First let me say, I am no where near being overweight. And yet, Japan isn't the best place for me mentally when it comes to my body image. I've never had a problem with my weight before. I was slender in high school, gained some weight in college, lost it and a little more in France after college, was starting to creep up again due to my office job, and promptly lost it again when I moved to Japan. Here I tend to hover around a set weight, a little more if I'm on holiday and eating/drinking to excess, a little less if I'm depressed or sick and eating less. I work out consistently, walk or bike most everywhere, and try to eat within reason. And I'm doing something right because I got a perfect score on my health report this year. Living abroad has been good for my pant size. It hasn't always been great for my body image however.
Just being a westerner in Japan is enough to make a person feel fat. I'm constantly surrounded by people who are shorter and about 20kg lighter than me. None of the clothes are designed to fit me. I'm too tall and too curvy for things to fit. Some shirts and jackets are okay, although they seem to be designed for people without waists. And pants are impossible. I'll try on the largest size they have in the store and it's still not large enough.
And if that isn't enough people here are not shy to make comments about your weight. When I first got here they were all complimentary, "Oh wow, you've lost weight!" Now I'm seeing that they also go the other way. The other night at dinner my shirt slipped up so my lower back was showing. My friend Sue walked by, tickled me there, and then told me that I needed to go to the gym.
I was aghast. "Are you calling me fat?" I asked her indignantly.
"It's okay," she said. "I need to go too."
So because of her comments I've cut out all sugary snacks and alcohol during the week. Eating healthier isn't a bad thing. I think course corrections here and there and making sure that a few holiday pounds don't become permanent is easier than trying to lose a lot of weight down the road, but it's my mindset about it that is starting to become worrisome. Her comments shouldn't have affected me, but it did.
I didn't realize how much until I got the opposite reaction from a friend in America. She told me she had showed my Vietnam pictures around to the ladies she works with and they all made comments about how skinny I was and how my collar bone was sticking out. I tried to tell her it's always done that, but she insisted that when she saw me at Christmas I was looking pretty svelte. Not skinny in a bad way, but just smaller. This after the "You need to go to the gym" comment. My mom has made similar comments about me getting too small but I've dismissed them since she worries too much. I'm getting mixed messages and my brain is having trouble sorting it out. Am I too big or too small? I feel a bit like Goldilocks. Of course, rationally I know I am just right. I checked at the gym tonight and I'm no bigger or smaller than I was at my health check. But still...body image doesn't seem to come from the rational part of the brain. I still look in the mirror and wish my stomach was flatter and then I berate myself for caring so much.
It's not just women either. Nathan (co-ALT, neighbor, and other half of our English comedy duo) had a teacher he hadn't seen in awhile tell him that his face looked fatter. If it does I haven't noticed. He was put out since he's been making a concerted effort to lose some weight before he goes home this summer. My friend Jovan was called out on his weight gain when he came back to Japan after spending the summer in North America. Just a casual, "well you've gained weight," like they were commenting on the color of his shirt. I know it's acceptable in Japanese culture but as an American it's one of those things that rankles no matter how long you've been here.
One thing is for sure, culture shock can be a bitch. And with that said, Nathan is coming over soon and we are eating cake - cake with strawberries and whipped cream and maybe even some wine or bourbon to wash it down. And we'll be two sexy beasts doing it too.