UPDATED: September 8, 2016, at 10:31 p.m.
Close necklines with open shoulders makes a person look skinnier. So does the color black and flared skirts. The employee at the department store was insistent that these were the only elements I try on, discarding every other dress I had taken off the racks. Wanting to be nice, I reluctantly put on the black lace design she advocated.
“Oh! That looks great,” she sung (for just a second), “But I am sorry for recommending that. It’s too skin-tight. See how it shows off your belly. (Pat, pat. Trespassed personal bubble. And then the next dress: pink rose-pattern.) Ah, this pink one is so much better. The flare hides your figure perfectly and it even has the right neckline. You look so skinny and beautiful now!”
It was like she was trying to make each comment weight-related. I hated this “service,” but she was too friendly and helpful, and I was less insulted than I was confused. Considering how hard she was trying to make me look my best, I thought that perhaps she just didn’t realize I disagreed with her criticism of my figure. But to my smiling, somewhat aggressive assertion that I looked perfectly attractive, she laughed:
“Sure, sure. In America, they like girls with more fat, right? That must be the fashion. But Chinese girls are supposed to be skinny―flat belly and long legs. Don’t worry about not being able to do it. You can lose the weight too! Trust me. I lost 40 pounds when I was your age.”
. . .
The standards of slimness in China are far more impossible and overtly insistent than anything the U.S. advocates. Even without the constant commentary of shopkeepers, relatives, and occasional taxi drivers, the point is clearly made by the options provided. Small, medium, and large are linguistic terms of comparison. But in many of Shanghai’s clothing stores, small is often the only size offered, with the occasional medium serving as an accommodation for obesity. Out of all the shops I’ve walked through, I’ve found only one store with sizes greater than medium: a silk establishment targeting late middle-aged women. My silk-infatuated aunt had taken me there, insisting that I buy a dress too. Finding an acceptably minimalist style amongst the heavy patterns, I decided it was worth the odd obligation. Except the first size she chose for me was an XXXL.
What I love most about how Chinese people discuss weight is the way they bluntly discuss your prospects for marriage in the same breath. I once had a friend from China explain to me that the reason why she’s never dated before is because her legs aren’t skinny enough―as though that ought to be the only criteria for a close relationship. When it comes to explaining your attractiveness, China couldn’t care less about how you feel about yourself. No matter how perfectly self-confident you are, at the end of the day, your relatives still firmly believe that you will die alone―unless you’re lucky enough to find leftovers.
From an American perspective, this complete dismissal of the individual and the importance of self-confidence make no sense. Most of America’s body-positivity movements are focused on the consequences that have nothing to do with personal relationships. Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge-eating are all eating disorders that can seriously threaten health. Social isolation, depression, and even suicide are the too often results of a less-than-perfect figure. And at the base of all these issues is the loss of self-love.
But while targeting self-esteem is useful, in many ways it ignores a fundamental need for social approval. The Emerson-style individual who can stand above the masses in radiant confidence is a beautiful American invention, but it isn’t fair to the person who will have to live with the very real social consequences of an “imperfect” body. My random commentators in China were unfortunately right to worry about how my perfect BMI would affect my social and romantic attractiveness. They were only wrong about where they drew the line for beautiful.
If real change is to be made against the social discrimination towards non-models, it cannot simply be about accepting yourself. It must also be about expecting acceptance from others. I can still remember how confused and irritated my friends were when they received a “Don’t worry about your body. You look beautiful!” message on their desk in the library. Perhaps a more effective message would have been “I think you are beautiful. Let others know that you think they are beautiful, too.” And perhaps, I could learn to be less adamant about myself towards critical department store employees. Instead, I should have turned the lenses of judgment onto her:
She was perfect too.
Elizabeth Y. Sun '19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.
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