Hello, my name is Ila Campbell and I am obese. I weigh 150 pounds.
If you’re going, “Wha~?” you’re not the only one. I’ve had this label hanging over me for the last 10 years and still haven’t gotten used to it. And no, it’s not a label I’ve given myself – it’s not a “Look at me, I’m so FAT!” self-delusion. Not negative self-image.
What I am, is living in a country where the average dress size is a 2. I wear a 10-12 and I cannot buy clothes in Korea. I’m not exaggerating. I am an XXL here and 99% of dress stores do not carry these sizes.
I’m going to try to be completely objective here. I’ll admit I’m overweight. When I was in my twenties, the absolute lowest I could weigh without it affecting my health was 125 lbs. I’m only 5’3”, but I have “child-bearing hips,” a large rib cage and an honest-to-God bosom. I’m 38 now, and have two kids, so there’s no way in the world I will ever be 125 again since I have no wish to train for a decathlon. So let’s add 10 lbs to that figure. 135 would be my ideal weight, so 15 lbs. would do it. I’d be happy with 10.
Understanding this, I’ve improved my diet, and lost about 3 inches around my waist. Not a single pound however.
So drastic measures are called for. I must start (gasp!) exercising again. I need to tighten, tone, and get to a place where I feel healthier and thus WANT to exercise more. So when I see a pilates studio open practically across the street last week, I join up.
Last night I had my first class. When you join, you have to be weighed and have your body mass index (BMI) put down in your file. So I weigh in and get shocked looks from the instructor (who, incidentally would tip the scales at 95 soaking wet, if that). “You must diet and exercise,” she tells me in Korean like I’m going to develop diabetes on the spot. “Don’t eat anything after class. No colas.”
I guess I’m getting used to this. I just nodded without telling her that I rarely eat snack foods, avoid fried foods, I never eat anything after 9 pm and the only cola I’ve had for months was Diet Coke. Then she starts in on my BMI. I cracked a little and explained to her that BMI is calculated differently for Asians than Westerners. (It’s true, ask a doctor who deals with both types of patient. According to the Asian chart, my ideal weight is 100 lbs, which – barring some horrible illness or death – I will never be.)
Well, toothpick instructor obviously didn’t buy this. But still, humiliation over, we lined up in our spots and went through the exercises. Being right behind the instructor and having my first class she logically kept an eye on me. I saw grudging acceptance that I actually had the muscles to perform the exercises.
At one point, she came around to correct my posture and jabbed me in the ribs. Not on purpose – she had thought her fingers were going to sink into all the fat covering my ribs, but hit bone instead. Yeah, that’s right baby, that’s bone, there.
Now this is not really a rant, though it might look like it. It got me to thinking about how people perceive things like weight in different cultures and their different reactions to it. When I lived in Malaysia, for example, the Malays and Chinese had the same reaction to my weight (though I weighed 125 then), though they would never, ever say so to my face. Indian men, however, were all over me. Rounded hips and breasts were the ideal type in their culture.
In America, I’m normal. Petite, even. I can buy clothes off the rack with a good success rate. The newest statistics show that the average dress size in America is now a 14.
Koreans have never had any problem pointing out my weight. Total strangers will tell me I should exercise more. My husband’s family will pull food away from me and tell me I’m dieting. Clothing store clerks will see me come in the door and greet me with, “We don’t have large sizes.” Little children will point and say, “Look at the fat lady.”
I’ve vented about this to friends, and they invariably answer, “I could never live there!” And when it hits me smack in the face I sometimes think that, too. But then I remember the intention behind the remarks. Korean culture has a group mentality. When someone is making suggestions about your weight it is generally out of a genuine concern for a person’s health. Overweight equals unhealthy in their society. Rather than coming from the perspective “You’re fat, lazy and unattractive, go fix it,” they mean, “You need to take better care of yourself or you’ll get sick and we wouldn’t want that.” (Okay, maybe that’s not what the little kids are thinking, but kids are kids, right?) They feel they are doing you a service to make you aware of your problem, and it is their duty to point it out.
We’ll see if this attitude holds. The diet is Korea is changing to more meat, dairy and wheat products – exactly those products that have shaped the muscle and bone structure of their Western counterparts. Junior high and elementary girls are developing bigger hips, larger busts and more muscle on their frames than their predecessors. Clothing designs will have to be cut differently for the next generation. Attitudes toward shape may change.
So I’ll try to keep in mind that my self-image is both more realistic and more important than what my Asian neighbors might think and remember that their comments come from concern. I’ll do my pilates and eat sensibly in order to be as healthy as I can be, without allowing others’ opinions to deflate my ego.
I’ll even forgive toothpick instructor, since she also looked at my birth date and said there was no way I could be thirty-eight!
A girl may need to be impervious to slights, but never to flattery!