Guest Post: “The F-Word” – Body Image in China

Have you heard someone call you fat (pàng/胖) in China? Then you’ll definitely relate to this fantastic guest post from Laura, a British-German editor and journalist in Nanjing who also writes the new blog “Our Chinese Wedding“, a lighthearted look at her intercultural relationship with a guy from Inner Mongolia. 

If you’d like to follow in Laura’s footsteps and have your writing published here, I’m always on the lookout for great guest posts. Check out the submit a post page to learn more about what I’m running here.

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Who can compete with backsides like that? Not me!
Who can compete with backsides like that? Not me!

“Oh my god, look at that foreigner. Her bum is so big!”

I was so shocked at what I just heard, I was simply unable to think of any good comeback. I wanted to turn around and say something sarky in Chinese; I had the language ability, yet I felt so ashamed at what they had just said while walking only three steps behind me, that I simply did not want to acknowledge I had understood their comment about my behind.

It was my first memorable experience with body image in China. Where in the West we would only mention the F-word in hushed tones while our girlfriends encouragingly told us “No, you haven’t put on weight. No, you don’t look fat at all”, in China people from your boss to your mother will just blatantly tell you that you have gained a few pounds or, as Bridget Jones would say, “have [a] bum the size of Brazil.”

What made the whole thing worse was that when I had been going out with my boyfriend Mr. Li in the UK, he had rarely said anything about my bum. However, after we moved to China, suddenly it seemed to come up a lot more. While he assured me that the reason he mentioned it was simply because he liked it, incidence such as the above instantly turned me into an emotional wreck at any mention of my rear end.

Still struggling to come to terms with the fact that random strangers will comment on my most blatant feature, and often to my face, I could not help but ask myself; why is it that in China it is culturally acceptable to talk about body weight in such a fashion? How come it is not uncommon for people with a boxier body build to be nicknamed “Fatty” by close friends, even irrespective of whether they are male or female? Many of my Chinese friends have brushed it off as not offensive, when people are called fat or teased about their kilos. Yet, that is truly not accurate, since I have witnessed first-hand how many of my Chinese friends would get very upset about hearing about their weight, and with good reason.

More likely, I believe weight-related honesty is meant as a warning, a way for friends and family to watch out for their beloved because in China being overweight can have serious ramifications. On a personal level, especially women will struggle to find a man if they are not of average build. Considering the importance placed on family and marriage in China, failing to tie the knot as a woman even today for a majority pretty much equates to failing at life.

One could argue that obsession with appearance and being thin is just as present in the West, and it is probably true that many overweight women back home struggle considerably to find their other halves.

However, in China the consequences of being curvy are even farther reaching than one’s love life. In the professional realm being overweight can mean unemployment; and no, not just for models and movie stars, also for jobs as seemingly unrelated as kindergarten teaching.

To my complete and utter disbelief, I learned that overweight teachers tend to be unable to find jobs in China, as Mr. Li told me after we met a comparatively big girl who used to be a childhood friend of his. He explained to me Chinese parent’s logic in relation to a teacher’s weight. As a teacher you are taking care of their precious children, yet if you cannot even “take care of yourself”, how can you be a good teacher?

“Taking care of oneself” is really what is at the heart of the weight issue. While in the past it was mainly the women who saw themselves under immense pressure to remain slim, now increasingly men are expected to watch their weight. Anything else is perceived as laziness on their part and frowned upon. The days when having a beer belly was just another sign of how thick one’s wallet was as a male are slowly coming to an end as chiselled Korean pop stars and Hong Kong martial arts actors are propagating an increasingly unrealistic body image.

All this talk about staying thin causes a major dilemma; with Western food becoming more and more fashionable and available, the Chinese diet is evolving into a considerably more calorific one. This is making it harder for young women and men to stay thin. At the same time, local women can often be heard commenting that they are not having any rice with their Chinese meal, since they are on a diet.

