First of all, I was thrilled when 9jafeminista asked me to contribute a post for this blog’s The Politics of Pretty series(here, here, and here). I was also a little apprehensive because I wasn’t sure I had anything to say that would be of interest to Nigerian women. However, 9jafeminista said that she wanted the post to reinforce the fact that body shaming and unrealistic beauty standards are part of the worldwide phenomenon that judges women’s appearances and forces us to constantly question our validity based on the way we look, primarily through the male gaze, and largely as dictated by parameters and ‘rules’ established by the American and European beauty and fashion industries. WTF, right?
Think about it for a second: Asia and Africa are two huge continents that comprise peoples that are pretty different as far as cultures and appearances go. Yet, most Asian and African women subscribe to the same beauty standards set by the West. Thank you, colonialism. And yes, although our countries have been independent of colonial rule for decades, our minds are still f****ing colonised thanks to the powerful reach of Western media.
Anyway, this post is not going to be a cultural studies lecture about the way women have been taught to think negatively about themselves. I don’t want to speak for all Asian women. I don’t think I should speak for all Malaysian women either, or even all ethnically Chinese Malaysian women. The only perspective I feel I can offer is my own, so here it is:
I am fifty-one years old and I was born in a small town in Malaysia’s southern-most state, Johor. My (late) parents were officially ethnically Chinese, although my mother also had Malay and indigenous ancestry.
I have always been fat. Definitely fatter than my three older sisters who were slender, small-breasted, narrow-hipped teenagers whereas I was a D-cup by my early teens.
Let me add that while I was considered fat by everyone I came into contact with, my fair, rosy skin was seen as my saving grace. ‘Well, at least she’s fair,’ has been a common refrain throughout my life. When I married my ex-husband in the 90s, his parents objected because I was Chinese and they were Indian. However, my skin colour meant that “At least their children will be fair.’ Anyway, I digress, although of course, skin colour is just one of the physical features for which women are judged.
Anyway, when I look at pictures of myself as a child and also a teenager, I am amazed to see that I was not what I would now consider fat. I am aware that the way I think is problematic because I am implying that being ‘fat’ is undesirable. Well, I am still struggling not to think of ‘fat’ as a negative adjective and, back when I was a teen and tween, I felt (and was made to feel) that my size was a problem. I was teased by other children as small child. I was taunted by strange boys and men as a tween and into my late teens. Someone I considered my ‘best friend’ told me, when I was fifteen, that I should not consider performing at a school concert because I would be laughed at for being fat.
This idea that I was abnormally large was reinforced by the fact that, as a teen, I could not find ready-to-wear clothes that fit me. I wore my mother’s dresses instead, and was encouraged to seek out and hide my bulk in baggy t-shirts. (Thinking about that now, I am filled with rage and also sadness. Hide your body as it may be an agent of sin. Hide your body because it is not attractive enough to be an agent of sin. Either way, it’s f***ed up.)
When I was sixteen I was 159 cm (5’3”) and 54 kg (about 123 lbs). Let’s put the word ‘fat’ aside for now. Was I ‘too large’? I’ll let you be the judge, but I know I felt as big as a house.
When I lived in the UK (in my early twenties), I enjoyed five years of never having to worry about finding clothes that fit. I didn’t feel ‘too large’ because, although there were lots of people much smaller and lighter than me, there were also those who were much larger and heavier. Still, years of being told I was fat resulted in me going to see a ‘doctor’ about my weight. I was put on what I quickly realised were amphetamines. I lost my appetite and got lighter, but, thankfully, my student budget and love for pork pies and macaroni cheese meant that I didn’t continue with the treatment for very long.
In my thirties, I got married and had kids. It was OK to be ‘fat’ because I was wrapped up in motherhood and had no social life to speak of. When my marriage broke up, I lost a hell of a lot of weight. While it sucked being miserable, losing weight seemed to be the silver lining around the big, fat grey cloud of my divorce. I won’t deny that I liked the way I looked then. For the first time in twenty years I was below 60 kg, but I put it back on as I got over the breakup and started putting my life back together.
