Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Body Image: Big Girl in Teensy-Girl Land


My daughter + I. Thailand. 2012.





I'm writing about body image today. This is new for me. It's also a deeply sensitive and personal subject: one I have struggled with since I was a child. This post? It's me being brave.

Many women are not taught how to have a positive body image. There's a lot of body-hating language that goes on. Harmful, self-loathing language often passed down from mother-daughter as though it's some sort of tradition that 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 often help.

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

You may remember this post about my words of the year: ignite and glow. My goal is 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), big girl body-hating syndrome can rear its head on a regular basis if you're not careful.

In Myanmar, you'll stand out a bit if you don't look SE Asian and anything else that makes you different will certainly compound that; for example, if you're big, have light skin, have dark skin, are tall, etc. 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!" I'm still frightened to go to Japan as a result!

It's not uncommon to hear "thin" Western women say 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 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 has 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 SE Asia. That more-than-average noticing can feel tricky if you're not completely loving your full-sized self. If you're an introvert, it just gets trickier.

Being a big/large/fat girl was a concern of mine when moving to Myanmar. I was worried about being made fun of, stared at, pointed at, laughed at, sneered at ... you name it. I even lost 80lbs before moving here (for a variety of different reasons and I still have a lot more to lose).

See, when I lived in Ethiopia those experiences happened. Construction workers near my house sent out cat calls: but not the good kinds. On a daily basis, men yelled after me, laughing, calling me fat in Amharic. It was hurtful, embarrassing, and took quite a toll on me at the time. Knowing the Amharic word for fat wasn't helpful.

It was tough experiencing the teasing. Though I was heavier then than I am now, I hadn't ever 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.

One of my strategies being a big girl moving to Yangon included not ever learning the word for fat in Myanmar language. There have been times I've been quite sure teasing has taken place, but by not knowing the word for fat, I've been able to pretend I can't hear or understand the universal sing-songy tones of voices people use when mocking others. 

I've seemed to avoid self-esteem body-shaming moments here for the most part. There have been times I've been pleasantly surprised, actually. If you're big, you learn to be sensitive towards certain types of smiles on people's faces that may indicate forthcoming judgment or teasing. Occasionally, I've been sure a cashier or hair dresser was about to make fun of me following a wry smile, but instead, have been told, "You're very beautiful." These incidents have shocked me, made me straighten up my back a bit, and feel slightly ashamed I assumed they were judging me.

Still, there have been some unpleasant incidents in Yangon; recently, I shared a taxi with a friend and  when we got in, the driver's immediate response was (after negotiating the cost) "WOW! You are REALLY fat!"  I felt humiliated. It took every ounce of energy for me to not get out of the taxi simply based on principle. And maybe I should've.

Being called fat in SE 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 from locals like, "Your face is looking fat."

In some countries, being told you're big can be a compliment. I sense 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's not been easy though; my ever-too-common I-don't-like-my-body self-speak blurts out. 

Westerners - for the most part - know that in our cultures, just bringing up 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. Disarming. Frustrating.

Yet, there has been a surprising - not fully negative - element to being called out on the fat carpet living here. It's oddly helping 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 realizing acknowledging your 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 words like fat. I mean: acceptance for who you are. Acceptance and gratitude for your body and what it gives to you. Even if it isn't your ideal body.

This is 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, tell our bodies we're grateful for it, 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 (even if they don't bend or function perfectly), we're not sending positive messages to ourselves. We're not recognizing 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 which is allowing me to be honest with myself and instead of bashing up my body verbally with negative self-talk, I'm learning to appreciate it.

Our bodies get us from point A to point B. They carry us. Allow us to breathe. Walk. I can wrap my arms around my kid and give her a hug. Our bodies have this amazing thing - 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.


42 comments:

  1. Interesting to hear you say a cab driver said you were fat. A friend that is probably a US size 18 lived in Taiwan for a couple of years & was telling us that something like that is about as common as saying "how are you liking this weather." So strange for us westerners! I too have had such a time with negative body image, so I celebrate you writing about it...and taking away its power! I hope we all can focus on being joyful, being healthy and being kind to each other!