Is all this frenzy about looks leading China into an eating crisis? Are food-related disorders as present in Chinese culture as they are in Western ones?

Dr. Robert Portnoy told the Nanjinger magazine in November 2014 that he had witnessed strong evidence of the early stages of eating disorders during his year in Nanjing. Yet he observed that “whenever I raised the issue of eating disorders, I was told that this was not of concern in China.” The Fulbright scholar believes that the Middle Kindom is not yet recognising what will soon become a growing epidemic.

The example of Fan Bingbing, “China’s Fattest Star” as she recently nicknamed herself when her weight was revealed on the talent show 出彩中国人 (chūcǎi zhōngguórén), certainly is cause for concern.

Fan Bingbing (Photo by hto2008 of www.HuaTongOversea.com/blog
Fan Bingbing (Photo by hto2008 of www.HuaTongOversea.com/blog

At 1m68 tall, she weighs not even 60 kilos. To put this in perspective, that equals a BMI of 21.26. People whose BMI lies within 18.5 to 24.9 possess the ideal amount of body weight, and Fan Bingbing is right in the middle of these two values, even a little closer to the underweight scale. Yet, Chinese media had a field day with the revelation that “Little Fat Fan”, as she has been referred to by publications many times in the past, is so “heavy”.

On the other hand research by Amy Pan-Shing conducted in 2000 suggests that, while of the different racial groups analysed in the study, Chinese were reported to have the highest dissatisfaction with their weight, they were also exhibiting the least signs of eating disorders. Anyone who has been to dinner at a Chinese family will know instantly why that is the case. It is difficult to become dangerously underweight while grandma, aunty or mother are tirelessly shoving food and snacks and more food in your face, no matter how many times you insist that you are full. They are walking the tight rope; trying on the one hand to not make you too fat, as this would also reflect badly on them, suggesting that they don’t care for you enough to gamble away your future with your extra pounds, while simultaneously worrying that you are too thin.

The concern that you might eat too little will stem from a number of external factors, though I personally believe that two specific cultural characteristics might be involved in ensuring China’s women do stray onto the path to anorexia. On the one hand, the older generation has been through the hardships of famines, Cultural Revolution and in many cases even civil war. With food shortage being a daily reality, it has surely become a natural reflex to encourage the younger generations to eat whatever they could get their hands on to ensure their survival.

With relation to the women in particular, I would not be surprised if a major concern working against anorexia becoming a more serious phenomenonin the Middle Kingdom is its negative influence on child-bearing capabilities. After all, aside from getting married, the most important task for a Chinese couple is to reproduce in order to be filial and pay respect to their own parents. A woman who is barren in China cannot fulfill her destiny and hence will have immense difficulties finding a husband. So, it is the duty of the family to make sure she is in a healthy enough state to produce heirs. Hence, the obsessive feeding and worry over whether one is getting too thin.

While this is not a problem I will ever face in my life, since I love cheese and alcohol way too much, the numerous remarks about my weight and physique have left their mark on me. In the best case they have made me a lot more resilient.

I am happy to say that Mr. Li is now my husband, and while he still likes to mention my bum on the most random occasions, all I have to do now is give him the stern teacher look and he will immediately and most enthusiastically declare: “I LOVE IT!”

If life gives you a big bum, drink that lemonade anyway, ladies.

Laura is a British-German editor and journalist based in Nanjing. In her personal blog “Our Chinese Wedding“, she writes about the intercultural relationship with her Chinese husband from Inner Mongolia, who currently lives in Beijing, and all the funny anecdotes of planning a wedding with her seriously superstitious Chinese family.
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32 thoughts on “Guest Post: “The F-Word” – Body Image in China

  • May 8, 2015 at 7:23 am
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    Thank you Laura for this great post! I have had similar experiences in Korea, where people tell you right away whether you look better or worse. It is a way of expressing concern and empathy: they recognize you are going through hard times (whey they tell you you’ve lost weight), or they congratulate you on your appetite (when you’ve gained a few kilos…).

