While the West has made conscious strides in highlighting the vicious, self-perpetuating cycles that hamper body image and speak openly about dispelling beauty standards, Asia is still coming around to acknowledging the need for body positivity. It is touched upon in articles from time to time, but for most of Asia, the agency of embracing ourselves is easier said than done. It’s not possible for me to touch upon every single part of Asia without making this the length of a dissertation, so I have decided to focus on parts of Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific for this piece.
Taking a glance at how media, pop culture and social media touch upon body image and body positivity in Asian culture, you’ll notice the conversation is quite small. When it is spoken of, there lies a tinge of ‘aversion towards larger bodies’ and an invisible line of thinness or fatness that should not be crossed. It’s easy to pick up on these cues with the way bodies are spoken of, celebrated or chastised.
China, South Korea, Japan
The Chinese have favoured a broad range of women’s figures over history, often linked to the preferences of the emperor of the time. Larger figures were not frowned upon and in fact seen as signs of affluence and power. Contemporary Chinese culture, however, has seen an about-turn their perceptions of beauty. The competition for finding jobs and life partners is fierce, and there is an enormous amount of pressure placed on living up to the beauty standards of the modern Asian woman – thinner bodies and features such as face shape, the fairness of skin, larger eyes and smaller noses are more favoured. They look to their smaller idols in South Korea and the West for inspiration and do not shy away from cosmetic enhancements.
Which brings me to a part of Asia that dominates beauty standards. My friend Jana, originally from The EU is currently an expat in South Korea, and this is her take on what her host country constitutes as body beautiful:
“The perfect Korean body as portrayed through media and Korean dramas seems to be androgynous. Very slim and minimalistic with long straight hair. When I was on the search for plus size fashion stores, many shops offered the ‘One Size Fits All’ option. The statement given to me by a shop owner was, “If it doesn’t fit, you have to starve until it does”. After recovering from that statement, I realised that it is a very typical train of thought that is agreed upon unanimously. There is little leeway for individuality and a homogenous physical aesthetic reigns supreme. The idea to transform my body for fashion made me feel very bad. I have always felt that fashion should suit the person and not the other way around. Plus size fashion here is not advertised and rare to find. Ironically, I have noticed that there are many overweight youngsters. I don’t know why this is the case especially since Korean beauty standards and very demanding but society seems to ignore them and renders them invisible.”
Most stores in South Korea are “one size fits all,” and that one size is small – as in designer sample size small. Finding clothes larger than a US women’s size 6 is challenging, especially since the starting point for “plus-size,” or extra-large, is a Korean size 66, the rough equivalent of a US women’s 8. Plus size model Vivian Kim is hoping to make plus size fashion more accessible for locals through her magazine 66100 and her plus size clothing line Design by 66100. At a size US 8-10, Kim is considered a size extra-large and speaks openly about how there is a stigma attached to plus-size bodies that are part contemporary and part old school way of thought.
Japanese women younger than 60, who were already thin by international standards three decades ago, have since been steadily losing weight. The trend is most pronounced among women in their 20s. A quarter-century ago, Japanese women were twice as likely to be as thin as they were overweight; now, they are four times more likely to be thin. Japanese women in urban areas are significantly thinner than those in rural areas – an interesting finding that I have noticed is rather salient across most of Asia. Media has impacted their views of body image much like South Korea. As quoted from this article in the Washington Post:
“In a culture where fat-shaming is common, there now are outspoken body positive advocates as well. Japanese fashion magazine La Farfa is trying to change the way the nation thinks about plus-sized Asian women by adopting the term ‘Marshmallow Girls’ as a positive description for larger women. “We don’t promote losing weight or gaining weight because there are women that look gorgeous regardless of what they weigh,” said editor-in-chief Harumi Kon to Japan Times. “Our view is that people should not be defined by the size of the clothes they wear.”
via Plump Magazine Facebook page, a body positive magazine in the Philippines
In my research for this article, I have found The Philippines tends to lend a stronger voice to body positive advocacy than most of their Asian counterparts, even though it still needs more substantial body positive framework like the rest of this region. Fellow blogger Alyanna Dela Cruz, who used to work in the advertising industry shared her opinion on her homeland’s beauty standards:
“Working in Advertising made me see the ugliness of the industry. To start with, women in these ads are beautiful. They don’t need to be edited in any way but if they don’t do it, their consumers won’t care about the brand and their products. We need more body positive individuals here in the Philippines. There are a few famous people like the Plump Pinay (Body Positive Blogger), Cai Cortez (Actress), Ruby Rodriguez (Comedienne), and Andrea Aldeguer, who promote body positivity in both traditional media and on social platforms. There also are a few brands who promote body positivity, and we need more of those! As a size 24 woman in the Philippines, I often get death stares when I’m out but do not pay attention to them because I love my body. In my experience especially in conversations, people are insistent that I should lose weight because they assume that I am unhealthy or not physically fit. Some of my relatives often tease me that I will not be able to find love if I stay this big. I think brands are only concerned with pleasing the masses’ favoured beauty standards. Advertising should be about helping the consumers through the brand.”
