In China, almost no one is what we could call “fat,” at least not by American standards. I don’t want to get too deeply into a speculation about the causes of this, but I think it’s a combination of genetics, great attitude toward group exercise, and chopsticks. The end.
My sister-in-law Tina teaches at a high school in rural Hunan province, and reports than many of her students describe their friends as “a little fat,” even when the friend in question is clearly anything but. I suppose it’s because thinness is the norm here, so any extra pounds attract attention. But it’s not considered rude or cruel, as it would be in the U.S., to point this out—perhaps because hardly anyone in China is actually fat. But I wonder why it’s not a taboo here—where obesity is rare—while it remains a horrible taboo in America—where obesity is endemic. In America, to be overweight is practically common, yet you would never call a pudgy friend “a little fat.” Ever! Here, it’s no big deal. It’d be like calling someone “pale” in America after a long winter spent indoors.
Some recent examples of attention towards body size that caught my attention:
I needed some shorts for our upcoming summer trip. Something sturdy and nylon and not horribly dorky. (Sidenote: this combination does not exist.) So last night I trucked down to the Columbia store, which is also a North Face store (why?), and picked out a not-too-offensive grey pair. Every item on the rack was represented by one size only (US 4), so when I took the chosen shorts up to the counter and asked to try them on, the shop girl looked me up, down and around, and turned to the other shop girl to confer. “We’re gonna need a bigger size!” They turned to me, “How big do you need?” This was uncomfortable question, so I said, “Um, I don’t know.” They looked at each other and took inventory on their computer. Fortunately for this gigantic waiguoren, there were bigger sizes of shorts. The second girl disappeared and returned with the largest pair they had, a US 6, and handed it to me like it was a smelly dog carcass. I retreated to the dressing room, found that the shorts fit great, and changed back into my pants. When I went to pay, the shop girls looked shocked that I could squeeze myself into any item in the store. “They fit??” the first girl asked incredulously. “Yeah,” I replied, trying to be nonchalant. “They’re good.” She took my money dismissively and I thanked her for the body dysmorphic disorder, and then I went home.
Lucky for us, we’ve had lots of visitors these past two weeks. A few days ago, I took my uncle’s Ecuadorian girlfriend, Aracelly, shopping for a qipao, a silk dress. She is, no matter how you slice it, tiny. Small boned and slim, she is easily smaller than many Chinese women. I figured it’d be no problem for her to find a dress on the rack that fit. She picked one she liked, then asked to try it on. “What size?” the shopkeeper inquired. “Small?” she replied, hesitantly. “Small,” I translated to him. He scoffed, gave her slender waist a long look, and took out his tape measure. Upon measuring her, he proclaimed with a satisfied chortle, “Large.” Then he repeated the letter “L” about five times to drive the point home, like this: “Ell, ell, ell, ell, ell.” He pulled a “large” (which was, from an objective perspective, quite small) from the bottom of a stack and gave it to Aracelly to try on. It fit well and looked lovely, and she bought it. The shopkeeper looked smug and repeated, “Ell, ell, ell” as we walked out of the store.