    Reply
    • May 8, 2015 at 11:45 pm
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      Hi Madame choi, thanks a lot, I am glad you liked it! I like your way of looking at it, concern and empathy, it makes it easier to bear haha

      Reply
  • May 8, 2015 at 7:56 am
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    Hi Laura! This topic is extremely interesting and worth discussing, thank you for raising it!

    I think part of the origin of the problem is also that many Asians are genetically very petite, so the average standard is thinner compared to the West. Frankly in Europe (which does not struggle with obesity as much as the US does) you rarely see women as thin as most of the Chinese women you see on the streets in Shanghai or Hong Kong.

    However, I am always surprised by how the Asian society has a double standard when it comes about “straightforwardness”: one hand Asians usually don’t address problems directly in the family or the workplace and don’t open up easily about their feelings and their desires. On the other hand, when it comes about weight or “where are my grandbabies?” their are so blunt! I just don’t get it.

    Anyway I think Fan Bingbing looks healthy and normal to me, it is crazy that anyone could ever think she is fatty..

    Reply
    • May 8, 2015 at 11:47 pm
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      Hi marghini, thanks a lot for the support!
      I so agree with both the contradiction and Fan Bingbing, when I saw that news I almost keeled over – she has a great figure!

      Reply
  • May 8, 2015 at 8:51 am
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    The study seems to confirm what I’ve been thinking. By all means, with the narrow definiton of “fat” (which is as narrow as the Chinese definition of “old”), it’s a wonder China isn’t anorexia paradise (or that the retirement age doesn’t start at 40). The whole definitions of “fat” and “old” confirm the saying some Chinese have: we Westerners really just don’t understand China. At least I don’t, in that regard…. it’s just odd and funny at the same time. The only scary thing is, that doctors too seem to stick to this definition.

    Reply
    • May 8, 2015 at 11:49 pm
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      Same here…utter incomprehension, I find it very easy sometimes to be a little bit brainwashed by it too – there are days when I feel quite insecure about myself, which I rarely did back in Europe, luckily most days I couldn’t care less haha

      Reply
  • May 8, 2015 at 9:44 am
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    I don’t even pay attention any more to the people around when I am outside. I don’t know if they still talk about me or not, hehe.
    I haven’t had a “you’re fat” comment in a long, long time, now that I think about it. I get a lot of “you lost weight!” comments when someone hasn’t seen me in a while (that I don’t understand, as my weight hasn’t changed in years) and I think they are mainly because my face is very skinny (all the flesh is in my belly and thighs haha).

    I am glad I never got any comment related to my bum… it is not small though. I do have received comments about my bossom… jealous ones, haha.

    Reply
    • May 8, 2015 at 11:51 pm
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      Hey Marta, yes that’s the flip side of the coin, the small face compliments. I used to get those a lot in the beginning.

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  • May 8, 2015 at 9:54 am
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    This is always an interesting topic for me after living in China for 12 years and marrying my husband, who is from Fujian. It is true that there is more ‘workplace discrimination’ against heavier local people (because every company wants to put forward a good image). Chinese people seem to accept that a public face should be beautiful. Thus, they don’t see it as discriminatory to advertise for young girls between 18-24 with even a weight requirement to be waitresses. Celebrities are expected to dress fabulously all the time and wear make-up all the time in a culture where the majority of women still don’t (and would never consider it). The sentiment is that ‘this is their job and they have to entertain us’.

