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Yeah, it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size two.

What is it like being overweight in Japan?

By 4 min read 29

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.

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  • Rose Waterbury says:

    I’m going to Japan from America in a year,and I’m sort of scared cause I’m 5 foot 8 inches and weigh 164 lbs. I do 3 sports including rowing,volleyball and martial arts so, most of it is muscle. Despite that, I’m still classified as “slightly chubby” and “just a big girl”. What do you think I should do?

  • Lehst says:

    I think about visiting Japan someday but worry about being stared at because I’m obviously foreign. Well, I’m fine with that but the more I learned about their beauty standards the more I’m not to keen on going. I barely know about American standards… Eveyone here says I’m definitely not fat (and think I’m positively silly for wanting to lose a few pounds) but in Japan I would probably look so big and tall and curvy… and fat. And I just learned they comment on if you have hair on your arms?? I have fine, nearly invisible hair on my arms like many Americans. I will never do something like wax nor shave them.

    Thanks for your insights. Just remember you do deserve love and confidence, and that there are still entire cultures out there that would think you are beautiful on sight.

    Btw I love your Domo shirt! Really cute pic.

    • Anthony Joh says:

      I wouldn’t worry about it. The Japanese are pretty shy and rarely will they talk to foreigners. Most likely you will be totally ignored here. Only have knowing you for a while and being drunk will they venture a comment about your appearance.

  • Nastassja Riemermann says:

    I’d be very happy at 80%.

  • psycho.net says:

    I think you are hella cute, I wanna smoosh your cheeks in lovey-dovey-ness.

  • disqus_nMIX3hlqAu says:

    Good article. Just stay healthy, being overweight brings health consequences so constant vigilance is important. But the obsession with thinness in Asia is worrying. (I live in Vietnam and it’s disturbingly bad here.) Above all, love yourself.

  • chi says:

    As I read through this article every line resonated within me. I am currently living in Osaka, having moved here a couple of months ago. I have always been larger than your average asian skinny girl but living in a northern European country it has never been a problem. I have also never considered myself ugly or having low self-esteem but it all changed once I landed in Japan.

    Latelely I find that I tend to spend more time getting ready in the morning. Doubling the time going from 15mins to a whopping 30. But what can you do? It just seems more like the general rule that females should spend more time on their appearances. On a good day I’m usually ok but on a bad day I feel like a mammoth among slender antilopes. (´・_・`)

    • Bernie Low says:

      I used to refuse to leave the house without makeup on (eyeliner/eye make up was a must) but recently I’ve been able to go out with just a very thin layer of foundation/moisturizer and my brows drawn. Some days I go make-up free. I am still pretty conscious and think people are judging me but it doesn’t affect me as much now

  • Rohnan says:

    Ok , i am a man, french, nearly 40 and have a bit of extra skin to spare (I obviously put this on myself not getting younger)… so here it is : Forms are actually a very very good thing for women. You are all about them and that’s what we love ! Never forget one thing though, attractiveness never came from the outside but from the inside (ok,ok, the old crap from the inner beauty… you might think). Being super hot, slim and stuff is probably ok for the one night stander… but that will end right here. What’s most important is personality, confidence, self respect and being sexy (when needed of course). So be yourself, be healthy (of course) and basicaly f**k the norms that have been made up by some fashion idiot so their clothes could look their best…
    You can still have takoyaki with mayo every now and then… it’s good no ?

    • Bernie Low says:

      Thank you! I’ll need to constantly work on actually believing in myself and being confident. It’s difficult but I’m definitely working on being less insecure.

  • Mikey says:

    Did you find that you lost weight in Japan? I found that the food was better and so I lost weight without trying …

    • Bernie Low says:

      I did lose weight, and yes, it was because the food is better and I was being more active and walking a lot more. It wasn’t a huge amount though, but I’ve been able to maintain my present weight and feel healthier too.

  • Paula Lapizar says:

    I want boobs and curves but it just doesn’t happen. Those things make you feel like a woman. I never get fat no matter how much I eat and I totally feel bad when people think that thin women are not attractive! The problem goes the other way around too.

  • Yoko says:

    I know how you feel >:. I’m Japanese-American and live in the US, and I’m 160 cm and my weight tends to fluctuate between 140-150lbs. In the U.S my friends always tell me that I look fine, great, cute, and “you’re not fat! you shouldn’t call yourself that.” But of course, I have a Japanese mother and since fairly early childhood it has been about FATFATFAT. It’s pretty frustrating when they cut you off midsentence in a completely unrelated topic to say, “so why do you insist on not losing weight?” And it’s even more frustrating when they wholly believe that they are only saying these things with your happiness in mind.

    It also sucks that there are all these smaller street stores in Japan that only carry Japanese S and M, which is just like a tiny persons store >;… It also makes me cringe when I have male Japanese friends who are so thin that they have trouble staying above 50kg even though they are fairly tall…

    I agree that living in Japan has its challenges, but I’m glad you were able to take something positive away from it. I also feel like while some things about the culture are unrealistic, certain things like diet, daily exercise and portion sizes can be relatively healthy, and I have an easier time being healthy in Japan. Good luck over there!

  • SketchMexJapan . says:

    I don’t understand how this works, specially for women it’s really hard. I live in mexico (not a skinny country) but i hear men talking rude about women’s weight all the time, thanks to those comments i’m afraid of not being skinny enough(1.52,40kg)

  • bambii_legs says:

    I lived in the least populous prefecture in Japan for 18months,
    returning last year. I’m a white, 5ft10, UK size 8 girl. I still felt
    over-sized ALL THE TIME. The first thing I learnt in Japanese was how to
    say my height as I was pointed at frequently with a ‘sei ga takai!’ I
    appreciate that it was only ever complimentary and never intentionally rude but
    for a culture that associates the petite with cute, I felt rather giant and
    manly a lot of the time. I came home with my dormant ED alive and well. It’s
    taken the full year for me to get back to a good place. I fully appreciate that
    this was to do with my own issues too but Japan’s kawaii culture was definitely
    a negative influence for me.

