My friend walked into the church from the parking lot. She had just returned home from college and was greeted boisterously by the overseas-born mom of one of her friends. The woman gave my friend a hug and at the same time, blurted out in Chinese:
Wow - looks like you've gained some weight!
All of us present laughed out loud while inwardly cringing. I felt so uncomfortable for my friend. Chalk it up to another case of tactless Chinese people making public comments about a person's body. As part of an immigrant church, I hear Asian parents make these kinds of remarks all the time. And throughout childhood, I've witnessed relatives make rude comments to their younger kin.
You've gotten bigger since the last time I saw you
Have you gained weight?
Or better yet, the back-handed compliment:
Wow - you lost weight. Keep it up.
And the you-can't-win comment:
You're too skinny. You need to eat more.
Or the veiled fat remark:
You're . . ummm. . . <pausing, looking you up and down> . . . healthy.
Or what an immigrant father observed to his adult daughter:
You've got a lot of meat on your back
And the worst:
[not pregnant] "So when is your baby due?"
In Asian culture, one's appearance is a perfectly acceptable conversation topic from the get-go. I've observed Chinese people, who upon meeting a white American for the first time, toss out comments like
You are a BIG man!
You are handsome American
I sense most second generation Asian Americans resent the shaming aspect of their upbringing. We hate this part of our parents' culture. One Asian American therapist sees Asian culture as 100% unloving and toxic.
I don't deny there's dysfunction in the extremes to which Asian culture shames its members. But I wonder if we, as postmodern Westerners, are overly paranoid of fat shaming.
Is fat shaming always toxic?
Does it work?
What if shaming is a helpful by-product of community?
Certain types of shame can be useful
The typical Western Christian response is to condemn fat shaming. After all, shame is toxic. To feel shame is to feel worthless. But that's an over-generalization. Shame is only toxic in certain forms. It doesn't have to relate to identity. You can feel ashamed when you're caught doing something wrong. You can experience shame when someone finds something inadequate about your performance. Shame functions like guilt; alerting us when we've stepped outside a moral/social boundary. Fat shaming can certainly be toxic but it's primarily a message that our appearance has been noted and found wanting.
Shame works because perception matters
Fat shaming messages affect the way we see food, diet, and self-regard. I wonder if that plays a role (more than body type) in motivating Asians from becoming obese, especially the morbid variety. After all, shame is an important factor in behavioral modification. That's why groups like Weight Watchers work - there's a shame in letting down other members of your team. Shame motivates us to change. In toxic forms, it is not a long-term nor healthy motivator. But it works because we care about how others perceive us.
I also appreciate the honesty of fat shaming. Asian culture is often ruthlessly pragmatic. We don't live in a dream world where everyone's a princess on the inside. Appearance matters. So what I appreciate about Asian fat shaming is that you don't have to guess what's important to people. Everyone will judge you behind your back but at least Asian culture has the candor to tell it to your face. I would rather be stabbed in the front than get a knife in the back.
Shame is a by-product of relationship
Shame is only effective in community. You can only shame someone who cares about what other people think. That's what makes community powerful. You can tell a community's values by what it shames. Thus, the toxicity of fat shaming reveals how dependent we are on the approval of others. And yet, it is good for us to feel pain from shame because it shows that the relationship is important to us. That's why, in secure people, shame can be a healthy long-term motivator because we understand how our behavior and habits affect others.
If you have a secure sense of worth, then shaming is an indication that you have transgressed a social norm. Not all pain is evil. The embarrassment does not have reflect your identity. After all, the tone and context of the shaming remark determine its toxicity. And it is up to you determine whether the norm is something you value.
I talked with my friend about her fat shaming experience referenced above. She has a tape that plays in her head of all the fat shaming messages she's heard over the years. The tape is stuck on repeat.
But she is not a prisoner to the tape. None of us are. We don't have to take the voices seriously. We can see the messages as pointers to possible areas of transformation rather than attacks on our identity.