One of the difficult things about living in Japan for foreign women is that they usually end up being the fattest women in the room.
Average-sized women will find that they’ll fit into extra-large sizes but good luck to ever finding clothes that fit in the bust or shoulders. Larger women may find clothes in the special “biggu saizu” section of a run-down department store that will absolutely never stock fashionable or well-made clothing. Smaller women may have a bit of luck, as long as they’re not tall – but if you’re tall, forget about it. There’s just not a variety of sizes here. Most of Japanese women here appear to be the same size – tiny. Even though Japanese women are hyper-critical of any bit of fat on their bodies, from an American’s eyes, there’s really no difference between a “size small” woman and a “size large” woman. Even an “obese” Japanese woman would be pretty average in the states.
As a foreign woman, I’ve learned to accept that sometimes I will feel like a woman who’s taking up more space than she should. I can’t tell you how many times children have pointed to my belly and patted it. I mean, that’s cute, but yeesh! Is it that noticeable? I mainly wear skirts and dresses because pants and shirts that fit are too hard to find. Say goodbye to ever being able to buy a bra here. And I have it good – I can fit into Japanese clothing. It doesn’t fit right, but as my cluttered closet can attest, I still manage to find clothing here.
The good thing is, Japanese women rarely turn their hyper-critical gaze on me. One, I’m not Japanese, and two, I’m not usually seen as “competition”. I’m a pretty okay looking lady, but even extremely attractive foreign women have a bit of hard luck here. We just don’t have that “girl-next-door” charm, seeing as we never lived next door. Foreign is “attractive” but it’s not attainable – it’s not the ideal sort of attractiveness in a world filled with AKB-48 and Ayame Goriki.
So nobody really cares if foreigners are fat or not. It’s almost expected. But the good thing is that overweight people are not blamed for the fall of society and are not accused of being lazy or unsuccessful. Heck, most people just assume Western people are fat anyway. It’s kind of refreshing. Plus, I have to say, even though living here means I’m surrounded by women smaller than me, I care less about being skinny than I do while in the states. I know I’m never going to be that skinny, and I can stay an average weight without much effort. In the US, I’m bombarded with weight loss commercials on one hand, and unhealthy, salty, sweet, delicious food on the other. It’s schizophrenic.
I like living in a country that has more to do than worry about whether they’re fat or not. I love the take Shari had on 1000 Things About Japan - a great summary about how people still have the same sort of human problems in their life even though they’re thin. Aside from women comparing how “fat” they are to each other as a form of bonding, it’s almost a non-issue for a foreigner like me.
In Japanese, you learn to say “fat” with the word “futotteiru (太っている）,” but it’s usually only used in the past tense, like, “Mariko, futotta ne! (Mariko, you’ve gotten fat/you’ve gained weight!)” Usually Mariko has gained maybe 5 pounds. There’s also “pocchari” which can mean pleasantly plump or chubby, and almost always has a good connotation. Then there’s “debu” which just means fat, fattie, chubbo, etc. It’s not a good word. Some guys like their girls “pocchari” but almost nobody wants a “debu.” It’s horrible to see funny, beautiful comediennes who happen to be fat get teased on variety shows about how no one would ever want to date them. Everyone laughs and takes it in good fun, but still. These are successful women – I wish they didn’t have to pander to attitudes that they are somehow lesser because they are fat.
There are lot of other aesthetic issues in Japan that I don’t have to concern myself with: I already have large eyes and long lashes, European bone structure, and breasts. Even with my average facial structure, the fact that I have European cheeks means that my face is “small.” Apparently, “You’re face is small” is a compliment of the highest order – you coulda fooled me! Then again, nobody wants a nose like mine, and even though breasts are theoretically desired, nobody rushes to get plastic surgery for their tatas (it’s their eyes that they’re dying to cut open). Looking back on this paragraph seems like I’m humble bragging to the nth degree, but I know I’m no model. It just happens to be that having “different” facial structures makes me look more attractive to people here, simply because they aren’t used to them. Believe me, my first few months in Japan, I thought everyone here could be a supermodel – and some Westerners never grow out of that!
