Ask the Yangxifu: Feeling Big in Little China

Woman looking in a mirror, unsatisfied with herself.
A Western woman with a normal body size plans to move to China with her Chinese boyfriend, but worries about her body image around thinner Asian women. How can she cope when she moves to China?

Feeling Big asks:

Me and my chinese boyfriend have been dating over a year. When I first met him, I never considered him “date worthy” simply because he was barely as tall as me. However, he was able to win me over. We are planning to move to China as soon as I am finished with my schooling, but I have a little problem which I have voiced a few times to him. I am afraid that I will be huge in China.

Unless you were going by model standards, no one in the States could call me fat and I am barely over the average height for women–which allows me to feel fairly short most of the time. Yet, whenever I am with Asian women, I cannot help but compare myself to them. They are just so tiny! Honestly, I do not see how my boyfriend could possibly be attracted to me when I stand next to them because I am occasionally twice their size! In addition, I am generally as tall as most men and about as fat as them too.

I am wondering if you have any advice for this body issue that I am having. I am somewhat afraid that upon getting to China that I will be overwhelmed by an ideal body shape and size that is simply impossible for me to attain.

Thank you so much for your attention and advice! Your blog is simply inspiring and has often filled me with hope.


Your letter reminds me of my last visit to China, when I discovered that my “average” underwear size is considered XXL (or in some cases XXXL) over there.

Western women in China might feel like we exist in a world of Brobdingnagian proportions, as we are often taller, curvier and heavier than our Chinese counterparts. The effect, for some, might be akin to being forced to stare at photoshopped models in the latest Redbook.

But, would you believe that Chinese women don’t have it any better?

…women in China are evaluated on physical appearance and overall attractiveness against standards of beauty that are based primarily on Western (European) facial features.

…Chinese standards of female attractiveness emphasize height (165 to 170cm), an oval face, long straight hair, wafer-like thinness, a pale complexion, a complete absence of moles and freckles, large eyes with a double-fold or crease in the eyelids, and a pronounced bridge of the nose (China Daily, 2005; Chen, 2008). Unfortunately, most of these features are not characteristically Chinese at all. The average height of Chinese women is 160cm (about 5′ 3″) as compared to 170cm (about 5′ 7″) for Chinese men.

…What all of this amounts to is that the vast majority of Chinese women are extremely insecure about their physical appearance, far more so than their Western counterparts. There is incredible social pressure on Chinese women to be extremely thin and those who don’t meet their culture’s nearly unattainable standards of beauty are reminded of it constantly — by parents, friends, teachers, and commercial advertisements that conspicuously feature either Western models or those of Eurasian ancestry. Young women who are considered too dark will spend what little money they earn to purchase whitening creams and those who can afford to do so will seek “corrective” plastic surgery (which, by the way, includes hymenorraphy, i.e., surgical restoration of the hymen).

Those Chinese women you see on the streets — even the ones you consider “tiny” — probably obsess about their bodies and appearance more than you think.

Still, even if you’re not alone, the question is, how can you stop the pain of comparison?

Look at your boyfriend — he loves you so much, he wants you to come with him to China. He could easily go back on his own, and find one of these “tiny” Chinese women to take your place. But he doesn’t. He wants you. You give him that something special he couldn’t find before — perhaps like my Chinese husband, who was pursued by many Chinese women as an undergraduate English major, but refused to date anyone until he met me.

So, why not ask your boyfriend what he loves about you? You can carry that answer around with you, like a precious, protective locket, as you walk amongst the tinier women of China.

Still, not even love can completely overcome the destructive nature of body image obsession, especially in a country where the standards of beauty are even harder on its local female population.

Remember that many cultures today — including China, and probably yours — peddle an impossible image of beauty, one that we might do well to unlearn. That doesn’t happen overnight, though…but you can start by reading books such as When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies: Freeing Yourself from Food and Weight Obsession, and challenging these images by talking with others — even counselors, if necessary.

Beauty comes in many shapes and sizes. Your Chinese boyfriend clearly embraces your beauty, and I hope you’ll learn how to do the same — even in China. Good luck.