Australia and New Zealand
via Bee’s Facebook page
Although Australia and New Zealand have a more outspoken stance on body positivity, my plus size friends and bloggers in the region do feel there is still plenty of room for improvement. Fellow blogger, Rachel Gee Bee has this to say about beauty standards in NZ:
“New Zealand once had a reputation for being less than fashion-forward, casual to the point of extremes, and perhaps wholesome in a way. New technology and the reaches of social media have meant more to those of us isolated by distance at the far reaches of the world and has made the modern rules of beauty and female sexuality more accessible, as well as inescapable.
There is still old school conservatism in the heart of New Zealand when it comes to beauty, and you must walk the fine line between beautiful and sexually attractive, as long as you’re not ‘too sexy’. Quite the battle for the millennials and their younger sisters, emulating international style icons but never wanting to stick their head too far out of the parapet, never being encouraged to be individual or unique, it’s much safer in a pack after all.”
Messages that come from the media, family, and peers contribute to an intense drive for thinness and body image dissatisfaction. According to an article by YWCA NZ, more than 52 percent of adolescent girls begin dieting before age 14. Concerns about body image can also prevent young women from participating in physical and social activities they enjoy such as swimming, dating or even posting photos on Facebook.
In Australia, body dissatisfaction mainly manifests with concerns about weight, even in those who are underweight or at a healthy weight. Body shame is reflected in unhealthy weight-loss practices (crash dieting, fasting, laxative misuse, vomiting) across all weight ranges. In a community sample of Australian adults, 47% and 24% of healthy weight women and men respectively believed themselves to be overweight. Women perceive their figures as heavier than their ideals and as heavier than men’s preferences. People from a higher socioeconomic status are also more likely to suffer from body-image disturbance than those from lower socioeconomic status. Physical attractiveness is critical, and attaining the culturally ideal body type is often achieved at the risk of one’s health.
There is a growing acknowledgement in Australia and New Zealand that a negative body image is a source of concern, and there has been a response from advocates to organisations trying to reinforce the importance of positive body talk. This article in Marie Claire Australia in 2014 made an impressionable bid for healthier body image by inviting some of the country’s top advertising agencies to create ads that would convince women to love their bodies as they are.
The imagery and content of advertisements, however, is still a cause for contention from the audience. A body positive ad for Lush Cosmetics Australia was deemed offensive and pornographic in nature for displaying images of their employees naked bodies with Lush products. There was a comparison made to a Tom Ford perfume advertisement – model Cara Delevingne was nude – but the outrage towards the larger bodies in the Lush cosmetics ads was certainly indicative of a sense of discomfort with viewing imperfect unblemished bodies.
Malaysia and Singapore
I spoke to my friend Ratna Devi Manokaran, owner of Malaysian plus size clothing company Adevi Clothing about her thoughts on body positivity in this region and here’s what she had to say:
“Sometimes I feel like the whole concept of Body Positivity skipped this part of the world. With all the progress the BP community is making, it’s like some people choose to remain uneducated in these issues. Working in the field of plus size fashion, I am able to connect to people who are plus size and in Asia, if I could get a penny for every time I hear, “but white will make me look fatter, no?” and “won’t these type of stripes make me look fatter”?, or “Oh I hate when you can see my stomach jutting out”. So many times I hear women bashing one another on their body types and how they idolize the “good” type of fat vs. the “bad” fat.”
And now for the country I call home – Singapore. It is a melting pot of four main cultures that coexist to create the Singaporean demographic – the Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians. While we may have come to forge a culture of our own, our individual cultures are poles apart.
We also have to bear in mind the subcultures that exist (be it in Singapore or other Asian nations) come with different body ideals, although it does, unfortunately, point most of the time towards thin, fair skin. While curvier figures are more common among the Malays and Indians, the pressures of conforming to the Singaporean ideal – slim, fair skinned with sharp noses, big eyes and lush straight hair has posed to be a problem. Since the majority population is Chinese even though we live as one multicultural society, acculturation inadvertently takes place, and our beauty ideals merge as a collective.