    However, I feel that in some ways, the Chinese culture has a more positive attitude towards weight and appearance. Traditionally, I think Chinese just accept who they are instead of trying to become something they are not (bound feet aside). In the last 12 years while living here, I have cyclically lost and gained 15+ pounds. In all that time, I never once had a friend or colleague shun me because of my weight. Now, this may be because I am a foreigner, but I also felt like the kids at the school where I taught who were called ‘Fatty’ still had a lot of friends. One the other hand, I think weight in the US has become another PC issue that cannot be talked about. I feel like in the US people are often unpopular because a bad appearance seems somehow ‘catching’. It seems like people think if they have overweight friends, it will reflect poorly on them. I don’t get that vibe from the Chinese.
    In fact, Chinese people are blunt about a lot of things related to appearance. I have a couple of friends who were called ‘Rabbit’ growing up because they had buck teeth or big-headed friends, who were called just that. The thing is, they seem to have accepted their features and moved on to be well-adjusted adults. My big-headed friends even found others like them at their school and take a lot of big-headed ‘family’ selfies.
    Through living here, I have found the freedom to say, ‘Yes, I am overweight,’ without cringing or feeling major guilt. It’s true: I am overweight. That doesn’t make me a horrible person. It just means I need to work on my discipline and try to be healthy.
    I think appearance here doesn’t carry nearly the psychological pressure that it does in the States. People here feel that pressure focused on their performance more than their appearance, I think.

    Reply
    • May 8, 2015 at 11:55 pm
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      Hi Jen, that is very interesting, the experience I have made with friends who had a figure (they werent fat just had a figure) and a male friend with a “big head” was that they were often self-conscious and unhappy about it. There was also a story in the magazine I write for – a interview with a plastic surgeon who said it is quite common for men and women to get facial surgery where they saw off the bones to make the face look thinner. These experiences all make me feel like there is not much adjustment to such comments in my immediate surroundings.

      Reply
  • May 8, 2015 at 10:03 am
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    Mm this cultural aspect holds true in Japan as well. I remember an occasion when we had a Japanese student at my university and he told my male friend straight to his face he was overweight and then offered to bike together. Once he wasn’t present, the friend relented how irritated it made him. But in retrospect, even though in Western society there are more polite ways to say it, the fact that he offered to work out together, I’m sure it came from a place of concern.

    On another occasion, I was living with my boyfriend’s sister for a while and one morning after she went to work, she had left me a 5 page long note on the table regaling how she would help me slim down and then wanted to know how I got my boobs so big so I could help her in return. Needless to say, I was happy when that pressure was out of my life.

    I’ve seen on Japanese TV too, idols being weighed in a studio audience and then are judged by the whole cast of guests about what happened to them when they still weigh under 60kgs. It’s unheard of in the West!

    Anyways, now I take all the blatant comments with perspective. Since I’ve lost weight, I get a lot of positive comments and everyone wants to know how I did it. A lot of offers to join me in the “weight loss cause”. I’ve adjusted my mindset to it, but it’s not an easy adjustment.

    Reply
    • May 8, 2015 at 11:57 pm
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      Yes, I agree that you also reap the rewards, when you lose wait people notice 🙂

      Reply
  • May 8, 2015 at 10:54 am
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    I’m not skinny by any means but then again, there are many Shanghainese women who are bigger than me here. The only time somebody even mentioned my weight was a woman at the gym about how I lost so much weight. That’s about it.

    Reply
  • May 8, 2015 at 11:50 am
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    I enjoyed this post, Laura, from the anecdotes to the analysis. Nicely done!

    And you really captured the contradictory parental behaviors, too — my Chinese-American guy’s mother will tell him he’s gotten fat, and he needs to exercise more in one breath, then encourage him to eat more char siu bao in the next!

    I finally called her on it, and you know what she said?

    “Oh, you can diet when you go home! Eat now!”

