Tips to deal with fat-shaming in an Asian family

Fat-shaming comments are all-too common and normalized in many Asian families. How can we approach these criticisms in productive ways? How do we express our own concerns for others with respect?

“Looks like your face has fattened a bit” was far from my idea of small talk.

At a family gathering , a distant relative — whom I only see every couple of years — made this particular comment. Stunned and caught off guard, I felt as if my mind was disassociating from my body, wanting to find the nearest exit from him and the conversation. 

I don’t know what was more problematic at that moment: the comment itself, or that they made this remark in front of his spouse and young children.

When I confided in my close Asian friends later, I realized I’d only experienced the tip of this “fat-shaming” iceberg. Everyone had an encounter — or ten — to share, regardless of gender. 

A friend was told to avoid short skirts to cover her “meaty” calves. Another was warned to lose some pounds in order to attract a wife.

One was advised to start losing her postpartum weight ten weeks after giving birth. Then, of course, the fan favourite that nearly everyone found relatable: the contradictory feedback of “you’ve gained weight” followed by “here, eat more food.” Logical, right?

Read more: Reflections on raising my Filipina baby girl

Fat-shaming doesn’t simply consist of off-handed comments — it’s a social phenomenon. 

Fat-shaming as a social phenomenon

In conducting focus groups with Asian women discussing body images, a study by Javier and Belgrave found that both immediate and extended family members influence body image and eating behaviours. 

In particular, when elderly family members make weight-related comments, Asian women feel pressured to politely accept them out of respect. A research participant asserts that eating habits and disorders can also become fodder for gossip between family members, resulting in further pressure on the “shamee” to work toward an “acceptable” weight.

In another study, when interviewing college-aged Asian women, researchers found that participants often receive unsolicited criticisms about their body shape from family members. However, those impacted tend to minimize these interactions to preserve familial harmony despite feeling frustrated, resentful, and helpless in preventing similar future criticisms. 

Another study points out that the overarching cultural backdrop — one that equates thinness with beauty — informs the cultural standards to be met in order to earn social acceptance and avoid criticism. 

This notion of “maladaptive perfection” is more pervasive in Asian families and can have long-term harmful effects on Asian women’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing as they aim for this unrealistic standard.

Authenticity and respect: How to respond to fat-shaming comments

As Asian millennials, we face a long-standing cultural practice that is harmful, yet disguises itself as care and concern; we are seen as disrespectful if we challenge our senior family members.

Read more: Conversations with our mothers on beauty, body confidence, and self-esteem

Even though my fat-shaming encounter with my relative is now a distant memory, I do wonder how I could have handled the interaction better. While “none of your business” would have been satisfying to say — perhaps with an expletive thrown in — in hindsight, I would have responded with a question. 

Two people talking on a cloudy day
Photo by Korney Violin on Unsplash.

I could have genuinely leaned in to learn his perspective, initiating a slightly uncomfortable dialogue, but one that would help us both be better humans:

“Thanks for your concern. I’m wondering: What prompted you to make this comment? What is it about my appearance that concerns you?”

“That’s an interesting thing to say to someone you haven’t seen for a while. I’m curious to know what you were hoping to accomplish with your comment?” 

I’ve also come to realize that our response will also depend on our relationship with the other party, because how you view them will inform how you perceive their intention. Did they mean to tease for fun (RUDE), or are they genuinely concerned? 

For the latter, I recommend honouring reciprocity with an authentic and respectful response. Below is a sample response to another senior relative where I demonstrated assertiveness by sharing my context, while at the same time showing appreciation and inviting them to connect further:

“Hi [name], I understand from my Mom that you’ve been concerned about my weight. I want you to know there is no need to be concerned. For the last year, I’ve been able to spend more time working out, eating well, and meditating. I’m continuing to work on healing my emergency C-section scar and I am feeling the best I have in a very long time since giving birth. Sometimes it’s hard to base our reality on quick impressions, so it’s important for me to share this with you. Instead of going through my Mom, you’re always welcome to chat with me directly as I enjoy hearing from you. Thank you and talk soon!”

A lunchbag sitting between two people
Photo by Mart Production on Unsplash.

Admittedly, this is more detailed than a typical response warrants, but my intention was to share some updates and progress since we haven’t talked in a while. I’m glad I did, because they reciprocated with an apology, reinforced their concern respectfully, and then asked for pictures of my toddler.

See also: Asian parenting and beauty ideals: The road to self-acceptance

Being on the other side: How to properly show concern for others

As we become senior to younger generations, we will undoubtedly find ourselves on the other side of these conversations. 

The success of these conversations will depend on your relationship with the other person, even before you approach them with your concern. To end, I offer you well-wishes and advice if you need to talk with a relative about their weight:

  1. It’s worth repeating and emphasizing: building strong relationships consistently and well before the conversation goes a long way to continue enriching your relationship with the other party.
  2. Craft your ‘speaking points’ with positive intentions and begin with the end in mind. By the end of this conversation, how do you want the other party to feel, think, and react? How would your relationship be enriched as a result?
  3. Ask for permission to have this conversation. A good opener could be: “I want to bring something sensitive to your attention, but I’m concerned it might negatively impact our relationship (and if so, I won’t talk about it). Would you be open to me sharing it with you?”
  4. Invite them to respond to your concern. Be open if they agree with your observation, and show curiosity and open-mindedness if they don’t. Remember that dialogue is a two-way street, so both parties will need to listen. 
  5. If they don’t give you permission, or if the conversation didn’t play out as anticipated, don’t give up. Maybe the moment you chose was not the right timing to have the conversation. They might still come around, providing that you make your intention genuine and positive.

Melting away the fat-shaming iceberg 

Many of us have become accustomed to shrugging off these criticisms as just another comment. In reality, each comment builds upon prior remarks that eventually become the iceberg that only we are aware of. Others see us smiling and continuing on, while the level of hurt, frustration, and despair expands internally. 

Two people talking at sunset
Photo by Aaron Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash.

Instead, vulnerability may be our greatest personal ally; we can begin by calling on others to reflect on how unproductive their comments or delivery are.

Read more: Growing up between two ideals of beauty

Work to frame these conversations as opportunities to educate your community, as hard as they are; doing this hard work will prove to be rewarding to yourself and your loved ones.

When we focus on high quality relationships, these are no longer fat-shaming conversations, but relationship-enriching conversations.

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