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

24 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Feeling Big in Little China”

  1. Jocelyn, you answered this question perfectly! I’ve got a few comments about being a “big” girl in China, though. While women here are generally on the very petite and very thin side, you can see all kinds of body types. There are several girls working in my company who are the same size as me, and one who is quite a bit bigger. I’m 5’4″ and I wear small & medium sized clothing in the US. Here I am resigned to the XXL racks. hahaha It doesn’t really bother me at all. Everyone I meet is so friendly and kind, complementing me on my pale skin (despite the freckles), something I never experienced in the West. I stick out so severely anyway, and since people are always going to stare, I’ve just chosen to forget about my vanity over being perceived as large. (It’s not always easy!) Several people have called me fat, but I think they did not mean to offend; they were older so I think they believed they were complementing me. Jocelyn is right, your boyfriend chose you and you are just what he wants!
    .-= Heather GG´s last blog ..Homesick =-.

  2. I am 5’9 and wear a size 10 U.S. In fact, since my husband and I got married I have actually lost weight (I was a size 14 before we got married), mostly by eating healthy Chinese food 95% of the time.
    Still, I cannot find clothes in China, or if on occasion I do find something, it is an XXXL. I have to admit that sometimes this really gets me down. When I was about to get married, I went with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law to look for a wedding gown. Of course I knew that the only possibility for me was to have one custom-made (which is unbelievably cheap in China!), but I was hoping that some shops might at least have one I could squeeze myself into just to get an idea of which style might be right for me. Imagine how depressing it was to walk into shop after shop; we would go in, my sister-in-law would ask, “do you have anything she can fit into just to try the style?” and, one after the other, the salesladies would take one look and shake their heads. “She’s too big,” they would say unfeelingly. We must have gone to at least 15 shops. When I was a teenager I had a terrible problem with body image and since then I have worked incredibly hard to the point that now, at 34, I have a very healthy body image, yet occasionally in China I find myself flashing back to those bad body-image days. All this said, my 5’6″ Chinese husband is wonderful and would have never dreamed of having anyone but me! He has told me that he would love me even if I became the size of a house. So I think Jocelyn is spot-on with her advice.
    By the way, Jocelyn I am really glad to discover your blog. It mirrors my life in so many ways, sometimes I feel like I could have written exactly what you did. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Jocelyn, great blog, great answer once more!
    Like Jackie, I’m 5’9″, “healthy,” and my Chinese husband loves my curves. Mind you, he’s 6′ and fairly big himself so we really match together. I got many compliments from Chinese friends about my feminine shape, pale skin, ‘gua zi lian,’ hair color (no one seemed too fussed about my flab, but I got them thinking about boob jobs though.)
    If you think Chinese care about their looks….
    Living in Korea is not really nice for the weight obsession, specially Seoul, where looks are literally everything, even more so for women. I feel very sorry for Koreans because they are judged by their appearance mostly and go to great lenghts to achieve ‘beauty,’ at the risk of their health and finances. I can even see a drastic difference between my freshmen female students and my seniors… They get more and more surgery to make sure they enter the workforce looking their best. It’s sick!!!!
    I do find going to China very refreshing as I see people in different shapes and sizes there, and I think people are generally way less obsessed about their looks than here in Korea (you can imagine how it is in Seoul, it’s totally nuts!) OK, almost everyone got the eyelid surgery and use whitening products, but still, nose jobs, fillers, jaw bone shaving, forehead implants are still not so mainstream.
    Regarding Feeling Big’s worries: your man loves you the way you are, period! Just feel happy about that! Women are indeed smaller in China, but you might be surprised to see that not everybody is small and thin, there is a lot of diversity there too.
    Another plus of being with a Chinese man: I found out they are way more respectful of our ego and weight than any foreign guy I ever dated. My hubby, and before him, Chinese guys I dated, never made any allusion to me having to loose weight or having to watch what I eat. Ever!!! That is so sweet!
    .-= Elise´s last blog ..Spring is Here! =-.

  4. Jocelyn what a beautiful answer you gave!

    There’s one good thing about being surrounded by women who are at a healthy weight – it’s good peer pressure. The women I work with and hang out with eat well and exercise as part of their daily routine. They don’t eat ice cream in the afternoon, instead they have fresh fruit. Almost by osmosis, I’ve been able to maintain a healthy weight over the years that I’ve lived in China. They’re a good influence on me in many ways.

