As I listen to Meghan Trainor sing about not worrying about her size I think, that’s right, it’s alright not to be a “stick figure silicone Barbie doll” and I look in the mirror and think I look good, but then I walk out the door and it all crumbles.
At a UK size 14 and only 1.53m (just under 5″1) tall I look more like a teapot, short and stout than anything else. In Japan I feel twice my size most days, and being surrounded by slender Japanese women that look as if they just walked out a fashion magazine only helps increase my insecurity.
Growing up in Singapore I had always been big, and while my peers around me wore size ‘S’ and complained about how fat they were, there I was in a size ‘L’ and feeling like a whale. But I could still fit in wearing comfy jeans and t-shirts, dress up only for occasions and be more lax about my appearance. I could wear slippers, throw on the first thing I saw to run errands without judging stares upon me and live comfortably because inner beauty was what mattered, right?
After moving to Japan, within the first three months all of that changed. My turning point was when my fresh off the airplane self headed to school in my usual ensemble of baggy jeans, t-shirt and comfy big overcoat to settle some administrative matters. Around me were girls and guys dressed in what looked like their Sunday best and I felt like a horrible slob next to them.
Day by day I subscribed more to the notion that being big meant I was not allowed the same things skinny, normal sized people could have – love, acceptance and confidence just to name a few. While the internet was pushing body positivism, the environment in Japan was not. At lunch, my peers around me would eat the smallest portions of food and I would overhear girls saying “But eating that much is embarrassing!” as they pointed at the convenience store pasta lunches.
My skinny friends talked about how their mothers told them to lose weight. Next to them, I felt like a round bean potato rolling my way through life.
Turning on the television led to shows where female Japanese comedians were more often than not ridiculed for their weight. They seemed to be fine with it, taking it in jest and satisfied with the big laughs incited.
I remember one program I watched that featured the amazing transformations of Japanese women who lost over 10 – 20kg or more in short spans of time, juxtaposing how miserable their lives where when they were fat and how now, seemingly miraculously, things became better because they were now skinny and by association, prettier, and more attractive.
Surrounded by girls and guys on perpetual diets, thinking smaller is better, I turned inward and thought the best solution would be isolation. I stopped shopping in stores, the crippling insecurity of not being able to fit in anything kept me from browsing. Japanese sizes run much smaller and for someone with a larger chest, wide hips and thighs, shopping is difficult.
The shame of having to ask for the biggest size and then not fit into it scared me away so I turned to online stores which I know carry things that will fit. Or if I did muster enough courage to shop at a physical store I would stick to Western brands such as H&M and F21. I read somewhere that being fat was not “forgiven” unless effort was being put into one’s appearance; as if being fat, ugly and nonchalant about how one looked was a cardinal sin.
I starting dressing better, learnt about flattering cuts and colors and put more effort into looking good. I started wearing skirts more often, traded in my baggy jeans for dresses, hoodies for jackets. Trying to mimic the girls around me, I fumbled around with makeup to hide my uneven skin tone. Experimented with eyeliner and discovered mascara.
Two years later, my self-esteem has continued to be a roller coaster ride but I’m slowly coming to terms and accepting how I look, and also realising it isn’t all dark and depressing to be big in Japan.
I came across a video that addressed the Japanese opinion about what is overweight in Japan, and their responses to a “level of chubbiness” chart. While there were depressing comments, some were surprisingly positive.
I may still be insecure about my weight but the lifestyle changes I went through since coming to Japan have helped me become healthier. I don’t agree with the extreme measures taken in order to lose weight and am glad I did not succumb to their obsession with being thin.
For now, my focus is on living healthier – eating better, exercising more, and loving and accepting myself.