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The Term 'Paper-Thin' Should Not Apply To Waistlines

13/04/2016 9:46 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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The endless pursuit the perfect body has taken a new turn. In China, young women have been posting self-portraits on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, of their shockingly thin waistlines. These women have embarked on the A4 Challenge, a social-media trend where the objective is to be equal to or thinner than the width of an A4 piece of paper. This challenge, along with other eccentric weight-loss fads, presents the overarching issue of body-shaming in modern Chinese society.

This isn't the first time China has seen dangerous dieting trends pressuring young women to have a particular body type. Last year, there was the 'Belly Button Challenge' where people reached behind their backs and around their waist to try and touch their belly button. Then, women took up the the 'iPhone6 Challenge' last month, where they tried to cover their knees with their phones.

As an Australian-Born Chinese, I have acute awareness of body-image trends in both societies. Obsession with dieting is prevalent in the West -- many companies shower customers with promises that their products will guarantee them athletic, lean bodies. Many young girls develop eating disorders because they want to be like the airbrushed images in magazines or advertisements.

But for Asians, the 'ideal body' is a whole different affair. Slim isn't enough -- I need to have a waist so tiny size 10 pants feel baggy.

Non-Asians have expressed envy to me about the natural thinness of Chinese women, presuming that Chinese women can have an appetite like a wolverine, but, thanks to their sensational metabolism, they won't gain a kilo. But in China, as a size eight, I have the chubby label stuck on me. In Chinese school, I wasn't the very thin girl with jet-black, straight hair and a size five shoe, so I stood out like a duck out of the water. I was always known as the 'bulky one' who seriously needed a consultation with Jenny Craig.

Unfortunately, in Chinese culture it's okay for family members or elders to be openly judgemental of someone's weight. I've had dinners with my parents' friends where the friends poked fun at my weight and size. After their belittling remarks, they bragged how their thin daughters had managed to attract boyfriends. I've had moments when they squeezed my shoulders and asked if I was a swimmer because I have 'broad shoulders'. And, recently, one family friend whom we hadn't seen in a long time tactlessly asked me if I lifted weights. At family gatherings there is always awkward conversations and comments about my weight. Almost every time, the greetings are followed by: "Oh you've lost/gained some weight."

And here's one paradoxical factor about Chinese families. Sharing and eating food together is a way of bringing closeness, and one of the usual Chinese greetings is "have you eaten?" In the Chinese table-manners rule book, it isn't polite to have unfinished food in your bowl, so you must finish every grain of rice. But then, the family will shame you with the proverbial weight-gain comments.

In the West, I am considered healthy and a normal weight. In China, I am the hulk. When I visited, it was impossible to find clothes that fit me. There were embarrassing moments when the shopkeepers watched me struggling to squeeze into their XL size.

In the West, there is a growing number of anti-body-shaming campaigns like No Body Shame, to encourage young women to embrace their bodies and appearance. In China however, there isn't much support for girls who suffer silently with self-esteem issues. To top it off, China's state media, Global Times, has defended the A4 Challenge as a "healthy and attainable goal for some women". As China has become a more affluent and capitalist society, there is also a rising number of eating disorders in the country. Young people, particularly women, have become more image-obsessed. The plastic surgery market is booming as more and more Chinese women go under the knife to achieve a 'Western' look.

Family members think it's customary to comment about weight, but they haven't any idea of the impact it has. But we need to remember: beauty standards are fickle. For example, in the Tang Dynasty of China (618AD-907AD), full-bodied women like Imperial Consort Yang Guifei, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, were lauded as beautiful. As beauty standards are always fleeting, we shouldn't look up to them as the prelude to our happiness. Whether we're thin, curvy or somewhere in the middle, there's no such thing as the 'perfect' body.

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