For Singaporean Natalie Tan, Chinese New Year is possibly her least favourite time of the year.
It’s the time relatives would casually ask the 22-year-old if she has gained weight, as they poke her belly or arms teasingly. It’s also the time of the year her self-esteem plummets.
Standing at 1.57m and weighing 55kg, Natalie isn’t obese. She is not even overweight by medical standards. But, as an Asian girl and by local standards, she’s considered chubby. And she has been fat-shamed pretty much her entire life.
Natalie is, unfortunately, off the mark when it comes to what many perceive as the ideal form of female beauty: That’s because she is not slim. It doesn’t count if you’re athletic, curvy, or big-boned – as long as you’re not slim, you don’t make the grade.
And during reunion dinners, sharp-tongued relatives are quick to remind some of us who, like her, aren’t slim – that we don’t cut it.
What is fat-shaming?
Any process of humiliating someone judged to be overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size can be seen as fat-shaming.
And while most examples of fat-shaming in movies are done overtly and cruelly – for example, Netflix’s Insatiable shows its overweight protagonist mercilessly bullied, and even punched – I find that in Singapore, fat-shaming is more concealed and casual, though surprisingly, very common.
For example, instead of being openly shamed for the way they look, many girls – even those who are not fat in the slightest – are teased.
Mothers are quick to point out their daughters’ stomach rolls, aunts will draw attention to their nieces’ fleshy arms, and I know a girl who was nicknamed “xiao pang zi” (little fatty) by her extended family.
Even Natalie expresses that it’s not abnormal for her relatives to point out her weight gain.
And, as it turns out, our harshest fat-shamers are often those closest to us – our own family. Under the banner of tough love, Chinese relatives, like Natalie’s, often see commenting on others as a norm, and pointing out one’s weight gain as their duty to tell the truth.
Lisa Kiang, a psychology professor at Wake Forest College in North Carolina, explains that in Chinese culture, “it might be more socially and cultural accepted – and maybe even expected – to comment on other people”.
But for some, like Natalie, these comments are unwarranted and hurtful. They are also damaging to a young person’s self-esteem. She admits that it’s almost impossible not to take her relative’s comments personally.
“It drives home the idea that I’m not ‘ideal’,” she says with sadness.
“What’s worse is that comments on my weight are usually one of the first things they’ll say when they see me. It’s almost as if they have a right to critique my appearance – no matter how cruel or insensitive their words feel to me.
“I’m supposed to be enjoying time with my family over Chinese New Year, but all I end up being is miserable and self-conscious instead,” says Natalie.
From thoughtless fat-shaming to well-meaning comments, words can hurt
Many of us are no strangers to the feeling of discomfort when someone brings up the matter of our weight in conversation. And because of that, it would be decent to refrain from asking others pointed questions about their weight.
Yet somehow, during Chinese New Year, discussing one’s appearance is suddenly fair game.
“Speaking from experience, during reunion dinners, my female cousins and I would be reduced to our outward appearance – conversations would circle around our weight,” says Natalie.
“And during this festive period, it’s not uncommon to hear ‘well-meaning’ comments from our relatives about our weight that, sometimes, can be hurtful. But what they may not know is that their comments – even if it isn’t said out of malice – can come off as fat-shaming, because generally, the underlying theme is that thinner is better.”
It’s also important to note that fat-shaming, no matter how well-meaning, has the opposite effect: Studies have found that far from prompting healthy weight loss, fat-shaming worsens people’s health. It can cause its victims emotional distress, and risks encouraging unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders instead.
Many don’t realise they’re fat-shaming
For many who fat-shame, they might not even be aware of it. As mentioned earlier, in Chinese culture, it is acceptable, even expected, for loved ones to comment on your appearance.
Speaking as someone who has unintentionally fat-shamed others before, I understand that the compulsion to speak out doesn’t come from a mean-spirited place. I honestly always saw it as gentle teasing, and never put much thought into my words.
Until I talked to Natalie, I never realised I was fat-shaming them. But what I saw as a harmless comment from me had a negative impact on them.
Natalie shares: “It has got to the point where I absolutely hate Chinese New Year, because I can’t eat anything without getting judgmental looks. During this period, I don’t feel good about myself. Buying new clothes also becomes a stressful experience because I become afraid of what everyone else has to say about my body.
“This year, when I went shopping for my Chinese New Year clothes, I went and bought a giant oversized smock to wear – it doesn’t cling to my body at all because I want to hide myself from everyone.”
What you can do if you’re being fat-shamed
So, what should we do if, over the next few days, we are outrightly fat-shamed, or shown ‘tough love’ from a well-meaning but intrusive family member?
Talk to them and try to explain how their comments make you feel. Depending on the severity of their shaming, remind them that fat-shaming doesn’t work and, instead, such comments could potentially make a perfectly normal, healthy woman feel terrible about herself.
If they are just voicing out their concern for you, thank them for it, but gently tell them to be more mindful of their language. No-one, regardless of gender and age, is immune to the sting of fat-shaming.
Remember that we never know what someone else is going through. A thoughtless comment on someone’s weight might mean nothing to us, but could be crushing to the recipient.
There’s never a time for such hurtful remarks – least of all during what is supposed to be a happy occasion, like Chinese New Year.