“There's a huge social stigma to being overweight”: one woman's account of fat shaming in China

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For women in China, a phrase like "How can you be this fat?" is thrown around just as fleetingly as "You look nice today" - and mothers frequently berate their daughters for being overweight, under the banner of tough love.

Twenty-nine year old Beijing journalist Yuan Ren has experienced this one too many times.

In the light of a new Chinese advert for diet pills which directly shames a larger woman against a thinner one, she lifts the lid on fat-shaming in China and explains why it's time the prevailing attitude changed.  

If you were a bit chubby growing up in China, then you were certainly made aware of it. Chinese parents and society as a whole are brutally honest at telling you: “you’re fat”.

Most Chinese women – unless they were perpetually stick thin – have had some experience of being “fat-shamed” and made to feel like they should be smaller in size.

Even when I mentioned the subject to my Chinese American friend Helen who grew up in Washington State, there was an instant understanding: “Oh yeah, my mum is always telling me I’m fat and need to lose weight.”

In China, having your weight commented on is so common that few think there’s anything wrong with it.

“If you’re fat then people around you will just tell you – it’s very normal isn’t it?” says my 27-year-old cousin.

A recent Chinese diet pill advert [see still images below] on Beijing Television Channel had me thinking about just how acceptable it is to be judged by one’s weight.

The advert may use European actresses to make it seem more glamorous, yet it captures the social stigma attached to being overweight in China.

When I was growing up in China in the nineties and early noughties, larger-sized individuals were rare. At 5’4 and weighing roughly 65kg, my friend’s granddad found my size so appalling that his first reaction on seeing me was “you’re too fat!”

People’s mentality towards body shape norms hasn’t necessarily changed since then. Just last week, my landlord asked me out of the blue: “You’ve put on weight haven’t you?”

The 2kg I’d recently gained – that I had thought was surely unnoticeable – clearly was.

“I guess you have to just keep going with your exercise regime,” she said with a slight chuckle.

While I could tell there was no malice intended on my landlord’s side, the implication was still clearly ‘thinner is better’.

My immediate thought was to hit the gym – it caused a tinge of shame whether intended or not.

In China, where cultural and historical standards of female beauty dictates that women must be slim (or “skinny” by British standards), variations on this benchmark – whether it’s athleticism or curves – just don’t quite cut it. There is simply no such thing as ‘big boned’.

The harshest ‘fat-shamers’ are often those closest to you – your own family.

But instead of seeing straight talking as potentially damaging to a young person’s self-esteem, Chinese parents view it as their duty to tell the truth.

“Other people might not be honest with her, but her mother has to tell it as it is,” says my landlord, who finds her daughter’s heft almost insufferable, even though she is considerably overweight herself. “She hates herself too sometimes, for being so large,” she continued.  

This ‘tough-love’ approach is Chinese parenting at its best (or worst depending on how you see it).

Berating and condescending so that their children see sense is viewed as being justified – as long as it comes from “a place of good intention”.

“The worst I ever said to my daughter was ‘you’re so fat I don’t know how you manage to walk on those two feet!’” my landlord exclaimed.

Her daughter is used to the nagging, but admits to getting upset sometimes.

For the elder generation, chubbiness still carries with it connotations of greed and laziness. Traditional mindsets about what ‘the norm’ is haven’t quite caught up with the reality: women today are on average 1.7kg heavier than they were 10 years ago.

“There were no ‘fat people’ in our time,” my mum often says, of when she was younger.

Even fifteen years ago, few people were anything but thin; fast and junk foods were minimal, and even supermarkets, now overflowing, were a new import to China.

While many women I spoke to approach ‘fat shaming’ with a nonchalant attitude, it’s clear that the widespread occurrence has lasting implications on women’s body confidence.

During the course of the conversation with my cousin, she told me that when she was 17-years-old, she put on more than 15kg. That summer, weighing 60kg at 5 feet tall, she felt so fat that she “didn’t leave the house much”.

“I looked like a blown up balloon and mum constantly told me I was too big and needed to lose weight,” she says.

My aunt ‘fat shamed’ out of concern, but also because she simply found it hard to accept her daughter’s appearance.

But it’s not just parents – friends will pressure each other too about weight, albeit in a more light-hearted way.

In this media-obsessed age, young people are much more aware of body size sensitivities, so comments are usually more tactful. Nevertheless, larger women face harsh discrimination in the jobs and marriage markets, as well as within social groups.

When I asked my cousin how people around her talk about overweight women, her reaction itself was revealing, “Nobody wants to associate with really fat people, so why bother talking too much about them?”

Being so blunt about body weight is a far cry from how the British deal with the issue of obesity – tiptoeing around it with discomfort. 

Looking back on my own experiences, slimming down was necessary. I was overweight even if UK friends said, "But you're not fat". 

But I want young Chinese women facing 'fat shaming' today to know that health – both mind and body – is more important than any image projected onto you.

In China, there needs to be less obsession with being 'the same' as others. 

There is no one definition of beauty.

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