting poor health, by the way. I simply believe that healthy women come in all sizes, including those not represented by models and actresses. I believe in accepting a range of natural sizes and shapes in women. Yes, obesity is a health issue and should be treated as such, but we're not talking obesity here. We're simply talking differently-sized women.

And when it comes to differently-sized women, Taiwan, like its East Asian neighbors, needs to buck up and get with the program. It is absolutely not acceptable to insist on such an unhealthy standard for women here.

So where do they get it right? Where, besides America, has size acceptance really worked for a culture? Most of Sub-Saharan Africa (and even North Africa to an extent - there is no shame in being curvy in Morocco or Egypt) for one, and to an extent, India. Yes, India. I know, I know, the matrimonial ads (don't even get me started on those: foreign graduated fine-featured male seeks wife with wheatish complexion, willing to move abroad, medical degree preferred, slim, healthy, caste no bar) are full of weight-hatin' nonsense, but there is an undercurrent, culturally, in accepting that beauty comes in different forms and a curvier Indian woman will be accepted for who she is. It's almost expected that after marriage she'll put on weight, and certainly expected after childbirth - motherhood in all its manifestations is celebrated, including the addition of a little extra padding.

Author's note:

This post is not about accepting and celebrating obesity (as I did mention above, but maybe I need to say it twice). It is not even about being "overweight" or "fat", although weight is a factor. It is simply about being differently shaped and sized than the average woman in the country in which I live, and "differently shaped and sized" does not necessarily mean overweight...and overweight does not automatically equate to obese. This post is for Western women who are taller, curvier or simply have a larger bone structure than the average Taiwanese woman: that means, basically, almost all of us.

This post is also not about bashing slender or petite women. I don't do woman-bashing. There's enough of that on the Internet - I believe in support, kindness and acceptance. I have nothing against naturally slender Asian women. Hey, good for them! I cannot, however, condone diet pills and unhealthy levels of dieting. I cannot condone the size-based judgement and contempt with which women scare each other every day. I cannot condone "underweight" as something desireable, and you know (yes, you do) that this happens all the time in Taiwan.

Normally, I am happy to allow comments with dissenting views and even a bit of snark - I'm all about having tough conversations on certain topics. This post, however, has the potential to generate a lot of invective and as it does deal with some personal (and flash-fight-friendly) issues, I'm controlling comments with an iron fist. Your comment will not be published - and possibly not even read in its entirety - if it:

1.) Assumes that overweight=obese
2.) Has any hate-filled, sanctimonious, prejudiced or condescending language
3.) Takes any sort of sexist or misogynist stance towards women and weight
4.) Takes any sort of racist stance towards women and weight
5.) Assumes (wrongly) that this post is about accepting or celebrating obesity
6.) Assumes (wrongly) that this post is simply about being "overweight" and not about fundamentally different sizes and shapes in Taiwan.
7.) Automatically assumes that thin=healthy

The Internet can be a hostile place for women generally and there is a lot of anonymous hate out there. I will not contribute to that.


Kath said...

Brilliant post! I read Catherine's post too and loved it and it's awesome you've expanded it to take in the experience of European/White/Western women too. I hear ya! I'm more generously proportioned myself but like you certainly not what I consider to be fat. Some of us were built to push a plow!

Can I just say that I think you look great - healthy, happy and wonderfully proportioned. Life is for living and if being a size smaller needs me to constantly refrain from life's pleasures then I say no thanks. It's taken many years and lots of trying but I'm now happy with my body but that confidence took a fair beating when I moved here and discovered buying shoes and clothes was a horrific mission. You're right too - not ALL TW girls are slender. I see more generously proportioned girls all the time so I don't see why there aren't more clothing options available.

In so many ways this country is fantastic but this one point for me is chronically annoying. Esp when I hear young girls I know who I consider to be slightly too slim worrying over their weight.

