What I Learned from Being Fat Shamed in Asia
I stand out like a sore thumb in Asia. Lily white skin, (intermittently) blonde hair, and height aside, it’s the size of my backside that seems to draw the most attention. If only it was in a Kim Kardashian kind of way. You see, I’m on the plus size of things, and there’s nothing like travelling through Asia to remind you of that fact.
It was December 2014. I was about to join the line for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan when I was stopped by a witch decked head-to-toe in Hogwarts garb.
“Stop please. You cannot join the line until you try fitting in the seat.”
“Oh no, it’s fine. I went on this ride at Universal Studios in Florida last year and had no trouble.”
“No, you need to fit in our seat.”
Granted she was just doing her job, but there’s nothing like the humiliation of being made to strap into a demo seat while hundreds of people walk by to leave you feeling a little bitter. The ride was just as magical as I remembered, by the way.
It wasn’t until I visited Vietnam six months later that I realised there was a recurring theme in my Asian travels – my size and appearance were constantly being drawn to attention. At one point, I literally had a lady shoo me out of her shop, declaring, “You too big. Nothing fit.” Then there was a masseuse who, upon seeing my half-naked body, exclaimed, “Oooh, look at those wide baby-making hips.” She even gave them a little grab, just for good measure.
No matter where I went, I endured stares and whispers. The locals thought it was hilarious to see a thin Vietnamese man transport me around the city in his cyclo. I could just imagine their internal monologue – “That man drew the short straw having to cart her around today!” One lady even went so far as to follow me around a temple, taking photos whenever she thought I wasn’t looking. For a country I was supposedly anonymous in, I certainly garnered a lot of attention.
Whenever I relay my experiences in Asia to other Westerners, the general consensus always seems to be that I was “fat shamed”. And in a way, they’re right. After all, it aligns with the Oxford Dictionary definition: the action or practice of humiliating someone judged to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size. The more I thought about it, however, the more conflicted I was to whether what I experienced was truly fat shaming, or rather a cultural difference that just happened to impact me in the most personal way possible.
Culture shock is something you expect when abroad – after all, isn’t the point of travelling overseas, to expose yourself to things you normally wouldn’t experience at home? When I planned my first trip to Asia, however, I didn’t expect it to come in the form of how people treated and spoke to me. (Shout out to Lonely Planet for leaving that part out of their guidebooks). I mean, “fat” is a word you just don’t say in the Western world. Our superficial, appearance-obsessed culture has stigmatised it to the point where it’s a sure-fire way to cause offense to almost any person, no matter their size. The sad reality is that if you are fat, society sees you as less.
But in the East, the concept of “fat” is entirely different. There the people have no qualms in pointing out how you look – both the good and the “bad”. They are blunt. Matter-of-fact. Just telling it how it is. As quickly as you’ll receive a compliment about your “beautiful white skin”, you’ll have someone stick out their arms and puff their cheeks to insinuate your weight. These reactions aren’t just limited to Westerners though. In Bali, for example, where people are typically named based on their birth order, their name often includes a physical attribute to help differentiate those with the same name. Think Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect. The bottom line is, however, that these comments and actions are not made in malice – they are simply observations. To them, “fat” is just another word.
Sure, it sucked to have my biggest insecurity pointed out on the reg, but the rational side of me understands why they reacted the way they did. To be honest, I’d probably be curious about me too if I was in their shoes. What hindsight has taught me, however, is that what I experienced wasn’t fat shaming. The people I encountered in Asia were just pointing out my weight in the same way someone would point out that my eyes were blue or that I was wearing a dress. When you’re travelling in a part of the world where you stand out so distinctly, you have to expect a little attention and, if that happens to relate to something you’d normally perceive as negative, learn to take it on the chin. After all, sticks and stones may break my bones, but being called fat will never stop me travelling.