    Oh, and if a store tries to point me to the XXXL rack I tell them, “No way! I’m from the land of vanity sizing and I know my rights!” (Vanity sizing is when they put a size 4 label in the size 8 pants in the US. It’s brilliant. 🙂 )
    .-= melanie gao´s last blog ..If you can’t amaze them with your brilliance … =-.

  5. Here’s my two cents! I think that no matter what size you are, you will likely get comments on your appearance…be ready for that! Most of them will be positive but some of them will not be! I am 5’7″ and wear a size M or L in China but some of my young, female students will often tell me, “You look fatter today,” or they will make other comments about my skin, etc. I’ve been told that the younger generations will be more direct in this way because they think we are good friends so they should tell me the truth…but most of the time they are not actually good friends!! Jocelyn is right, though….when you go home and talk to your Chinese boyfriend, you will always feel better. My fiance encourages me again and again that he thinks I’m the most beautiful! 🙂

  6. I think you all are very lucky and blessed to have found a good man, a good Chinese man.

    Even though this is sort of a stereotype, there is some truth on the idea that Chinese can eat bitterness. It doesn’t always mean to tolerate suffering but it could also mean they are willing to work hard at anything. I have to say, this is probably China’s real story to the world, what can happen when you are willing to put your full heart and strength to achieving goals. Generally speaking, of course there’s some bad and lazy apples out there.

    Ladies, I think your other halfs realize the issues with marrying someone out of their own, and willing to put in the effort to maintain it. Like what others mentioned, I’m pretty sure you all know when Chinese say blunt words, it doesn’t mean to offend and you all can tell whoever has mean intentions in their words. A woman’s intuition can be a scary thing.

  7. Awww… a great reply.. and I will add my little two cents…. first let me tell you .. I am a enormous size 14.. and I live in China.. with my 5’5, 100 pound husband…. who’s waist is about 26″ to my 36″ waist… yeah.. so when we are walking down the street hand in hand.. the stares and pointing really stand out…. now add in the fact that I am African-American.. and very big breasted and have a large butt… of course I would say .. to the average .. paper thin, and paper colored chinese girl.. i am a cow… Ox even.. but do you want to know what keeps me from … slapping them upside the head with soap in a sock?… my self confidence…. No matter what size you are.. or what color you are.. or how big your nose or .. whatever… it is your confidence that shows and people see that…. I tell you .. when I first came to china.. i thought i would lose my mind if one more person told me they thought I was fat… but then I started to have come backs…. like “dont worry I wont eat you”, and” I am fat but you are ugly… I can lose weight”….I even make sure that everyone knows I have the biggest boobs in Yuyao.. (the city i live in) … I walk with my head held high and my boobs held higher…. confidence is attractive… and I have chinese women coming to me all the time… telling me that I am very beautiful… and that they want me to help them to be more like me….so .. my best advice to you .. when you move to china… is for get about those pre-teen looking women in China.. embrace who you are and what you look like… you are special… and your husband knows it… and trust me… he will be sharing with the world the fact that he has a beautiful Foreign wife…. and all the other men will be envious … He loves you … and you love him…. everyone else can kiss your big, Ox ass….(smile)….
    .-= Jo´s last blog ..New Space Upgrades =-.

  8. This is something I have often thought about. Pre-pregnancy, I was a size 4, with 34F bust. (I’ll get there again after our daughter is born, since I am very good about keeping fit and eating right.) I always worried that I would be considered a cow in China. But My Chinese husband loves my body. Especially my large bust. hehe
    .-= Juliet´s last blog ..A milestone for William. =-.

