Friday, November 7, 2008

Body Image; America, China; Western, Eastern

For some reason this is a topic I come back to in my head often. Over a year ago I posted on the topic, and today I felt compelled to post again for the first time in a long time as several circumstances have led me to think about my own body image, as a woman, as a Westerner in China, and how those ideas are influenced by the media around us.

There's some back story to all this, so bear with me. A few days ago, Prince Andrew made an appearance at the Chengdu Bookworm as part of a Sichuan earthquake-sympathy visit (I guess); Chloe and I were invited but rather than joining the mismatched-suit-wearing who's who wannabes hung out on the back sofa, whispering and fidgeting with our mobile phones like bad kids at a middle-school assembly. From this perch we couldn't really see or hear much of what was going on given the apparently failing soundsystem, but we could watch the royal highness's hired security guards, evidently as engaged as we were, picking out magazines one by one from the Bookworm's stash of imported publications for sale, carefully pulling out of their plastic wraps, flipping through them, replacing them in their packagings, and returning them to the racks. At first Chloe and I were observing this phenomenon in silence, giggling at their choices (Cosmo, Us Weekly), but then I started trying to imagine viewing the magazine through the perspective of a young professional Chinese man. 

The first thing I thought was how trashily the celebrities were dressed and/or presented. I assumed the guard, probably in his late 20s to mid-30s, was hoping to get a glimpse of some skanky Western ass, and given that goal, actually, the magazines didn't yield much fruit. Sure, the featured celebrities were dressed in barely-there getups, but there wasn't anything really remotely pornographic about the images. In contrast, you can find nudie magazines and DVDs in China, with sexually explicit photos on the covers, pretty much on every street corner, it seems, between the sex-toy shops and magazine and DVD stands. So on the one hand I thought the American actresses weren't wearing enough clothing; on the other, they were merely teases. 

Then I noticed another thing happening: After he decided there wasn't much of interest to be seen in the photos of the women, the guard started more closely scrutinizing the photos of the male celebrities featured. Then he chose an issue of Men's Health to check out. The cover featured a headless buffed-out man's body. He spent what I felt a fairly good deal of time checking out the abs. He seemed to be fascinated, perhaps admiring, comparing himself. It was at that point that I started thinking about how I'm not bombarded with the images of women that I am bombarded with in the States. I'm not sure that this is true for everybody in China but I'm guessing it might be--we don't have the dozens of gossip magazines awaiting us at every checkout line at every supermarket here, or the endless hours of celebrity-gossip TV programs (that I know of; on the other hand, I don't watch TV, so I could be wrong), and so forth. 

I read, many years back, an article that cited a study that found that women who spend 30 minutes looking at a fashion/beauty magazine felt significantly worse about their bodies than they did before looking at the magazine. I guess you're going to naturally compare yourself to others, and when the images presented are idealized images of supposed perfection, you're always going to come up short.

This body-image stuff is supposed to be trivial, but I've seen countless examples of it affecting women--and men--who are intelligent, analytical individuals. Any Western woman in China who's tried to shop for clothes--unless she's considered small in the West--has probably experienced the overwhelming emotions of being confronted with the fact that she's too big to fit into anything in the entire store. 

Recently we decided to run a 'shopping guide for the Western woman in Chengdu' story for the magazine. The idea was to run the addresses of all the secret spots for clothes foreign women have discovered over the years. I put our intern on the beat, as she had just arrived in the city and said she enjoyed shopping. Perhaps it was a cruel assignment on my part, given that she probably had no idea what she was in store for, and I did, having had a traumatic shopping experience within weeks of my first arriving in China years ago that turned me off any attempt to buy clothes for the next several years. 

On that day, my roommate--a Beijinger who had studied abroad in England for two years--invited me to come shopping with her after work. I gladly accepted, eager to have a local help me navigate the stores since my one attempt at finding shoes earlier was botched, I thought, by my inability to speak Chinese (I later found out it had nothing to do with language barrier and everything to do with my size 9 feet). We went to various stores, with her trying on lots of things and looking fabulous in them, and me, just looking for a pair of jeans, not being able to pull anything all the way over my thighs or zip them up fully. Finally one of the shopkeepers handed me a larger pair, and I celebrated that I was able to get them all the way on--until I stepped out of the dressing room to look in the mirror and realized they were men's jeans. After that I realized, at a U.S. size 8 or 10, I was just too big for Chinese clothes, and I guess the epiphany was written all over my face because my roommate--who several years after we parted ways, I realized was extremely aware and perceptive--said something to the effect of, "You're upset, aren't you?"

I should have been forewarned when, the summer before I left for China, I happened to see the tag (which read XXL) on the jacket of a friend from Beijing who was studying in the States. She wasn't thin, but she definitely wasn't fat, and I couldn't imagine her wearing anything bigger than an American medium.

I remember going shopping with friends here who've had similar experiences and shown similar upset; and most foreign women I talk to seem to be of the opinion trying to shop here is a waste of time. And while this applies generally to Western women of non-Asian descent, I've heard even ABC friends say they can't fit into the clothes here. On the other hand, my white friends also seem to shrug it off as a disparity between Western and Asian sizes and body types. But those of us who are of (even partial) Asian descent can't so easily hide behind that curtain. At least I started feeling some sort of frustration along those lines.

Years later I'm perhaps a couple sizes smaller, the natural result of a more active lifestyle, daily bike riding, climbing stairs, and making a conscious decision to do some sort of more rigorous exercise regularly, and it's one of the few times in my life I feel quite OK with my body. And I can find clothes in most any shop here that fit, although usually only if they're XL or XXL--and I'm OK with that. 

My size 9 feet, on the other hand, are a different matter altogether, and no amount of exercising are going to shrink them!

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