You Know Nothing [About Fat Shaming], Jon SnowMay 28, 2014
The time has come to talk about body image in Vietnam.
As of late, many of the blogs/websites I follow have posted articles about fat-shaming and body acceptance in America. As I do not currently live in America, I thought it pertinent to discuss body image and fat-shaming in Vietnam. My first point is: America has nothing on Vietnam. Nothing. All of the skinny, waif-like girls whose perfect hair and widening thigh gaps send [white, because that's what I am familiar with, as I am one] Americans into anorexic spirals have absolutely nothing on the body-image culture of Vietnam. The Impossible Standards we so often lament in America are infinitely more attainable than their Vietnamese counterparts. Back home, basically all you have to do to look like the girls of Free People or Brandy Melville is not eat. That's it. Don't eat, don't cut your hair, boom. Model. I am in no way condoning this, and I know how incredibly damaging these images can be to American women. I recognize this, and I am in no way taking away from the severity of the impact these images have upon our psyche. However, in Vietnam, the Ideal Woman resembles a doll. This is due, in part, to the very heavy influence of K-Pop culture upon Vietnam's youth (K-pop being an entirely different sociological quandary in itself) . To look like the Ideal in Vietnam, not only must you not eat or cut your hair, but you must hide from the sun and obsessively use bleaching creams, you'd need to have plastic surgery to do whatever is done to give one an eye-fold, you may need a nose job and you definitely need extensions, AND you have to deal with people reminding you that you are nowhere near the ideal. You have to laugh when people tell you you are fat or need to lose weight, that your skin is ugly or your nose is big. Because people will say these things.
What I really want to talk about is the blatant fat shaming that occurs here on a daily basis-- among friends and peers in classrooms, in the street, in restaurants, in offices. I have received more critical comments on my physical appearance in the last 8 months than in the previous 8 years of my life. These have ranged from concerned comments about the darkening of my tan or the weight I've lost, to down-right cruel comments about apparent weight-gain or the size of my skeleton. I am, bewilderingly, held to the same standards as Vietnamese women. There is no reality in which I could ever obtain a Vietnamese body without the removal of several major bones. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, I am expected to look like a Vietnamese woman. There is no concept of 'different body types' in Vietnam--there are no 'find the best jeans for your body!' or 'what swimsuit should you wear for your body?' articles, and no differentiation between athletic/curvy/boy/thin/apple/pear/banana etc etc. Fortunately, this has been less of an issue for me than for some of my friends: I am not what one would describe as 'curvy' and, sadly, the weight I've lost has come directly from the areas that have potentiality for curves. Because of this, I am slightly less-different looking than some of my more womanly friends.
Instead of receiving the compliments they deserve, these friends are mercilessly critiqued by all manner of people. One of my friends has been told she is "large/fat" in both English AND Vietnamese (to really drive the point home) by our (female) landlady, and was just told by one of her good (male) friends that she "is almost perfect, and if [she] lost weight, she would be perfect."
Please let that sink in.
Please imagine that you are out for a drink with a friend of the opposite sex, and he/she casually tells you to lose weight, and is then genuinely confused when you are offended. When she told me about this most recent affront to her physical being, I was flabbergasted. My jaw literally dropped. I had no words (a very rare thing). I was absolutely horrified. I will have a very hard time resisting the urge to slap this man across the face the next time I see him, and I don't know that I will really try to resist that urge. Not only has my friend been subjected to the off-handed comments upon her weight, but she has also been groped on multiple occasions by strangers in broad daylight/public areas, to the remark of absolutely nobody. But I digress. I was HORRIFIED. This tale set us off into a discussion of the incredibly cruel scrutiny to which women are subjected to in this region. There is no taboo against telling a woman she is fat. My friend had to explain to her tormentor why telling someone they are fat is offensive, and explain that it should never, under no circumstances, be done. He was truly confused. There was no part of him that thought such comments could be offensive, let alone heart-breaking. As the both of us have struggled with eating issues in the past, we are especially aware of how comments about one's physical appearance can be permanently damaging.
Even thinking about someone telling me to lose weight makes me angry. It makes me want to scream and cry and use all of the swear words I know, it makes me want to give someone a look that cripples their soul and makes a black void of hopelessness open in front of their eyes.
