04 September 2013

Japanese Health & Body Image :: the troublesome

A couple months ago, I went jean shopping. It’s always a dicey proposition here: sizes are small, selection is limited and expensive, and there is something so demoralizing about putting on pants where your butt or thighs or calves (calves, people! calves!) don't fit. But I really wanted a pair of neon jeans for spring, so to the stores I went.

I was so down on myself. I was feeling chubby and big and Western and American. You know how it goes. It’s a constant stream of self-loathing in your head, a knot in your (chubby, tubby, stupid) tummy. 

I found the jeans, but there was only a few sizes left. I grabbed the biggest one available, it fit great (!), and then I realized the number on the waistband. You guys, it was a size I have never worn. I was constantly nagging on my body, feeling so terrible, and I was actually the smallest I've ever been. When I looked in the mirror, even then, I still saw a chubby gaijin.

THIS. This was my wake-up call to the body image problems I began to have in Japan.

Morning and Night (2006) by Misato Suzuki

I recently wrote I wrote about the “good” side of Japanese health: the small portions, the food culture, the movement and mobility of living in the cities. Today I'm tackling the other side, the darker side. I want to be gentle but honest, and caveat this by saying that this country has been a wonderful host to my husband and me the last two years and will forever have a special place in my heart. Japan is not a place where flaws are readily acknowledged, and while I want to be forthright and upfront, I don't want to be judgmental or combative. This post is simply my personal experiences, and I'll tell it from that lens, a personal one, rather than a condemnation of the country's values as a whole (because that is CERTAINLY not my intention). 

Japan is really, really thin. As I sit and write this in a coffee shop, women walk by and are almost uniformly slim. I would guess that an average size here is zero or double zero, with a little bigger woman being a 4-6 (American) size. When I shop in America, the mannequins that display the clothes are crazy small – I don't know one person who actually looks like that. Women here often look like a mannequin: narrow arms, thin thighs, long and lean, head to toe. 

A huge part of this is genetic. Friends who have given birth here mention the doctor has two charts for normal fetus weight, one for Japanese babies and one for Western. In the womb, moments from conception, our frames are different. Turns out “bigger boned” is not just a euphemism.

Circle #4 (2009) by Misato Suzuki

I WISH it didn't bother me. I WISH I had the acceptance to look down at my boobs, my butt, my hips, and be happy (because I've had Japanese friends say they wish they could have boobs. Grass greener and all that). But I came of age during the Kate Moss reign of fashion, and there is something in me that wants to be that thin, even though I don't want to be that thin.

Maple (2006) by Misato Suzuki

After my marathon, I joined a local gym. Gyms are not very common here, and this was a fancy one, with a spa and cycling classes and air conditioning (!!); it was a consolation prize for turning down grad school. I knew the hot, hot summer was coming and that exercise helps my mental state. I have a genetic predisposition to depression and anxiety (and the general Irish moroseness and fatalism), but working out helps considerably. (If I was to dole out any marriage advice at this point, it would be to choose a partner who, when you want to join a crazy expensive gym for all the reasons above, even though it feels super extravagant given your status as an unemployed housewife, he says quickly “I think you should do it” and then offers to go with you to sign up.)

I love my gym. It’s clean and white and has great machines and fun classes. It’s mostly Nihonjin; I am one of the few Westerners and everything is in Japanese. But you guys… the anorexia. I guess I didn't realize it before I was going into a locker room every day, but I've found that women here struggle with eating disorders at a seemingly higher rate than back home. Given the slim build of Japanese women, the layers and loose fitting fashion of clothes here, the hidden nature of this disease, and my general obliviousness, I didn’t notice that some women were riding that line until weeks after I joined the gym.

Someone sick versus someone thin is very easy to spot on a naked body. There are thin women here who are fine, of course, but there are some that are not: women who weigh themselves before and after working out. Women who work out, relentlessly. Whose spine and ribs I can see, whose knee joints stick out from their legs. Who go into the sauna to sweat it out and reweigh themselves before allowing a drink of water. It breaks my heart; it is difficult to put into words. There is nothing I can do, but it is terrible, painful, and sad to watch. I get it, too. Japan is a high-pressure country. There is One Way, and heaven help you if you don’t fit to that. Eating disorders are about control, and I understand why it would seem like a rational proposition for these women, and how quickly it would spin out. 