    Reply
    • May 8, 2015 at 11:58 pm
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      Thanks a lot Autumn, I love your story, whenever one points out the contradictions to Chinese people they always have a comeback at hand, I love that 😀

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  • May 8, 2015 at 7:39 pm
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    Yeah, there is surely a weird sense when it comes to the body image in China. A couple of years ago I started to do sports again and when we went to visit my in-laws again half year later all the people said that I look too thin, I need to eat more etc (really, I wasn’t even slim or anything..) but at the same time they told my wife how fat she got (actually slim person…)

    Oh well, each time in China we just try to ignore these things even though it is not always easy as many Chinese got also weird ideas about the body image through what they see daily on tv and on advertisements around the cities

    Reply
    • May 8, 2015 at 11:59 pm
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      Yes, I think in that way it is similar to the West – TV sets an unrealistically high bar…

      Reply
  • May 8, 2015 at 8:07 pm
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    Great article, Laura!

    To me it’s the other way around – people always comment that I’m too skinny (I don’t gain weight easily although I’d really like to have a few kilos more). I think there’s really no making it right, you’re either too fat or too skinny in China. There’s no “just right”. So it’s really just about how you feel and if you’re comfortable with your body.

    When I was pregnant, I used to get “wow, your bump is really big” and “you’re not showing yet” from different people on the same day, so I don’t take people’s words that serious anymore. I think sometimes people say these things just as conversation starters without really considering if this might hurt your feelings or not (of course, if they say it behind your back, it’s a different story).

    Reply
    • May 9, 2015 at 12:00 am
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      Haha, that is so funny Ruth, and it really helps you realise that there is no point listening to any of the “feedback” coz everyone has a different opinion!

      Reply
  • May 9, 2015 at 4:53 am
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    @ Laura.

    Thank you for this wonderful post and for exploring the issue of weight gain/loss in China. As a Chinese man when I was much younger, I have seen on numerous occasions that we refer to one another from time to time as “Fatty girl” or “Fatty boy” so and so, and the recipient of the name calling appeared not to take offense. Nowadays, I refrain from using such names to reference friends, acquaintances and family members because even the Chinese are being more conscientious about their weight, and given the age of political correctness, the other person can easily take offense and make a sarky remark back.

    I am sorry to read that my fellow Chinese treated you with such disrespect by your commenting on the size of your buttocks. Personally, I like women who are a little chunky, and that is why I was not quite compatible with a fellow Asian female life partner and opted to marry a white girl. My white girl is a little chunky but I love her bigger buttocks.

    I hope that you will keep up the greatness!!!!

    Fred

    Reply
    • May 9, 2015 at 5:09 pm
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      Hi Fred, thanks for your lovely words and support, they are very touching, and I love how you love your ladies buttocks, you are a great man! Well done 😀

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      • May 10, 2015 at 12:56 am
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        @ Laura. Thanks for your wonderful words of support. I know that I have been criticized on more than one occasion for opting to marry a White girl and also questioned about the size of her buttocks. I apologize in advance for this question: I was wondering if you show us a pic of yourself including your waistline FULLY CLOTHED please? Then we can all see and appreciate your amazing size. I hope you don’t take offense to this request, and once again sorry for asking.

        Fred

        Reply
  • May 9, 2015 at 5:56 am
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    Hi Laura, great post!

    One thing, BE PROUD OF THAT ASS. The only physical characteristics I like about myself is my ass and boobs. That’s it. I’m average in size but I hate my muffin tops…even though that’s the best part of the muffin. 😉

    As for mentioning all these facts and other important factors of what they believe over there… I guess that society around the world still has to change on keeping things to themselves of this sort.

    I am though, trying to lose some pounds (hoping my butt and my boobs are the same size in the end)…however mostly working on my midsection…. because I’m absolutely terrified when I go to China…and if I meet my bf’s family. I’m a little scared they’re going to think I’m fat just because I’m not skinny skinny.

    Before my bf and I officially met (we met through friends, talked first on WeChat)…I was always concerned that he wasn’t going to like me because of my size. He said not to worry about it. And when I met him, I asked him, “What is it that you like about American women?” he replied with, “Well, bigger.” mentioning my boobs LOL! 😛

    Not all men are the same when it comes to liking women. Bless the men that are not Western and like us big booty ladie! haha!

