American Culture 101: Size Matters

How would you respond if someone called you fat? Our intern Rachel shares her personal experience learning that beauty has a different meaning in China while studying abroad.

Welcome to our first article dedicated to a new series called American Culture 101. International Student Voice intern Rachel Senkler kicks off our series by sharing her experience in China regarding the meaning of beauty. A very insightful article for both U.S. American and international students. 

Every country has an idea of what is beautiful, and what someone should look like. But what happens when cultures collide? In China, I frequently drew a lot of attention because of my blue eyes and blonde hair. I quickly got used to being stared at and feeling different from those around me, but there are times when “different” can feel pretty ridiculous. I remember going to a tailor in Beijing to have a Qipao, a style of Chinese dress, made for me. I selected a beautiful brocade, and got ready to have my measurements taken. I couldn’t believe how the tailor went on and on describing my “big butt” and “big breasts”, and telling the whole room how “fat” I was! From my perspective being 5’ 6” and 135lbs—I was a perfectly healthy size for an American woman. I retorted in Chinese that American women have curves! The whole scene seemed laughable to me. Clearly, the tailor was not used to dealing with body types that were not Asian, and I recovered from the situation with a laugh and a proud shake of my hips.

The tailor making me a Qipao, a style of Chinese dress.

But sometimes it is not that easy. During my stay in China, I had made friends with two Chinese guys, who truly looked out for me during my stay. I trusted them and counted on them, and to this day I am grateful for their friendship, yet there were moments when we hit cultural barriers. My hometown is famous for its local ice cream, and I took great pleasure in buying icy sweets from the street vendors in Beijing, but my friends would tell me that I should watch what I eat and that I was gaining weight. I had not put on any weight and they would eat the same icy sweets as I did! The first time one of them said this to me, we had been friends for a long time and I was shocked. I felt hurt, but I thought if I explained how Americans view that kind of comment that we could move past this. I told him that people in my country kill themselves in their efforts to lose weight, to meet the expectations of what they think others expect them to look like. From my college experience, I remember a close friend of mine who had a healthy body, who starved herself for two days because her boyfriend said she “needed to lose weight.” I knew girls who worked out on treadmills for hours on end to try to fulfill what the West calls beautiful, and I am well aware of the struggle many American girls and women face as they battle “body image.” When I tried to explain how hurtful these comments were and how offensive these kinds of statements can be, I failed in my efforts to come to an understanding with them. They didn’t think I was being serious and I quickly became angry and frustrated. They would start

One my favorite icy sweet treats, frozen hawthorne on a stick or hawthorne popsicle. Check it out at http://www.gminfo.cn/shop/xiangxi.asp?id=3363

saying those kinds of comments later to get a rise out of me, and they thought my American female rage was slightly endearing. Eventually I realized that this was something they didn’t understand and I had to make a decision: I could either laugh it off and accept their friendship or walk away. I chose to be their friend because they had my best interests at heart and they were like brothers to me, but overcoming this cultural issue was very difficult. If a casual friend had acted this way towards me, I would have made a different decision.

I wanted to share this story with our International readers to show how sensitive this issue can be for Americans. I dealt with the problem in a way that I could accept, but many Americans would find this issue to be too difficult to deal with, preferring to walk away instead of trying to resolve the hurtful situation. If you want to connect to your fellow American students, it may help to avoid discussing weight, body shape, or eating habits. You most likely will find that as a culture we have different ideas about beauty and health, but I think deep down everyone wants to feel loved and appreciated for who they are—instead of what they look like.

Keep reading our American Culture 101 series. Our next article takes a look at eating disorders on American college and university campuses. 

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