Culture Clash: What If Calling Someone Fat Wasn't An Insult?

Illustration for article titled Culture Clash: What If Calling Someone Fat Wasn't An Insult?

Daniel Krieger, an American teacher in Japan, is surprised when his female Japanese friends start commenting on his weight, saying things like, "You look fatter "Chotto futtota?" (Have you become a little fatter?), and "Did you gain your weight?"

Although Krieger, who tells his story in the New York Times magazine, has never worried much about his weight, their comments make him understandably self-conscious.

After borrowing a Winnie-the-Pooh scale from a neighbor under the pretext of weighing "something," I stood facing my bathroom's full-length mirror and mounted it. Above Pooh-san's serene, smiling face and the overflowing honey pot he held in his paws, the red digits on the scale's display climbed and flashed and finally settled. I was 21 pounds over my "official" weight.


But contrary to what he thinks, this isn't the tragedy - or the grievous insult - he's imagined. A friend clues him in.

"Oh, yeah," he said, "when I first came to Japan I couldn't believe how women teased me about being chubby, poking me and whatnot." But he said he figured out that it wasn't a put-down or an insult but actually more of a playful thing. "When they say a man has gained weight, it implies he's got someone new in his life," he said. "Some woman is feeding him and making him feel comfortable enough to let himself go a little. It makes him look healthy, because he's happy."...My Japanese tutor later told me that there's even a term for this - shiawase butori, "happily plump." It took me a while to get used to the concept, but over the next few weeks I began to think of my augmentation not as fat but as the stateliness of a bon vivant who defiantly shows the world he can suck the marrow - and the fatty tuna - out of life without fretting about caloric content.

In some ways, this playful attitude towards weight seems counterintuitive in a culture that, in the last few years, has instituted government-mandated weight standards to combat the spread of "metabo," or "metabolic syndrome." Eating disorders are on the rise amidst young Japanese women and in general a western attitude towards weight has followed close on the heels of western beauty ideals - and western junk food. But does this acceptance of shiawase butori extend to both sexes? Would a woman comment on another woman's weight gain with the same levity? I'm really interested to know - because hereabouts, while a man's gut is perfectly acceptable (some would say, fashionable!) and a man's ego can, in the popular imgination, survive a jibe at his physique - such a thing would be absolutely verboten if addressed to a woman, an implicit condemnation. When we talked about the alleged "gut trend" in young men, readers were quick to point out that such a fad would never be sanctioned amongst women; is the dichotomy as stark here? Is this attitude indicative of healthy acceptance - or ingrained double-standards? This is a charming piece - but it leaves me wanting to know more of the story.


A Weighty Matter [NY Times]
Eating Disorders on the Increase in Asia [Dimensions]
Japan, Seeking Trim Waists, Measures Millions [NY Times]
Changes In The Physiques Of Japanese Women [My Nippon]
Metabolic Syndrome May Affect 1 In 3 Japanese [WhatJapanThinks]

Earlier: New Trend: The Gut

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I don't want to stereotype, but my mother is Japanese and she is consumed with everyone's weight, male or female. She measures your happiness by how fat you are. There isn't a conversation that goes by where she doesn't say, "I saw so-and-so and she's so skinny." Or "I ran into so-and-so and he's so fat."

It's such a cultural thing that her and her friends can have a whole conversation speculating about whether or not you're pregnant even when you're in the same room. It took a long time for me to convince her that this isn't a compliment.