    Reply
    • May 9, 2015 at 5:13 pm
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      Well said Hollie, I love your attitude 😀

      I can totally relate to what you said about the family, while immediate family have never said a thing, there is one female family member with whom I have a bit of a rivalry going on and she called me a fatty once and for a while I was really freaking out about losing weight for the upcoming wedding coz I was scared she will say something like that on my wedding day. Now I am thinking bring it on bӣ$%! Especially since my husband says he will kick her out if she does heehee.

      Reply
  • May 9, 2015 at 7:38 am
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    I really enjoyed that post and can relate probably more to it than I want to.
    I’m fat (really no other word for it), I have a Chinese Husband and live in Japan, and it really is very similar in both countries. People tell you “you are fat” as means of expressing concern like a mother would when you gained a few pounds. The Problem is: They are Not my Mother! I really get Irritationen (and incredibly selfconcious) when I hear such comments. Be it to my face or behind my back.
    Curiously japanese people seem to get bigger as well. Some years ago I saw maybe one or two people that could be considered a little chubby, now I see chubby and fat people regularly. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy for them, as the same body Standards apply, but with chubby girlbands and a Magazine specifically for chubby girls, it seems society is slowly recognizing that chubby people DO exist in Japan.
    (Lucky for me as I’m able to actually buy clothes now here as well as shoes even though I have a size 27 ^^)

    Reply
    • May 9, 2015 at 5:17 pm
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      Hi Sakura, thanks for sharing your experiences – it is the same here, I am increasingly starting to notice more voluminous women, though as you say quite rightly, societal acceptance is a long way off…

      Reply
  • May 9, 2015 at 8:44 am
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    Lovely article!
    It’s very much true according to my experiences as well. Luckily, the Chinese seem to comment more on my blue eyes and Mandarin skills, or else I probably would have left by now 😉

    Love your last comment about your husband. My Chinese flirt was honest in the beginning, told me to go to the gym one day I wasn’t happy about my figure, now I taught him to do the same as yours 🙂 cut out the honesty when it comes to my stomach :))) cheers

    Reply
    • May 9, 2015 at 5:19 pm
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      Haha well done! Yes with a bit of encouragement *read continous badgering* they learn how to talk to you so you won’t bite off their head 😉

      Reply
  • May 9, 2015 at 6:10 pm
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    I have wondered if, especially amongst groups of university girls, comments like’ you’re fat’ or ‘I’m so fat’ are a form of reassurance for themselves due to an element of insecurity.
    It is not uncommon for me to see groups of them – who in all honesty look like stick insects – complain about how fat they are.
    I’m a (British) size 10 and feel fat beside them, but I know that there is nothing wrong with my weight.

    BUT.
    at the same time they appear to binge on processed rubbish while not exercising – as if working up a sweat while taking part in a sport was somehow unfeminine.

    Reply
  • May 21, 2015 at 2:56 pm
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    Hi! I loved the post and it made me laugh. I am a Chinese born in Spain, thin in Spanish standards (XS, 34-36) but chubby in China (some distant cousins even nicknamed me little piggy cousin when I was younger).

    I am currently living in Korea and I see the same obsession for weight and looks, but in very different ways. I feel Chinese care about their size, but they are far less concerned about looks than Koreans.

    Here in Korea I see girls putting on make up in the toilet constantly. Many of the pretty girls have had some type of surgery done in their faces or bodies, and most of the young women I´ve met here are on a diet or eat 1/3 of their meals. I also rarely see a young woman (18~30?) with glasses.

    I haven’t been to China since 2012 though, so I cannot tell if things are changing fast and Chinese teenagers are so concerned about looks and fashion~ I remember having young female friends who would just care about their weight, but just wanted to look cute and childish, not really caring that mcuh about dressing or make up.

    Anyway, cheers and good luck in life~

    Reply
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