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    1. Michelle, thank you for your comments. I think there are some SE Asian countries fairly well known for being much more vocal to larger people. I've heard that in Cambodia, for example, it's pretty common. I don't get as much in Myanmar as other people do traveling in other countries. ;)

      Thank you re: taking away its power. I'm trying to do exactly that. :)

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  2. I take my hat off to you for posting this beautiful positive piece of writing. I am a small-framed middle-aged lady ( I wear UK size 8 ) and I should say compared to my contemporaries, I admit I am blessed to be still in a good shape. Still people say I have gained weight or lost weight etc. People do talk about weight too openly here even though we have a Burmese expression if I may translate " you are beautiful as you gain weight " ( you may not have told by Burmese nationals here but in Burmese we say " Hla loh, wa loh ". Hla means pretty and wa means you have become a little plumpy. So I admire your attitude about how we should feel about our bodies whether we are thin or slim or plumpy or fat. The taxi driver who said you were fat is totally rude even from a Burmese point of view.

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    1. Dear Haymar,
      Thank you for stopping by and leaving such a lovely comment. So appreciated! And you're right: we should be grateful and appreciative of our bodies no matter our size ... and yes, that totally includes those who are thin, too! :)

      Thanks for the comment re: the taxi driver. I thought it might be considered pretty rude for here because it hadn't ever happened before - at least not that I knew of (since he said it in English). It is actually helpful to know that. :) Thank you, Haymar!

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    1. Sorry that my comments were shown twice due to some technical hitches and I deleted the extra one myself.

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  4. Countryside of Myammar is one of best countries of the world. I'd appreciate if you cover its counttryside.

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    1. Hi Majid! Thanks for your comment. I love the countryside in Myanmar, too. Is there a certain area you'd like me to write about? :)

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  5. Great post! Thanks for being transparent and sharing this. It's very encouraging to all women; big or small.

    Blessings in your journey to love yourself!

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    1. Thank you, Dena. I appreciate you stopping by + leaving a comment. :) Agreed: we all, hopefully, can learn to love our bodies whether thin or not. :)

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  6. Oh Becky!

    I feel like crying! I too (like many other North American woman) have been self-criticizing myself for awhile now. I can't even imagine having someone tell you that you're fat! I can't imagine how it must feel.

    One thing is for sure - you are a strong woman! I think this post (you being brave)can help so many woman to love themselves.....thank you!

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    1. Awww. Thank you for stopping by. And thank you for sharing my post on your FB page. :) (I saw that and was really touched.)

      Thanks for your sweet words. :) Now I need to really, really, deep down absorb what I have written! lol That's the tricky part, isn't it?

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  7. Love this post Becky! Thank you for writing and sharing!!!!

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  8. Beautifully written and incredibly brave. I love that you focused on being grateful for how amazing our bodies are. So inspiring.

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  9. Becky, I saw you post on FB that you were going to be publishing a post on this topic. I didn't want to miss it. I have my own inner struggles and demons when it comes to my body image. I admire your courage that you have and in sharing about your journey. I am so sorry to hear all that you've had to endure this last while. That is so NOT right that people would comment or laugh, that is rude and not acceptable. I appreciate you helping us see that we need to be grateful for our body exactly the way it is in this present moment, and to see just how special and precious we are. Blessings!! xo

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    1. It's a tough issue. I'm sorry that it's one you've struggled with as well. It's not a fun thing to deal with at all. Sending you lots of love, Suzanne. <3

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  10. This is an amazing blog post! I can relate to this 100%. I too, am large and know what our own self talk can do to our self-esteem. I can't imagine someone saying that I was fat to my face...the New Yorker in me, probably would go into "fight" mode!!! The introvert me, would just die inside... It's only been the last two years, that I've accepted my body type and loving myself for who I am, and just being healthy is my goal. Thanks for being such a warm, open and awesome woman, Becky! :)

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    1. Ha! Love that New Yorker in you, Indigene! <3 Yes - but the innie side takes in all that hurt, doesn't it. There was a big smile on my face reading that you've come to accept your body type over the last few years. Yes, healthy is a good goal. And what healthy physically looks like can be different for different people. Thank you for your lovely comment. <3

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  11. Great post! I know what you mean by this. I'm originally from Yangon and I'm really tall and big for Myanmar standard size. Sometimes, I feel like people are being inconsiderate about what the other people might feel if they said it. There are times, I talk back at some people for their appearance and make them understand what would make them feel if I comment about something similar. I think, personally, people in Myanmar, should understand what to talk and what not to talk about it if in every standard can be rude. Thanks for posting this! I really enjoying reading this and i went through the whole thing personally! :)

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    1. Perhaps it would be interesting for locals to understand that these words can be hurtful to others. I'm sorry that you've had to go through that, Midnite. Not fun at all.