It’s interesting that losing weight was a result of things going wrong. A friend, commiserating about my husband’s infidelity, said, ‘Well, at least you’ve lost weight and look great.’ That made me so angry — probably partly because I secretly felt the same.
What would the average woman rather be? Slim and sad or fat and happy? Most would claim to prefer the latter state, but I think many identify being slim as the remedy to all woes. Obviously, being thin doesn’t automatically make you more content. Neither does it ensure good health. In fact, there are lots of people who say they want to lose weight for health reasons when they are really only interested in the effect it has on their appearance. For example, they diet and exercise, but also smoke and drink. If it was suddenly confirmed that being massively overweight was good for our health, I wonder how many of us would start trying to become fatter!
In my forties, I started dating African men as there are now, in Malaysia, many students from that continent. African men didn’t think of me as fat. ‘Fat? You don’t know what being fat is,’ said one of them.
I’ve also been told by my African dates that they don’t like thin women. They like their women curvy. Some even specify (on dating sites) that they are looking for BBW (big beautiful women) to date.
On the one hand, it makes a change from Malaysian men preferring very slim women, but on the other hand, I think to myself, ‘Why does it even matter what men think?’
Whether men like their women slim or thick, it’s still about their preference, their say. A man’s opinion of what a woman looks like should not signify, but, in reality, few heterosexual cis women are unaffected by the opinions of men.
Like, right now, I can tell myself that being this shape, this size, this weight is fine so long as I’m healthy, but I also find myself ‘warning’ guys I meet on Tinder that I am not slim. I want to pre-empt any disappointment my appearance may cause, but why should I care if they are disappointed? I tell myself I care about my own feelings and want to avoid being told that ‘I don’t date fat women’ or ‘I would ask you to be my girlfriend if you were thinner’, but wouldn’t it be great if I ceased to care that they might say that? Wouldn’t it be great if I could respond with ‘F*** you, your loss’ and not feel hurt and humiliated by their judgement? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I didn’t want to lose 10 kg, if I didn’t desire a flatter stomach, less ‘bumpy’ hips, longer legs wobbly underarm flesh?
It annoys me that I feel this way. It annoys me that I think about going on a diet. It also annoys me when I encounter women discussing dieting and losing weight, and talking about ‘sinful’ foods and being ‘naughty’ when savouring a delicious meal. It especially annoys me that I feel a twinge of envy when friends lose weight and look fabulous in photographs on social media.
It annoys me even more when people tell me that I don’t look fifty-one. It annoys me that they feel they are complimenting me by saying I don’t look my age. I know they mean well, but I dislike the assumption that a woman would rather look (and even be) forty or thirty-five than fifty-one.
I am thankful though that, in this matter of age, I am not struggling in the same way I seem to be when it comes to my weight and size. Wrinkles and white hair do not cause the anxiety that flab and fat do. I don’t know why that’s so.
What I do know and acknowledge is that the way I feel about my appearance is complicated and that it’s OK that it’s complicated. Most days I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle against the popular belief that women should be as slim as possible. I am battling my own desire to be thin, but at least this desire isn’t tied to the idea that being thinner would make me better or happier or more successful. I know I am a product of my environment and of a culture shaped by industries that thrive on women hating the way we look.
Being aware of this is vital for my mental well-being and survival. Knowing that my appearance (the appearance of women) has no value except what the media has chosen to bestow on it, takes away its power to break me, like it has broken better women than myself.
When I turned fifty last year, I realised that I had spent more than forty years being low-key unhappy with my appearance and trying to change it. It struck me as such an incredible waste of time and I told myself that even if I couldn’t totally stop wanting to be thinner (it’s hard to overcome a lifetime of brainwashing), I should simply just tell myself that I didn’t want to be thinner. In other words, I should fake it til I made it. The battle continues.
Wish me luck!
Daphne Lee is an Editor, writer, intersectional feminist and an atheist.