While more Indian and Malay women are now less prone to straightening their hair and dressing like their Chinese counterpart, the blatant weight talk that happens in every home, clothing store and meet up is quite an inescapable problem. With more girls and women ascribing to dietary restrictions with the use of slimming teas and pills found in drugstores, we have seen a rise in orthorexia – the obsession with staying fit (when fitspo becomes a problem) and cosmetic enhancements are discussed openly, in a matter of fact manner. The need to be physically attractive to their potential partners, to excel in their careers and to be admired by peers are strong motivators for implementing changes to appearance.
Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam
Countries like Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam are not exempt from the East Asian beauty standards mentioned. I have travelled across Thailand and while I love the culture, my interaction with people have been marred by their blatant bluntness over my weight. Walking into a clothing store would get shopkeepers tittering behind my back while I put on my bravest face to browse their selection; I often left feeling painfully self-conscious. I have been pointed at and given smaller servings of food albeit with a smile as if to say ‘Here, let me do my bit to help you’.
Having said that, there are people in each country I have visited in Asia that were kind, friendly and polite enough not to address the ‘brown elephant’ in the room. I have not been able to find articles in this region speaking about body positivity at length, and if you – dear reader – come across relevant literature, please do let me know.
via Big Beauty Models Management, a plus size modeling agency in Indonesia
In a global study conducted by YouGov, Indonesians ranked as the nation most positive about their body image overall, with more than three-quarters (78%) claiming they are happy with their body weight and shape whereas women in Hong Kong are the least body confident with only 44% claiming they are happy with their appearance. While it is true that Indonesians have a more positive body image, there are struggles to conform to their own beauty ideals that could be explored through further research and mainstream media. It is also important to bear in mind that statistics does not always tell the whole truth.
The concept of what constitutes feminine Indian beauty has changed considerably over the past few decades. Where once voluptuous and curvier bodies were idealised, those aspirations have veered towards leaner, angular bodies. The Bollywood screen siren is of a completely different aesthetic today in comparison to the early 90’s. The more seasoned actresses have caught on to this trend and shed the weight to keep up with their younger peers. More global fashion giants cater to the Indian elite, which has created a ripple effect across the rest of the nation. Materialism, popularity among peers, Bollywood fever, blunt teasing from the opposite sex, body shaming and fat talk from varied sources like family and friends have exacerbated the pressure placed on girls and women alike to succumb to diet culture and an emphasis on fitness to the point of disordered thinking. Orthorexia may not be on the list of eating disorders as yet in the DSM, but it is a very real problem in India and the rest of Asia. An ideal Indian woman’s body today is fairer skinned with a leaner silhouette and gentler facial features. Like most other parts of Asia, there is almost a uniform look that dominates as the Indian beauty.
There are distinct preferences for what constitutes as an ideal body across South East Asia, but mainstream media and social media have narrowed those gaps creating a homogenised look. A US 4 seems to be the ideal size and fairer skin, bigger eyes, delicate features are preferred. Which sounds a lot like European standards of beauty, unsurprising, since we look to the West for inspiration. The more rural parts of Asia do not enforce these standards as harshly, and a higher socioeconomic status is cause for body image dissatisfaction. I have been pleasantly surprised to read of studies conducted by Asian University students looking into the causes of body image issues and concluding their findings on a common theme – there needs to be more work done. More research that is read beyond universities and shared more in mainstream media, body positive education for the masses, more campaigns and less pressure from family and peers. We internalise our perceived body-image failures and blame ourselves rather than look at the larger scaled cultural norms that are problematic. That has got to change.
It is not easy to speak about what I advocate in Asia simply because so many people in my midst are opposed to the idea of size diversity – that people can lead fulfilling, healthy lives at any size while finding love and acceptance. The terms overweight, unhealthy, obese are flung around so easily in regular small talk and the perception of what a healthy body looks like is limiting. I attended a local fashion week show a few weeks ago, and as I scanned my surroundings, it made me sad to think that plus size fashion is not being acknowledged. As a Singaporean-Indian who was brought up feeling inadequate because I was considerably bigger built than my Chinese peers, it brought on a whole host of insecurities. I was bullied throughout my schooling years for being ‘black and fat with curly Indian hair’.
As a second-generation Indian, who is poked fun at by her fellow Indians because I do not adhere to the modern Indian standards of beauty, the effects of those experiences have been crippling.
But I push on.
Like the friends in my body positive circle here that do the same. In the hopes that we can witness a change during our lifetime and remind people in Asia and beyond of all ages, sizes, genders and ethnicities that they have a place in the world just as important as any other. I did not have a representation of my appearance and body size. Which is why I decided to be that representation. Which is why talking about the need for body positivity and forming a positive body image is imperative. My hope is that Asia catches up with this movement and considers this as one of their priorities while progressing with globalisation.
She needed a hero. So that’s what she became.