Friday, August 18, 2017

Big girl in Myanmar

Becky Cavender describes her journey to self-acceptance in a country where females are particularly petite.

Becky Cavender.Becky Cavender.

Fat! I am so fat!” How many times have you thought that when you faced yourself in the bathroom mirror? Or maybe you’ve just avoided the mirror altogether. I know I’m guilty (on both counts) but telling myself I’m fat or avoiding the issue has not helped create a positive body image.

Body-hating attitudes and words assail us constantly. Harmful, self-loathing language is often passed down from mother to daughter as though it’s a tradition – as though all girls should pick apart their bodies in nasty, disrespectful ways. Girlfriends perpetuate this self-hate language. It’s so common that it’s part of our background noise: We just accept it. The media doesn’t help.

I’m not immune to this language, especially since I’m no skinnie-minnie. Far from it.

At the beginning of the year I adopted the words “ignite” and “glow” as my touchstones for the next twelve months. My goal was to ignite a sense of deep self-love, self-care, and body acceptance. Living in a region of the world where most people are described as very thin (in comparison to Europeans/Americans/Pacific peoples) means that big girl body-hating syndrome can rear its head on a regular basis.

In Myanmar, you’ll stand out a bit if you don’t look Southeast Asian, and anything else that makes you different will certainly compound that. For example, if you’re big, have light skin, or dark skin, or if you’re tall, you’ll generate more than the average amount of attention. Tourism is growing and many expats are moving here, but it’s not so diverse that you can be anonymous and blend in.

Many Westerners are large compared to people from this region of the world. We’re usually taller, wider, thicker and bigger breasted (if you happen to have breasts). One of my very petite friends told me after a trip to Japan, “I felt like a giant there!” Oh my gosh! If my tiny friend felt like a giant there, I don’t dare go to Japan!

It’s not uncommon to hear “thin” Western women say that it’s a challenge to buy clothes off the rack in many stores here. Clothes are simply tailored for smaller frames and in the rare case that you can buy plus-sized clothes, you’re actually looking at average US/UK/AUS sizes: Basically, if you’re larger than a size 6 or 8, you’re considered plus-sized. So, what’s it like if you’re a real plus-sized person living in this region? What if you’re one of the millions who have struggled with negative body image?

When your body has bulges and sticky-out bits like mine, you will get noticed more than the average Jane. It’s part of traveling or living in Southeast Asia. That “more-than-average” noticing can feel tricky if you don’t completely love your full-sized self. If you’re an introvert (like me), it just gets trickier.

Being a big/large/fat girl was a concern when I moved to Myanmar. I was worried about being made fun of, stared at, pointed at, laughed at, sneered at ... you name it. I even lost 36 kilograms before moving here (for a variety of reasons and I still have a lot more to lose).

When I lived in Ethiopia, I had precisely those experiences I worried about. Construction workers near my house called out when they saw me – and not the good kind of shout-outs. Men yelled after me, laughing and calling me fat in Amharic (the local language). It was hurtful, embarrassing, and took quite a toll on me.

Because I knew the Amharic word for “fat”, I was aware of exactly what they were saying – and knowing they were calling me “fat” did nothing for my self-esteem.

The teasing was tough. Although I was heavier back then than I am now, I’d never been teased (to my face) when I lived in the USA or UK. I’ve never been thin, but I seemed to miraculously avoid the taunts that many obese people experience. Learning how to handle the stares, mocks and teases was hard and negatively impacted my already negative body image.

I didn’t want a rematch in Myanmar. Because I was a big girl moving to Yangon, my strategies included not learning the word for “fat” in the Myanmar language. I’m quite sure there have been times I’ve been teased, but by not knowing the word for fat, I’ve been able to pretend I can’t hear or understand the universal sing-song tone of voice people use when mocking others. 

For the most part, I’ve avoided self-esteem body-shaming moments here. I’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised. If you’re big, you learn to be sensitive towards certain types of smiles on people’s faces that may indicate imminent judgment or teasing. Occasionally, I’ve been sure a cashier or hair dresser was about to make fun of me after giving me a wry smile, but instead, they’ve said, “You’re very beautiful.” These incidents have shocked me, made me straighten up my back a bit, and feel slightly ashamed that I assumed they were judging me.

Still, some unpleasant incidents occurred in Yangon; recently, I shared a taxi with a friend and when we got in, the driver’s immediate reaction was, “WOW! You are REALLY fat!” I felt humiliated. It took every ounce of energy to not get out of the taxi – just as a matter of principle. Maybe I should have.

Being called fat in Southeast Asia isn›t necessarily a negative thing. It’s quite acceptable here to talk about people’s size. Commonly, locals will greet each other and make comments on the other person’s weight.  Many average-sized expats get regular feedback about their size like, “Your face is looking fat.”

In some countries, being told you’re big can be a compliment. My sense is that it’s not necessarily a compliment here, but rather an observation (perhaps without much judgment). I’ve been trying to learn, with great trepidation, to accept this cultural aspect of living here. It has not been easy; my ever-too-common I-don’t-like-my-body self-speak blurts out.

Most Westerners know that in our cultures, just mentioning the weight/size of another person is considered offensive and rude. So, when you’re told (as if you didn’t know it) that you’re fat – to your face – by a stranger, it’s weird. It’s also disarming and frustrating.

Yet, there has been a surprising and not fully negative element to being called out on the fat carpet. It has helped me stand in my skin with my head held a bit higher.

Confused? Well, first of all, I am fat. So, it’s not like anyone’s lying when they tell me I am. And as I focus on growing self-love, I’m realising that acknowledging my body for what it is right now is an important step towards acceptance.

I’m not talking about the kind of acceptance where you accept all the negative, warped messages wrapped around the word fat. I mean, acceptance for who you are.

Here’s the thing: we might not look like other people’s ideal. Hell, we might not even come close to our own ideal. Regardless, we must be kind to ourselves and tell our bodies we’re grateful for them, despite our lumps, bumps, and sticky-out bits. If we can’t feel a sense of gratitude for our bodies exactly the way they are and for how amazing they truly are, we’re not sending positive messages to ourselves. We’re not recognising that we’re special and precious: imperfect bodies and all.

Strangely, living in Myanmar is helping me learn to respect my body regardless of how I look because I’m more aware of my size, even when that feels uncomfortable; but it’s that very awareness that is allowing me to be honest with myself, and instead of tearing down my body with negative self-talk, I’m learning to appreciate it.

Our bodies get us from point A to point B. They carry us. They allow us to breathe – to walk. I can wrap my arms around my child and give her a hug. Our bodies have these amazing things called nerves, which enable us to feel and experience touch. So why should I – or you – get all mean on ourselves?

When you think about it, we’re pretty amazing. Go love your bumps and have a beautiful day. I plan on loving mine, starting with what I see in the mirror.