Japanese and Asian women mourn how “fat” their faces are, even though a flat, round face is something common to almost all of those people of Asian descent. They desire white, creamy skin so they put on long sleeves and use parasols in 90 degree weather. They’ve hyper vigilant about gaining weight, and go on soba and yogurt diets. Women in their thirties here are the skinniest of that age-group in the world. But this is so common isn’t it? Japanese women diet and put on a lot of makeup and do lots of weird things to torture their bodies into submission, just like every other country on Earth. What do we do this all for? Who do we do this all for?
And yet, I can think about this rationally while still worrying about weight and clothing and future wrinkles.
(and no. Japanese women don’t get the double eyelid surgery to look Western. Like all cultures, looking youthful is something to be desired – and what else is more youthful than large, child-like eyes?)
Being dedicated to a running regimen for the last year and half has been really good for me, in that respect. Although I started mainly because I wanted something to occupy myself with after the disaster and heartbreak, I also had noticed I had gained a little weight and wanted to get “healthy.” I really haven’t lost any weight but I look like I have so that’s good enough. And I’ve come to appreciate my body as something powerful, something that can get me to where I need to go. Those are my two legs running up a 17km mountain course! That’s my hips powering down that hill! That’s my body, all sweaty and gross, that got me there. I like my body, some of the time. It’s not perfect and it never will be – and I definitely don’t want pictures of me in a bikini floating anywhere on the net. But I like my body, for the most part. That’s something I never imagined when I was in high school.
Sometimes I’ll look at pictures of myself during my study in Kyoto a little wistfully. It was one of the most fun and carefree years in my life, and the period where I decided what I’d like to do in the next 5-10 years. AND, I looked damned good. I was skinny, tanned, long wavy hair. Not only had I lost a bit of weight since coming to Japan, I finally liked how I looked in pictures. I do get a little bit of a sad feeling when I realize that might have been the “hottest” period of my life, and now it’s over. I’ll never be quite that skinny again – or that’s what I start to think, but really the problem is: I’ll never be that young again.
And so the eternal battle with aging begins. I’m not the first and I’m not the last. I’m still pretty goddam young so it’s not such a big deal. I hope I’ll be able to deal with aging gracefully. I mean, I have a couple small fine lines – the beginnings of a wrinkle! A wrinkle! But whatever. I’ve lived 26 years, haven’t I? Being “hot” is slowly but surely starting not to matter. (Being hot doesn’t mean being 20 years old either.)
I was the skinniest I’ll ever be when I lived in Kyoto. But I also barely ate and my period stopped for about 2-3 months. I wouldn’t call it anorexia, but I wouldn’t call it healthy either. And I wasn’t even underweight, on a BMI scale. But I was underweight for me. No matter how much I wish I was a lithe, elegant, small woman, I’m never going to be small. I’ve got a stocky build, and I’ll have a stocky build no matter what my weight is.
Sometimes being in Japan makes it easier to deal with that, and sometimes being in Japan makes it harder. I like to think that I’m totally comfortable with my current weight, and I guess I am, but I do know that the second I start gaining weight I’m going to feel very, very unhappy. I wonder if that feeling will ever go away.
I actually don’t even like talking about weight with other people, and I hate getting dragged into “I’m so fat, you’re not fat at all!” conversations. I know they’re bonding exercises, but I don’t want to bond over a lack of love for our bodies. I think all of the ladies in my life look great. And heck, I’m still average-sized! I look like a jerk if I complain about my weight. But it’s something I struggle sometimes with secretly, like I suppose almost every woman does, small or medium or big. It would be nice if our self-worth wasn’t tied up in what our body looks like, but I’m not waiting for a day like that any time soon.