      Thank you so much for posting your comment. <3

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  12. Becky, I love this post and thank you for writing it with such honesty. Ironically, when I look at that picture of you at the top of the post, I see a beautiful smile, gorgeous skin and shampoo-ad hair!

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    1. Awww, Sara. You know how to brighten a girl's day! <3 Thank you!

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  13. Great post, Becky. You ARE a beautiful person inside and out. This post hits home for so many people, I think, even regardless of size/weight. I am pretty comfortable with my body, but like everyone there are parts of me I have to remind myself to love no matter how "imperfect" they are. While I am happy with my size as it is now, when I am 10 pounds lighter, or 15 heavier, I am always shocked at how comfortable other people feel commenting on my weight, if or how it has changed, and whether or not they think I look healthy. It also bothers me for the sake of my children (K especially) to be witness to those conversations as I do not want them to think the way we look to others is so important. I feel like unless there is genuine and sincere concern for a person's health, the weight issue/comments/thoughts are pretty irrelevant and not useful at all.
    Love you! Nik

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    1. I love you, too, Nikki. Will be so great to see you - soon! Thank you for your sweet comment. It's crazy to me that people would comment on your appearance based on 10 - 15 lbs! Makes me annoyed for you! I get what you're saying re: K, too. That's a whooolllle other subject, isn't it? (I've just been realizing that me telling F that 'fat' isn't a polite word - yet her recognizing that I am - maybe not be a healthy thing...that she may think I am ashamed of myself; so we've had some chats about that recently!) Not an easy subject!

      Love you!

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  14. Great post! I worked with a health coach last year in order to lose weight. I didn't lose any weight but I did gain something far more important...acceptance. I finally accepted who I am and the body that I am in. I eat well, I exercise, my body is healthy, and I am fat. (I can't believe I just wrote "I am fat"!). I have wobbly bits. I have recently taken up garment sewing and it has been a shock to see that my store bought size 16 body is beyond plus size in most pattern measurements. Which just reinforces that size is just a number...it is different wherever you are and it is in no way an indication of who you are and should not determine self worth.

    PS - I still would have cried in the cab...so kudos to you for being a such a strong (and brave) individual!

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    1. Hi Kristin -
      Thanks for your comment - it was really interesting to learn that with the health coach, you didn't lose weight, but that you grew to accept yourself. That's beautiful + super inspiring. :) Yay, you!

      <3

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  15. You're an awesome, brave and beautiful woman! I so appreciate your vulnerability and courage to share this issue...it shine a light and brings awareness to something that truly needs healing in our world. We're so afraid of being real and honest and also of being who we are without apologies. People can be so cruel and heartless because they're so tuned out, trapped by the false perception that we are separate beings rather than all connected. I know that it took a lot for you to step out of the shadows and write about this...it makes you a much better writer for doing so. Kudos to you and may the universe reward you with endless opportunities to write and celebrate who you are! I hope one day to meet you in person :-)

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    1. Oh, thank you Victoria! Thanks for bringing up that we're actually all connected and that so by hurting one another - we're hurting so many! I hope we can meet, too. :)

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  16. You ARE beautiful, Becky and I love this post. I struggle with this issue as well and honest talk about it is so helpful. Big hugs to you!

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    1. Aww. Thank you, Shelly. So are YOU! Feeling happy that you liked the post. <3 Lots of love to you.

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  17. As most have said, you have great courage. As women we all struggle with our body image and it is SO important for acceptance, no matter what our size, wobbly-bits and all. I myself struggle with this on an almost daily basis, especially when I am running around in the morning trying to find something to wear, haha. You are an amazing, beautiful woman and thank you for sharing.