Thanks for writing this. Great reading and food for thought. Pun intended ;)

Catherine Shu said...

What a great post! I'm glad to hear your perspective on it. I was hesitant to post about my own experiences, too.. for one thing, this is pretty much the first time I've publicly written about my experience with depression (the only other time was for my college paper). I also agree with you that talking about your body on the Internet, even if it's to make a point about stereotypes and stupid cultural ideals, opens women up to a lot of craziness.

You're right... it's hard to find clothing beyond a size 8. I was thinking of those one-size-fits-all jersey tunics that you see in a lot of stores here, but, yeah, stuff that is actually tailored (ie not a cotton sack) is hard to find beyond a (small, boobless) size 8. Which is insane because, as you pointed out, a LOT of Taiwanese women are larger than that. Where the heck do they shop? (Seriously, I wonder if that's why shapeless jersey tunics and leggings are so popular here.)

I feel lucky that I grew up with a cultural background that values education and high achievement for boys and girls but the body thing is so messed up. When I was back in California for my wedding, we got together with some of our family friends. One of them said to the other "I saw your daughter at the wedding! She's so skinny! How nice!" Well, the woman in question had just freakin' gotten her MD and into the residency of her choice (and married a fellow doctor to boot). In other words, she was very stereotypical Asian parent's dream but nooooooooooooo the most important thing was that she lost 10 pounds.

It makes me want to bang my head against the wall.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

That's sickening (the whole "she lost ten pounds!" thing). I won't pretend that doesn't happen in my world, too: my Grandma L., when she first saw us after our engagement, asked me if I was planning to lose any weight for the wedding. " figure if I am good enough to get married as I am that I don't need the added stress of striving to some silly bridal ideal." "I just want you to be healthy!" (I AM healthy). I finally had to say "I no longer wish to discuss my weight with you or anyone else. This conversation is over and there will be no future conversations."

The point was made, but I fear that not many women have the security and wherewithal to stand up to their elders like that - in either culture.

One thing I'd love to see end NOW is the whole diet pill thing. I'm not convinced that the diet doctors one always hears about here are healthy, either (I don't know what advice they give, but if they are the ones doling out the diet pills then someone should take away their licenses to practice).

Anonymous said...

Peasant Caitlin here! OMG, the relief - the unbelievable relief - that, somewhere in the world, there might possibly exist a group of people who could accept that the way I'm built is normal for me. Taller-than-average, broad-shouldered, wide-hipped, big-busted, and, unless I'm doing Olympic-style workouts for more than 20 hours a week - heavier than currently fashionable. If I just do an ordinary few hours of working out per week, my body goes back to the same weight, every time - but America isn't quite ready to believe that "normal" comes in different sizes. Why should we all be built the same, any more than all have the same skin colour? The answer is, of course - we shouldn't.


Alexis said...

Reading this post has made me feel a lot better about being a US size 10 in Taipei. Most of the time these days I'm pretty okay with my body, but I was feeling a little down after today's failed expedition to find any clothes that fit right.

Anonymous said...

Hello there!

Enjoyed reading your article and can sooo relate to the weighty issues an American woman can face here in Taipei. I moved here KNOWING I would never be able to find clothes that fit me and knowing there would be certain obstacles I would face as a larger woman in a mostly thin country.

I remember talking with my skinny Taiwanese co-workers when I first got here. Somehow photographs came up and they asked if I had any pictures of myself when I was younger. I wondered why they would ask me that and soon found out. It's mortifying and I can't even believe I'm going to put this in print, but here goes: They were looking at me in sheer wonderment and asking me, "Were you thin when you were younger? We want to see those pictures. What happened to your body? How did you become so fat?" And all these questions were asked with such innocence!! They truly did not realize how devastating it was for me to hear these things and it's because I hid from them how embarrassed I was and how much it hurt to hear it.

Scenarios like this have happened several times since I got here and it's brutal.