  9. I agree fully with all that has been said here. It is just SO important that you come to terms with your body type and accept that you will probably never look the same as many of the rail-thin girls here – and that’s OK!!! If you can learn to be confident in yourself, it will make all the difference.
    It can be frustrating here. I am quite small (5’3″ and about 120lbs), but even I struggle sometimes to find clothes that fit me in the small city I live in (I actually have hips and thighs!). I’ve had some of my young students tell me I’m fat. And I’ve watched strangers marvel at the size of my nose. But I also continually get compliments on my light skin, blue eyes, strawberry blonde hair and yes, my nose! What I’ve found so interesting is that the features that I’ve always disliked the most about myself (my nose and my unbelievably fair skin), are features that people here envy!
    Standards of beauty vary so much between cultures, so just remember, while you may wish you looked more like them, they are probably wishing they looked more like you. And, as everyone else has said, remember that your guy loves you for YOU!

  10. I’ve never really understood when I heard American women complaining about this (or more often, heard OF them complaining). I couldn’t see the problem.

    Reading these comments is making me think that it might only be an issue for women who are considered petite or on the smaller size of average back in the United States. Women who are big back home–like myself, 5’11”, 165–already know that lots of men like tall or voluptuous women. We are used to being bigger than the women around us, and we like it. And our positive body image has never had anything to do with being small in any way. But for women who are used to being smaller than or a similar size to others around them, China requires an adjustment in how they view themselves.

  11. Maggie,
    it’s one thing to be big in America, but in China, the proportion between us and them is really another story. The fact that the clothes are made for little children doesn’t help, and that people very often call you ‘fat’ without blinking (for them it’s actually not a big deal, it’s like talking about hair color…), make it another experience altogether.
    .-= Elise´s last blog ..National Obsession =-.

  12. I am so disappointed that Jo’s link doesn’t take me to her blog – I so want to follow her! I love the way she looks at herself and others around her. I was going to follow her so I could learn from her. She’s right, confidence is the most attractive quality.

    Don’t worry, I won’t eat you. That is priceless. 🙂
    .-= melanie gao´s last blog ..Thank you, Tea Kettles =-.

  13. Allow me to echo the comments and share. I am 5’11” and what Americans consider on the slimmer side, but what Chinese consider on the very curvy side. Because of my height, if I buy pants they’ll be men’s and baggy, and buying shoes is completely out of the question. If I go to western stores, I can find clothes, but since I live in a city without western stores, I forgo clothes shopping. I feel like a giant all the time, especially when I’m standing next to a 5’1″ woman with shoulders nearly as broad as my hips. But honestly, what is either of us going to do about our bodies? Things like that can’t be changed. This is just another aspect of the expat life and just another thing that makes us stick out even more. Women will sadly be judged by their bodies no matter what weight they are or what country they are in, so I’ve been trying to teach myself to get past it and just buy clothes when I visit home or have my family send them over.
    .-= ellis´s last blog ..I Hear the Nation March =-.

  14. I feel like I’m jumping into dangerous waters here, being a man, commenting on an issue that is so much a female one… or so it would seem.

    Just recently, however, I had a male student who is rather heavyset discuss with me whether he’s fat or not really, too. (He’s a good case, too, because he’s not beer belly-fat but rather stocky, not looking athletic, but strong enough.) So, no, it’s not just a female issue.

    The expat issue is there, of course: You will get stared at, anyways; buying some things is definitely going to be a problem (I can find pants, but shoes are well-nigh impossible); and you can expect Chinese to show you that there was a time before political correctness: comments on one’s look and body are fair game, apparently.

    Pressures go every which way, however:
    As mentioned before, many Chinese have much healthier eating habits, preferring fruit rather than junk food as snacks; Chinese food, especially home-cooked, is much closer to a decent balance with lots of greens and low on meat (yeah, I know Ellis: not so much in the restaurants’ all-too liberal use of oil).
    Comments about one’s body are from the hurting (the simple “a bit fat, aren’t you”) to the great (as mentioned before, a “high” nose is suddenly good, people might envy your hair color – even I had that happen 😉 ). Seems a much less concerned attitude, and I wonder if it couldn’t be healthy.
    Unfortunately, the pressure also goes every way: the skin is not fair enough, the weight too high and, at the same time, the curves not curvy enough, the legs not long enough and too fat – believe me, I’ve heard it all. And like the good boyfriend I am, I have denied all of them, because my girlfriend is great the way she is.
    Admittedly, she’ll have the problem Crystal mentioned: In Europe, she’ll have to look for children’s clothes, I fear…

    I second Jocelyn, though: Your partner, if he loves you, loves you the way you are. And I honestly think that Chinese are better at that long-term view, and the support that is good for it.
    Anyways, I hope that any woman, wherever, can be healthy and comfortable. And have a partner who loves her and let’s her know she is the most beautiful. She is.

