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Fat is a cultural issue

fat_tiara1In the April edition of The Scavenger Meg Freeman outlined the differences between body policing and fat hate. However, Creatrix Tiara points out that fat hate manifests differently in different places – one country’s “okay” is another country’s “obese”.

15 May 2011

I have been following the fat acceptance movement for a little while, having grown up as “fat” and therefore having a stake in the movement’s results. Every so often there will be a discussion on which bodies are welcome in fat-acceptance spaces, and whether it is appropriative for people who are conventionally “normal-sized” to claim themselves as fat.

I feel that the sentiments of these discussions, while valid and necessary, are coming from a rather US/Western-centric place. The idea of “fat” is very culture-specific. What may seem to you to be an average size 12/14, “wtf is she doing posting on this pro-chubby-girl group?”, is absolutely fat by South East Asian (and sometimes South Asian) cultures. And we get almost all the same problems, plus some that are culture-specific.

(Note: I chose those two cultures as those are the ones I have the most experience in, having been born Bangladeshi in Malaysia. I have heard of similar issues across different countries and cultures, but I am not confident to speak on their behalf.)

I am a size 12/14 in Australia; I can still find straight sizing for me in most stores. I have been told in fat-centric circles that I’m not fat enough to be there. But I have faced many of the issues talked about in these discussions, since by Malaysian standards I am fat, absolutely, without question.

I have received inadequate healthcare because one of the doctors I see in Malaysia used a BMI chart built on East Asian builds – generally small, slim, and flat – and therefore claimed I was “dangerously obese” and to get rid of my flu/depression/so on I need to lose weight NOW.

(I do get this with Australian doctors too, though less dire since I’m just skirting around the “overweight” section, but still existent). Sometimes all it takes is a nurse or medic eyeing you before proclaiming to know your health issues – even before you get to justify your health status and habits to anyone.

I see slimming ads geared at people smaller than me all the time. I have had spruikers run after me in shopping malls telling me the absolute necessity of using their services.

Some years ago there was a beauty pageant contestant in Malaysia who won as a size 12, got picked up as a spokesmodel by a slimming company, and all the media went on about how she “lost her unslightly chub” and now “she looks even more beautiful” and so on. Almost every ad for slimming products and services – possibly the most lucrative spa service in Malaysia – has their ‘Before’ person as someone around the 70kg range; I fluctuate between 65 and 75kg.

I cannot find clothes for myself in Malaysia. Even the Western outlets that carry a 12/14 are too small for me as they’re based on tall people, not people with the slightest bit of boob. (In Malaysia, apparently having breasts or curves of any size is “fat”, befitting the standard of small/slim/flat.)

I have wandered into clothing stores only to have the shopkeeper tell me straight out “we have nothing for you”. The first time I truly got excited over clothes shopping was when I went to the US as a 15-year-old and discovered that over there I was a neat M. What a relief – I could actually fit into clothes I liked!

Then there are the experiences that are more unique to Asian culture. Specifically – food. There’s plenty of it, eat it, eat my dear why are you not eating!?? Yet in the same breath we are told to watch your weight, you have to be pretty so that someone will want to marry you.

My parents are clear examples of this: my dad wants me to eat quality food regardless of cost (partly due to my college-years tendency to fall ill for not eating well due to fatigue and laziness) but my mother would always tell me to “lose weight” and ramble at me about exercise. It’s eeriely parrotlike, her reciting well-learnt lines from her hero Oprah, while cooking up fantastic feasts and being subtly downhearted when my stomach just can’t take any more.

Modesty also becomes an issue: no matter what I wear. My curves and breasts make anything look “too revealing” by my mother’s standards. My body shape is largely genetic and can’t really be helped without severe surgery, yet it’s apparently enough for people to judge me as dressing “crudely” just because even a baju kurung or a long-sleeved t-shirt will show some shape – and in Malaysia looks (or perceived “sluttiness”) do carry quite some clout.

My experience of being in my body is drastically different in Malaysia and in Australia. In Malaysia I’m immodestly heavy yet unfashionable and ugly; in Australia I’m just sneaking by into acceptable and am probably not sexy but at least not instantly rude.

And that’s what I feel this body policing vs fat acceptance debate is missing awareness of: it’s not the same everywhere.

I get that there are qualitative differences between being made to feel fat because of various societal influences that tag on the word “fat” on any body shape and place unrealistic expectations on people, and not being able to access things like public transport seating, medical help, or clothing due to size restrictions.

However, it seems to me that trying to police that ends up on slippery slopes: how do we know that that seemingly-slimmer person has not experienced inadequate healthcare or hasn’t been able to fit into required attire?

How is their reality defining “fat” and how does that affect them?

When much of the fat activist movement is online, how much of the discourse is centered around particular nations’ experiences to the detriment and erasure of others?

Is it really useful for anybody to start classifying who’s fat enough or not?

If bodies like mine are pushed away from both fat spaces and mainstream spaces, where do we go to find support and advocacy?

Whatever happened to acceptance at any size?

Creatrix Tiara (formerly Tiara the Merch Girl) is relatively fine with her flab, asides from the odd bout of self-doubt – though she does wish her mum would calm down on the unwarranted personal training.

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