I am very familiar with fat-shaming in America. My family owns a fitness facility, and I was raised in a way that made fatness seem abhorrent. My parents are two of the most physically fit people I have ever met, and work very, a very hard to stay that way. I was taught that there is no real excuse for allowing oneself to be physically unhealthy: everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, and you either make your physical self a priority, or you don't. There is no group more prone to fat shaming than long distance runners (besides, perhaps, ballerinas) and, guess what, that's who I used to be. So, I know what it is to fat-shame, and, to a very, very small extent, to feel fat-shamed in the twisted way that may only be possible in the mind of an adolescent girl. Moving on.
In my classes on American Taboos, I always make a special point to discuss the general taboo against talking about a person's appearance. When asked what I do when someone tells me I am fat/have gained weight/need to lose weight, I truthfully respond that I would just stop eating, maybe for a few hours or maybe for a few days. And my students, my adult students, laugh. I find this to be confusing for several reasons: a)there is nothing funny about anorexia, b)I have had students make fun of each other's weight, and seen the crestfallen look in their eyes once everyone has stopped laughing, c)all women in Vietnam are subjected to criticism from any and everyone, and I cannot imagine that they enjoy it, so I find it bizarre that they are baffled that Americans find such comments mortally offensive. As is true in nearly all aspects life for a Vietnamese woman, they have been conditioned to grin and bear it, and believe that criticizing the weight of others is funny/shows concern for the persons well-being. The latter may be true, but really, nobody wants to hear that.
It is hard enough being an innately different-looking, healthy, white woman held to hilariously impossible standards in Vietnam, but I cannot imagine how emotionally draining it would be to be a slightly-larger-than-average Vietnamese woman. The pressure to be pale, thin, and doll-like is incredible. Personally, I've never felt better about my physical appearance. When I have absolutely nobody to compare myself to, how could I feel bad? For the first time in my life, I am not surrounded by young women who look exactly like me, I am not subjected to the misery of self-absorbed LA in the springtime, and I am nowhere near the cult-like running culture in which I grew up. Do I want to look like the 5'1", 100lbs girls in my class? Absolutely not! To me, they look unhealthy--actual exercise (not the pointless arm flailing everyone takes part in at 5am/5pm each day) is a foreign concept, and sun exposure falls somewhere in the 7th circle of hell. I grew up in a world where acceptable addictions included exercise and caffeine, and suntanning was an art. I grew up with runners, who are by no means a mentally stable group and generally have terrible body image issues, but that is what I compare myself to. Our standards of beauty are so wildly different that I don't make comparisons, not even a little bit.
Bizarrely, as I am writing this, an ad for The Emily Project (some sort of hotline/program for people with eating disorders) just came on Pandora. It's like the internet knows what I'm writing. #1984
Anyways. What I am trying to get at is that the fat-shaming culture in America is nothing compared to that in Southeast Asia. I am not saying that our own culture of physical criticism isn't dangerous, isn't damaging, or isn't responsible for the misery of millions of people across the country. What I'm saying is that at least it's subliminal. Maybe this isn't any better, but I would much rather internally hate myself for not looking like the Ideal than have people literally tell me I do not look like the Ideal, and that if I lost weight I would not only look like the Ideal, but also just become generally perfect. As someone who has hated her body for the vast majority of the last 22 years, I am fairly confident when I say that I would have hated myself a whole lot more if I were born Vietnamese and in Vietnam. A number of my western, female friends here have openly discussed our fucked up relationships with food, and agreed that if our 12-20 year old selves were here, we would undoubtedly have developed serious eating disorders. I can deal with the criticism because I am over it. I give no fucks here. Will I feel this way back in America, or even when I move to Siem Reap? Probably not. But for now, I give no fucks. I am a sweaty, tan, dirty, smelly mess and I really #dgaf.
The moral of the story is this: it is unacceptable to be larger than tiny in Vietnam, and it is completely acceptable to belittle other humans for the way they look. This is wrong. I do not care if it is part of the culture, or that I am looking at this from a western perspective. People are people, and nobody wants to be told they are fat or need to lose weight. People have feelings, and these feelings can be hurt very easily. It is hard to exist as an "other" in this relatively homogeneous city, but I cannot imagine how hard it would be to exist as a Vietnamese woman. As every American mom everywhere has ever said, if you don't have something nice to say, don't fucking say anything at all.