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    1. Hi Renee - so many of us (regardless of size) do struggle with this, don't we. I get the whole trying to find something to wear thing. :) Thank you for your sweet comment.

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  18. As a "fat" girl I can intimately relate to the struggle to accept our bodies, perhaps even going beyond just acceptance and actually embrace the bodies we have. I have self-loathed, hated my body, and avoided life at times based upon the self image I carried with me daily! About 7 years ago I started a journey of positive self acceptance...no matter what this body looked like. When I started to focus on self-love and care, then love and care happened. Perfection and comparing myself to others was no longer on the agenda and I decided to quit wasting time with anything other than a healthy focus! I am better at embracing the gift of a healthy body...but still have times of "Old Tapes"...old voices that scream out negative messages that I must fight to keep at bay!
    I always enjoy reading about your adventures around this world. (Often with a bit of envy :-)) I am amazed at your curiosity, vision, and bravery. I appreciate your candor and honesty when it comes to body image...on that subject, you and I have so much in common. Thank you for sharing this intimate subject on your blog. It makes me realize that I'm not the only one who has these same issues. Knowing that others struggle, in some ways makes me stronger in my daily struggle of embracing this imperfect...bumpy...lumpy...and sticky outy body. You are so beautiful...to me.
    Blessings to you Becky!
    <3 Danee'

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    1. What? You're a fat girl, Danee? I never even knew. <3 I so loved reading your story. It is inspiring. Yes! We have to stop comparing ourselves to others. Why that is so hard, I don't know. But is sure is. Thank you for your kind, generous comments. <3

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  19. Thank you Becky. Tonight I watched myself perform on stage. It was a video taken of a show a group of women here did to raise money for local charities. I am a big girl and often hate seeing pictures of myself. So when I first came on stage I noticed that I was the biggest woman on the stage and winced a bit. And then I watched myself and a I saw me dance, and smile and sing and talk to the audience...and I saw such beauty, such radiance, such presence...how could I not love her...how could I not love me. And as for those who will be cruel, who will judge me negatively for my size...it is such a shame they can't see what is really in front of them. Love you Becky...keep shining!

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    1. Love, you, too, L. <3 Seriously, your story nearly made me choke up. How beautiful is THAT?! YES! You ARE beautiful, radiant and so full of amazing presence of love. You are. OH! I love how you asked yourself how you couldn't love her...you! That is so beautiful.

      There are always going to be those who can't accept our bodies or see us. Or maybe they say they see us, but our bodies get in the way and they're unhappy with how we are. I'm starting to realize more and more that's THEIR issue: not mine. Or yours. Or anyone's. They need to go deal with themselves.

      Love you.

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  20. Beautiful writing. I see you. You are brave.

    Thanks for being vulnerable and writing about a topic so laden with shame, self-hatred and negativity. I, too, have had to learn to accept myself as I am NOW (plus-sized) and it is simply freeing. It was a difficult acceptance journey because I wasn't always overweight, but it crept up on me after multiple surgeries. Regardless, learning to stay in the moment and accept myself NOW was key. May you continue to be brave and IGNITE and GLOW. Your writing is powerful, healing and timely for many of us.

    Thank you, Becky!

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    1. :Sniff:: Thank you, Jane. <3 Thank you for your beautiful words. I am so happy that you are now accepting your body for how it is now. <3

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  21. Dear Becky,

    Your gift is in sharing personal issues. Hmmm, they can't be so personal after all when so many of us can relate!! I love your words 'ignite' and 'glow'. I'm giving you a new one to put in your pocket. . . .just for special times when you need a little punch in the day. It's ROAR! Yup, look in the mirror, smile that beautiful smile, toss that thick shiny hair and ROARRRRR! :)

    Hugs! Becky RedBarn

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  22. Beautiful post Becky! Today my 3 year old daughter (who doesn't speak English) was singing Alanis Morissette's cover of "My humps" while she was playing with her Cinderella and Snow White dolls (with the Barbie-shaped bodies), that cracked me up... we do have "lovely lady lumps"!

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