And what happens when the clothes I brought with me become worn out? I am only here for one year so I am hoping the 10 pairs of pants and 10 shirts I have will last that long. I know it sounds like a lot, but all my clothes are already showing some wear-and-tear after just four months.

Anyway, I can relate to everything written on this blog and it can be really difficult to be a larger woman in a very skinny society.

Magnifique said...

I just found your blog. Oh, how I miss Taiwan- I lived there as a foreign exchange student from '99 to '00- but not this particular aspect. I'll never forget the following exchange between me and the lady who ran the laundromat where I would take my clothes.
Her: "Was that you walking by the other day in the blue dress?"
Me: Thinking "How many other red haired foreigners walk around here" "Yes"
Her: "You shouldn't wear that dress. It makes you look fat."

I still laugh about that.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across your blog and am really enjoying reading it...I lived in Taiwan in 1992, am six feet and was about 145 pounds at the time. I wish I could be that skinny again! It'll never happen. But man alive the comments I got. I had a fellow student come up and smack my thighs and tell me I had to shed a few pounds. Sadly, he was a Lao was but still.

I now live in HK and not to totally switch subjects but can we discuss why it's ok for my colleagues to tell me how tired I look all the time? Hey, good morning, wow you look tired! Although it did, shockingly accompany the following comment once, so I'm happy: "hey, good morning you look tired but you've put in some weight". Um, excuse me? "yes, you look good, you look healthy. Except you look tired".

Ok, then.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across your blog and am really enjoying reading it...I lived in Taiwan in 1992, am six feet and was about 145 pounds at the time. I wish I could be that skinny again! It'll never happen. But man alive the comments I got. I had a fellow student come up and smack my thighs and tell me I had to shed a few pounds. Sadly, he was a Lao was but still.

I now live in HK and not to totally switch subjects but can we discuss why it's ok for my colleagues to tell me how tired I look all the time? Hey, good morning, wow you look tired! Although it did, shockingly accompany the following comment once, so I'm happy: "hey, good morning you look tired but you've put in some weight". Um, excuse me? "yes, you look good, you look healthy. Except you look tired".

Ok, then.

Diego said...

I'm living in Taiwan right now (Kaohsiung), and I totally relate to what you are saying. I'm an American student, and it's nice to hear you emphasis the importance of being who you are and being ok with whatever size you are. Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. The fat thing does come up a lot, but yeah it's not meant as an insult. I think the problem is that we aren't very used to seeing fat/big people yet, so we're don't know what is normal for you. I believe we also think differently in regards to weight/size, at least compared with the Americans. From my observations we discuss body conditions more freely. One of the common "greetings" I've often heard from my relatives every time I visit them is "You're fatter/stronger/thinner/taller now." I don't know why that is the case. Perhaps the central idea of disease prevention in Chinese medicine manifests itself in this matter?

And to be honest I never heard any girl complain about boobs not small enough, unless it's actually too big and is affecting their daily life. Considering that most girls I talked to think guys are creatures attracted to big boob, I have no idea why it will cause them pain to have bigger breasts. Height I could see that being a problem, and hip discussions usually goes hand in hand with waist. Older people tend to not like small hips though. But then in general they don't like skinny people either. Some of my older relatives, neighbors often commented on girls being too thin nowadays. My grandma, for one, is always trying to feed one of my cousin who is as thin as a bamboo stick to put more meat on her.

Katherine said...

I know I'm really late to the game
but this entry has been a really interesting piece for me.

Having been a white teenager in Taiwan (the only white one in my high school class, no less), the constant pressure to be smaller was particularly destructive for me. Returning as an adult (just moved to Taipei two weeks ago), I'm trying hard not to let it trigger any of my previously disordered eating habits and thought patterns.