  15. I have bad news for this person who wants this question asked.
    Asian people are extremely blunt and straight in the face especially about encountering some one being pretty or really bigger than they are/fat/ugly. They will go ahead and make a point of being too obvious. I’m chinese and when i’m surrounded by most older chinese ladies who barely stand up at my eye level even though 5/3″ is considered short but theese ones are soo tiny/short. They think i am “fat” and will say something about how i’m really “big”… because i have a bigger frame than they do as i’m taller than they are. I still find this social etiquette in their culture insensitive, unacceptable and rude in general!

  16. ASians do eat more than three times a day but in smaller proportions and they are not really into pastry stuff, milk and cheese as they don’t have the enzymes to break them down.

  17. I came to China for a 4 month holiday with my Chinese fiance and it royally messed up my perception. When I went to visit the creaky old rellies the first thing they said to me was ‘Wahlao, she has the build of an ox!’ or started poking my hips, mumbling that at least they would be good for bearing sons. (Cheers). But they meant it as a (sort of) compliment!

    Being surrounded by super thin and short people is never fun when you are considerably bigger…I’m only 5’4 and a UK size 8 and am not fat, but have an hourglass figure…but whenever I went out I was always made to feel like a giant…especially if I was next to some 5′ 1 chick whose thighs are the same size as my biceps!

    Hips and shoulders greatly affected my choice when it came to clothes because Chinese girls just simply don’t HAVE hips or shoulders! Clothes were always too narrow for me to fit into and it sucked. I thought losing weight would solve the problem, but you can’t shrink your blooming bone size!
    The Chinese and many other Asians have such light and slender bone structures and just aren’t as set as even a small westerner.

    But the same goes for plenty of Western women too…a lot of them are very petite, we’re not ALL 6ft ‘giants’ with huge feet!
    And I agree with the above: China’s body image has got NOTHING on those Seoulites!

    But everytime I got a compliment from a friend saying I was pretty, or a random old lady on the ‘bai li tou hong’ to my skin or praising my high nose, it made the difference.
    Besides, it’s fine as long as my fiance appreciates my curvy hourglass figure!! xxxx

  18. In my old neighborhood in Shenzhen there was an inappropriately named shop: Fat People’s Shop (I wish I got a picture of it). Oddly enough, I could’ve probably shopped there. I tend to wear medium sizes, but everything in China was sized XXXL. And there were plenty of locals who were bigger than me.

  19. I can relate to this obsession with weight too. I think body image is an issue faced by women everywhere, no matter what culture. It is just expressed in different ways in different parts of the world. Almost globally, deviating from the ideal will lead to less attention by the men in that community.

    I am not immune to body issues, I have a LOT of them. And I have also seen relationships crumble because the women were too insecure about their bodies and took offence when their boyfriends attentions dwindled, thinking it was because of their weight. In the end, I think body size affects you to the extent you let it affect you. Skinny girls dont have it any easier than fat ones in that they deal with similar issues, feel equally shitty, and guess what; most male attention they get is because they fit in a certain ‘ideal’ of beauty.

    Having said that, I would agree that the obsession with weight is quite obvious in chinese. But it isnt limited to them. Its just that among all my friends, it was my chinese girlfriends who discussed weight the most obsessively to the point that I wondered if they even meant what they said. I have skinny friends who down a big fat cupcake and then complain how they are growing fat and need to watch what they eat. So I take it as a habit on their part.

    Finally, if your boyfriend loves you, thats really all that matters. In my case, my bf will obsessively control what I eat. In the beginning I got pissed by this behavior. However I also realize that if I skip a meal he is the first one to reprimand me and when I am at my lowest, thinking I am fat or ugly, he is the one telling me I am beautiful. It tells me that he loves and cares about me and honestly thats what matters in the end. How much you and your loved ones care about each other…

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