Even knowing this and witnessing the sickness that some of these women face, I can be terribly bothered when I am the biggest one in my gym class, not even five minutes after leaving the locker room. (Ugh.) When we line up to begin, oftentimes I notice that my thighs are the only ones that touch. That my belly has a curve to it. That my arms are much bigger, even if they are strong and lean.

I tend to workout in standard American wear: running tights and tank tops. Japanese women are just warming up to the tank tops (I like to think I help inspired their fashion exploration!), but they are more covered up, with shorts over their tights and loose fitting t-shirts. I am the only one who must have a sports bra. Given the fashion differences, given the natural body differences, I am often the biggest woman in class, and I’m in the smallest outfit. That does not feel great.

This is what I find troublesome about myself in Japan: that even after seeing the extremely high tolls that a quest for control and perfection can take, I am still disappointingly susceptible to negative and harmful thinking about my body. No matter where you live, I think it's hard to have a healthy body image. I think it is especially difficult in Japan.

Hong Kong (2006) by Misato Suzuki

So, why, you ask, do I continue with the gym? Because even if at the beginning of class I’m down on my body, about halfway through I get so euphoric about what my body can DO. How I can jump, how I can run, how strong I am, how capable my muscles can be. It sounds super cheesy, but I am so grateful for the movement that my body is capable of. I LIKE my body ten minutes into class. 

I also like the company that these women can give me, who ask where I was if I miss a day or ask how my weekend was. I like the structure gym can give my life here, and the benefit of having a place to go when it’s so easy to become a homebound housewife during the long, hot summer. Also, it has a free coffee machine. I'm a sucker.

When I moved abroad, I thought Americans were fat. Like, that was our thing, maybe along with baseball and pizza. What I've realized though is that Japanese are thin and the rest of the world is fat. Obesity is a huge global problem, and one that I think will be very complicated to solve. I can't look at the rates increase over the last 30 years and think it’s simply a problem of individuals eating too much. I think that American and the Western world’s food sourcing and composition has gone goofy, and we need a multi-pronged approach to begin to fix it. In my mind, living abroad has cemented that obesity is not a single person’s fault but rather a failing we, as developed nations, have as a community.

But it has also awoken me to the immense pressures of staying thin, a problem we don't face to this degree in the US. Where there is so much pressure to be perfect, to be the same, to be in control, it can rear its head in ugly ways. Given the massive weight gain other countries are facing, it's a problem that’s easy to ignore or downplay. The Japanese are naturally thin, yes, but there is more at play and more pressure than initially apparent. There is only one word for fat in Japanese. This is a language that has soft and polite expressions for just about everything (there is a nice and honorific way to ask for water!) but not one for being heavy. In English, a rather ineloquent language, we have many (chubby, heavy, pudgy, overweight, rotund, curvy). In Japanese, you are fat or you are thin. Additionally, I don't think there is no expression similar to the English one “painfully thin.” Language and vernacular can be a telling thing.

Marching Band Through Prague (2011) by Misato Suzuki

To be a Westerner in this environment can be difficult. It can play with your head something fierce. Why am I so big? Why are ALL these women so small? I work out! I eat healthy! I should be a triple zero too! I have to remind myself that THIS IS CRAZY. Often times, I wish I could be a beacon of self-acceptance and not be bothered by being able to meet the unattainable standards that my society deems attractive. That wouldn't be true, and it does bother me, and I have to remind myself to breathe and to let it go. To practice self-care and self-love. To practice honestly about my body and my health, about my country’s status of health, about Japan’s status of health. For the sake of the women at my gym, I wish Japan was perfect and didn't have this unhealthy side… but I am glad I was here long enough to see it and to understand that no country has it all figured out, that no place has “healthy living” nailed down. It reminds me to be gentle with others, and to do that, I have to be most gentle to myself. Touching thigh biscuits* and all.

*Thanks, Tina Fey.

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