Growing up, I have always been a very thin kid. However, when I was in middle school, I started to notice I gained more weight than usual. Looking back on those days, I now know my weight at the time was still at a healthy weight, but because previously I was always very thin I still felt very self-conscious about my body image. For a very long period of time, I struggled to cope with the body image I perceived as “imperfect”. I would never wear skirts or shorts in the summer even when it’s 80 degrees outside because I was too concerned that my legs don’t look thin enough. After I came to study in the U.S, I found my body perception had changed. I was exposed to so many more body types, and more importantly, I noticed that people were very confident in their own skin; this phenomenon known as “body positivity” made me feel good about my own body! I gradually accepted my body type and love it for what it is. Through this new wave of confidence, I more often started to wear dresses and shorts. I felt safe and comfortable to show my body in an environment that is more open and accepting to all kinds of body types.
Reflecting back on my time in middle school, I wonder what was causing me to perceive my body that way? Even at that young age, I felt the pressure of having the ideal thin body because of the constant pressure of the environment surrounding me, such as my friends, my family, etc. A lot of women around me cared a lot about their weight. I witnessed my mother constantly wanting to lose weight, even though, like me, she was never that overweight to begin with. I remember during a conversation, my friend’s mother once told me to watch out for my weight after knowing that I usually have McDonald’s once a week. I realized that in Chinese culture, people who know each other tend to comment on each other’s weight. For example, when I went to a family reunion, a relative that I have not seen for a long time would pat me on the shoulder and say: “Oh, Mengshu gain some weight!” It is a very common expression; sometimes people would say “You look thinner recently!” as a way of being flattering.
A lot of the pursuit of such thinness might be influenced by the media. Chinese media uses aesthetics that are relatively uniform; beauty comes in the form of really skinny celebrities with beautiful faces and makeup. While the American media also still tends to focus on thin models for their advertisements, there are more and more examples nowadays of other body types entering the mainstream i.e. Torrid and their plus-sized body positivity campaigns. The Chinese market would not look too fondly if advertisements, or the media in general, promoted such body types opting for the more thin, small types.
A problematic aspect of the pursuit of thinness is the fact that Chinese people seem to think that eating less or not eating certain meals at all is more effective or easier than trying to find time to exercise. Girls were exposed to unhealthy body images at a young age, yet they do not know how to stay thin through healthier methods. From my experience, this could be because our schools did not give us enough time to exercise, and I do not recall doing any exercises in PE class during high school. This was due to the heavy amount of schoolwork that often takes priority over PE class.
My experience with body image taught me that it is very important for young girls to have positive role models to follow, to be educated on how to properly take care of their body and to be encouraged to accept all kinds of body types.
Girl Museum Inc.