    I appreciate this article focuses on what it’s like to be Asian and
    ‘bigger’ and I can only say how much I feel for you and applaud you on working
    through your negative feelings. When you are in a situation where you can’t
    even go shopping, it’s pretty soul-destroying. I couldn’t even buy shoes unless
    they were for men. My prefecture didn’t have a HnM or F21 so I had to wait
    until I went to Osaka or Kyoto and spent half my time in Gap and Zara.

    My self-esteem took a huge bashing in Japan and I came away with
    mixed feelings for a while after. You sound like you are starting to arrive at
    a good place – which you should totally be in. You are so gorgeous and lovely,
    you have no reason to try and fit in with an unhealthy ideal. I know it’s easier
    said than done sometimes but ganbatte for both of us! Japan is fantastic place
    to experience with interesting perspectives and traditions, I hope you continue
    to have a great time (and sorry if this comment is a little convoluted! I’m at
    work and keep coming back to it!)

    Thank you for the article!

    • Claire Ochi says:

      Actually in my experience japanese people associate petite with cute and tall with cool so it is not a problem to be tall (but it can be exhausting to hear it all the time I agree, like hearing that your nose is so “tall” and your face is so small and your eyes so big and you don’t understand if it’s a compliment or if you are kind of a monster). In my country I never heard things like “She is so pretty and so taaaaaaaaaaaaaaall I envy her !” like I hear in japan, because in my country height doesn’t matter if it’s well balanced. But in Japan some people seems to love it because they think it’s impressive.

    • Anthony Joh says:

      This brings up a good point. I don’t think many people think about what it’s like to live in an inaka part of Japan and what that can do to your self image.

  • Zuya says:

    Hey Bernie~ :3

    I had similar issues for a couple of years during my pre-teen and early teenage years where I went from being outgoing and fearless to being a shy introvert who would wait for others to approach first. Well, fortunately I have long since overcome that and though I’m still a shy introvert stepping out of my shell one at a time, I’m much more confident and happy about the way I look :). It’s crazy, really. You start loving yourself, others start doing the same. I’ve come to realize that no one will love you unless you love yourself first!~ ^_^
    For the record, I honestly think you are beautiful 🙂
    (And no, that wasn’t a lie to make you feel momentarily good, I have had enough of those myself, I meant what I said)

    Have a nice day!~ (^o^)/

  • Alyssa Conine says:

    wow this is a great article! I was kinda surprised when I got to the pix of you. You look so cute I would never consider anyone your size big. So keep staying strong your beautiful!!

  • Bernie Low says:

    And thank you for reading it 🙂

  • Bernie Low says:

    Thank you! And yes, it’s taken me a while and sometimes I still can’t accept my body fully but I’m making steps toward it. I read some body positive blogs written by some wonderful women too.

    I wish you the best of luck on your journey too! 😀

    • Natkip says:

      Thank you so much! ^^ Yeah, people assume it’s one morning you wake up and think “I’m awesome!” then stay that way for life. Noooope. It takes effort, but some days you’re also allowed to feel a little bit down. I’ve found what fuels my confidence is getting angry at the societal standards. I get all “screw you for making me feel this way!” and the emotional middle finger is really liberating, haha!

  • Soha Eldeeb says:


    I’ve never been to Japan but I’ve traveled a lot. Wherever you go, there will be some differences in how we look, what we consider normal and what’s expected. Nothing beats being fit. Start a new sport and you will learn to love the you you are now and you will enjoy life more.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • nikolai says:

      I agree with Soha – be fit, nit skinny.

      Try crossfit (easy at first) – helped me alot with variety and motivation.
      That said – almost all girls you listed were both unhealthy – in before and after. Unfit is never beautiful , skinny or not. Pick a sport you like and stick with the community. Will go a long way towards being fit and more importantly it will bring confidence back … good luck.

  • Whoshigh says:

    Hey B-Low!

    I was the same when I first got to Japan. I looked at myself thinking many of those same things. One day I had an “AH HA!” moment where I realized that there is no way I’m the same as everyone else here. It’s clearly obvious when you look at me and speak to me, but I needed to make that difference in my own head. I needed to understand that I’m not the same, I won’t ever be the same, and, finally, I never want to be the same. Once I came to terms with that everything changed.

    Plus, most, if not all, of those weight loss posters and advertisements you see are fake.


  • Rezk says:

    I totally know how you feel. I used to be big myself and started to lose weight because I couldn’t take it anymore. Even though the end result is that I look “good” now, it doesn’t translate as well to the inside. I lost weight because I felt I HAD to, not because I wanted to. And even though I’m on normal weight for 7 years now, I still feel like that chubby dude with no backbone when I look in the mirror.

    Those stories that you hear when people lose weight and they’re suddenly happy are all false (obviously). Happiness is a mindset. You could be the most good looking person in the world, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t seep in to the inside. That’s why you have people who are happy and chubby at the same time. It all starts with accepting yourself WHILE working to improve yourself constantly.

    And I like your new clothing style!

    • Bernie Low says:

      Thank you! And you’re right – happiness is a mindset and learning to accept and love yourself is a journey everyone takes. I also think losing weight for the right motives is very important, and I need to work on that.



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