And I'm not big for a white woman, I'm an American 0-4. Yet I'd walk into a Hang Ten a decade ago and be handed a size L by the sales lady when I really needed an M or an S. The one Taiwanese guy I dated gave me a t-shirt once in a size XL, and only when he got his hands on me months later exclaimed, "原來妳很瘦。" Um, yes, thanks dude...

A high school friend's mother greeted me every time we me with, "啊,妳瘦了!“ which after about the third time, had it been true, would have been a health disaster for me...

A thin Taiwanese friend went to the doctor for a cold and left with diet pills that he prescribed her instead...

My mom was here in the 70s as a tiny white woman and got told by the tailor fitting her for a qipao that she needed to go buy a padded bra or she wouldn't be the right shape for his work...

Commenting on size is a constant here and I've yet to know anyone who was allowed to be excluded from it. Perhaps, as you say, there's at least a shield around Western women because it's expected that our bodies will be different in a way that isn't correctable through diet TV programs, fungus supplements or drinking vinegar. It's a good thing to remember.

No matter how thin I've been, even once at a Taiwanese ideal of 49kg, I couldn't fit these white thighs into jeans from Dictionairre.

So, thanks to your post on it, I'm really excited about trying to get clothing tailored here . Maybe I won't have to venture into a Hang Ten at all during my months here.

julia said...

I'm also overweight. I really envy Asian women for their ability to stay slim without having to suffer through the constant dieting that we do. Is it because of their diet, or because of genetics? Lately, I am starting to think it is a bit of both. Thoughts?

Chandra said...

This is a really good post thanks for your effort. I have to say as a 6.5ft tall african-american, with natural curly's pretty hard living in Taiwan. I've been here about two years and I've had people ask me "are you a man or a woman"? No lie... I've had people ask me "why are you so tall"? And "you shouldn't wear pants, it makes you look taller". I was really hurt by are you a man or woman conversation, but I handled it with hurmor. I keep reminding myself that the Taiwanese have really been closed off from outside nations a very long time. It seems like such a modern place but it is still catching up in some areas. But you know in the states growing up it was just as hard to be tall, and people were meaner and more malicious in their comments. I think you are right self acceptance is the only way to go, actually self appreciation. Appreciating that we are all different and that's a beautiful thing.

JohnnyB said...

I am just reading this now in 2015. I am a man roughly the size of Manny Pacquiao (5'6" height and weight under 150), and was reminded in Taiwan of many diet changes I could make to get thin and be healthy. American women are considered "Very Strong", so take it as a compliment.

Unknown said...

Great article. I am Taiwanese-Canadian myself. I am a size 2/4, S/XS in Canada but when I go shopping in Taiwan, I'm easily a Large. I am 5'5 and 120lbs and believe me how many times I had been told to lose weight when I visit family/friends in Taiwan. I am a lot heavier than most of the Taiwanese girls I see on the streets, but I have a flatter tummy and perhaps a lower body fat than most of them. I definitely exercise more than they do and can say I eat a much more balanced diet and generally much more healthier than they are. But people there don't care, all they care about is the number they read from the scale, which is honestly ridiculous. Oh well. But yes, I agree with everything you say in this article.

Allya said...

I love how relevant this article is 6 years later. I am a black African girl with boobs and hips that don't go anywhere no matter my weight. I arrived in taiwan 2 days ago, and have been staying with my Chinese teacher's mom. It has been mentioned at least 24 times (no jokes!) that my weight needs to drop. I agree it's not catty, but I must say after the 10th mention in one day, it becomes a test of patience and endurance.

pampam said...

Lol I'm from Eastern Europe and believe me,there is not much obesity there. But I completely understand your point, compared to Asians all white people seems much bigger. I think as long as you're healthy and comfortable in your own body, it's all good! I feel like white people in Taiwan are not measured the same way as Asians. Sometimes it's a bit funny, they either have stereotypes of very thin models (especially if thinking about Eastern European girls, which feels a bit pressuring at times) or very obese women. But I guess we just have to get used to it and live our our best life here in Taiwan!