Saturday, August 1, 2015

Weight Preoccupation in China: On-Going Culture Shock

The issue of weight has been driving me a bit crazy lately. While everywhere I have lived has had a cultural preoccupation with weight, especially for teenage girls and women, it has been particularly painful to witness here. I know it is nothing compared to, say, Korea, but my patience is wearing thin as I am exposed daily to the pressure to be thin for Chinese women.

The average Chinese woman is already thin, even though Chinese people are getting bigger overall. All of my Chinese colleagues are female and all are thin. Despite this, many if not most of them are trying to lose weight, are told by relatives that they look fat, and weigh in (...) on each other's sizes.  

A few months ago, I was eating lunch with a few colleagues, three Chinese and one Canadian. One of the Chinese women commented that she was doing a lot of yoga in order to lose weight. This woman is thin, even by Chinese standards. The other two Chinese colleagues jumped in to explain her decision to me and the fellow foreigner as we asked, in all seriousness, where she expected to lose weight from. "Her body..." they said, looking at us quizzically. No matter how thin you already are, they explained, you can always lose weight, especially since she has an upcoming wedding.

Families certainly don't help the situation. One teeny colleague's mother told her that she looked 3 months pregnant. She is considering doing an all liquid diet, inspired by a colleague who recently completed the 10 day regime of water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup.

That colleague "successfully" completed this self-inflicted torture. She was tired and miserable. The reactions of the staff were very divided on cultural lines. I pointed out that I weigh 50% more than her (although I probably seem gigantic to her) in a futile effort to get her to stop.

There is some really stupid stuff floating around Chinese social media. Women are told they should aim to be able to wrap their arms around their backs and touch their belly buttons. The collarbone challenge is another bizarre body image ruiner that has popped up on social media lately, the goal being to stack as many coins as possible in the hollow of one's collarbones.

The way I would ask someone how their child's concert last week went in order to show that I am interested in that person, Chinese people mention to someone that they have gained or lost even the smallest amount of weight. Commenting on someone's weight change is the opposite of rude; it shows you have been paying attention.

Since my wedding where I had to lose weight to squeeze into my mama's wedding dress (more a matter of cheapness than vanity, I can assure you), I have had the joy of being able to weigh whatever I want. No outfits or standards to squeeze into for photoshoots any more, hallelujah. I have relished in exercising because I want to, eating what makes me feel good, and wearing make up when I'm in the mood for it. Quick aside: Make up is not as popular in China as it is in a lot of places and not wearing it, at least in the circles and sector I am in, is not out of the ordinary. What a blessing, in contrast to the weight issue.

And, graciously, Westerners are given some leeway in the weight department. People are generous with what they deem "thin" for us, relatively speaking.

That being said, the Irishman and I (in separate incidents) have each been poked in the belly with comments about the extra junk in our trunks. No one even went that far back in my modeling days ("I CAN'T SUCK IT IN ANYMORE THAN I'M ALREADY SUCKING IT IN!" is a direct quote from me, but at least no one touched me when they told me pull in my tummy).

It has been hard to maintain a healthy attitude about weight when I feel like I need to preempt comments. After Chinese New Year, I heard so many women reflect, getting in before anyone else could, that they had gained weight over the holiday. Hearing women point out that they had gained 1-2 kilos (2-4 lbs) or having people point out similar weight gain/loss on others makes it very difficult to ignore these regular, normal fluctuations in my own body. For crying out loud, women retain 2 kilos of water monthly due to menstruation anyway.

At a work lunch the other day, in response to all the talk of liquid diets, the other foreigners and I went on a bit of a rant about how healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes. While we risk sounding like xenophobes, lecturing people in a country where we are guests, I can't help but feel compelled to try to get my friends/colleagues to stop feeling bad about how they look. And maybe help me to not feel the need to reflect on my body shape and size so often when it doesn't matter.