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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Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.