Body image, self esteem, and expiry dates: Asian culture needs to do better

A woman in Xiang Xi, China. (Image taken from unsplash)

By Charlotte Lee

There are several things about Chinese culture that sets it apart from other cultures. For example, Chinese New Year is a traditional holiday abundant in old rituals, get-togethers, and red envelopes. Chinese culture is also unique in its love for calligraphy— not many other cultures are so united in their passion towards a couple of giant black swirls on some white paper. And thanks to the teachings of Confucius, many traditional Chinese grandparents could go on for hours about respecting your elders, a concept that is as emphasized nowhere else. These tendencies of culture are well known and explainable through history.

But there are some tendencies that are more subtle, and less easily explained. For some unknown reason, Chinese aunts, uncles, and grandparents find it bizarrely normal to call people fat.

In fact, they don’t hold back at all. Funnily, sometimes it’s the first thing that they say when you walk into the door after not seeing them for months. It’s usually an offhand comment or perhaps an attempt at a welcome-back-joke, but in its most pure form, it is a problem with body image.

Hundreds of years ago, beauty standards were different. During the Tang dynasty in Ancient China, food scarcity caused appearing well-fed as a sign of wealth and security. Now, it’s not the same. Body image isn’t based off of annual crop yield, rather a combination of unrealistic media portrayal and simply, changing times. So now, rarely do you see Asian plus sized models or hear praise for appearing “well-fed”. Instead, Hong Kong MTR stations are brimming with plastic surgery and slim-waist pill ads. And it’s not just limited to Chinese culture. The South Korean definition of extra-large is the US equivalent of a size 8. While countries across the globe are at least starting to promote plus size models and body positivity, this conversation just isn’t happening as much in East Asia.

A painting of ladies from the Tang dynasty in 8th century China portrays the ideal, plump, beautiful woman according to the standards of the time.

The concept of body image has existed for a long time. Liberalism, feminism, and “political correctness” has pushed it into the spotlight, especially in the western world. Celebrities and fashion companies claim to create “all-inclusive” clothing lines, and face do or die: they either receive immense praise by the public for their success, or are blacklisted and hated on by twitter users for not being able to satisfy the needs of all body types.

But while body positivity is inching its way into gender conversations and the fashion industry, sometimes it’s in the crevices of your own household where negative body standards become insidious. At home, there is no need for filtered opinions or carefully structured debate. And the peculiar nature of Asian culture allows these unrealistic body standards to thrive.

Stereotypical Asian “tiger parents” are known for setting unrealistically high academic standards for their children. Their poor kids are booked from day to night with classes and piano lessons, but manage to excel beyond others. And when they get old enough, they’re herded into high-paying, honorable occupations so that they can create the best opportunity for their kids. And so it goes. Asian parents are described as perfectionists, who will accept nothing less than straight As. The kids must not just be high achieving, but overachieving.

A study of 5200 Asian American and white kids demonstrated that while the tiger parenting affect can have a positive outcome on work ethic and GPA, Asian children tend to have lower self esteem and a more damaged relationship with their perfectionist parents.

This culturally enforced family structure creates breeding ground for kids who perfectly check off the list for risk factors of eating disorders. Low self esteem, feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism, concern for pleasing others, a belief that love from family & friends is dependent on high achievementjust to name a few. With this upbringing, there should be no surprise that in a 2010 study across Chinese, Indo-Asian, and European descent students, Chinese females reported the lowest levels of body satisfaction. It is true, tiger parenting may raise kids who go to more prestigious colleges, or earn more. But the very basis of how they got to that point will always be a foundational flaw in their emotional state.

In 2007, the term 剩女, or “leftover women” became widely used in Chinese media. This refers to the women who have “expired” after age 27 because they haven’t married, deemed undesirables by society. No longer are they eligible bachelorettes and potential wives, but wrinkled, career minded women destined for loneliness.

Citizens were suddenly outraged by the misogynistic term, but the reality is, the idea of an “expiry date” wasn’t new. The term only coined it. And it also marked it incorrectly.

Biologically, women do have an expiry date. Women are born with a certain amount of eggs, and after years of releasing those eggs in menstruation, they run out, which is menopause. Menopause usually hits between age 45 and 55. Men, on the other hand, don’t experience the same thing—they never completely run out of sperm.

So if we were to really talk about an expiry date, women who want to have children would have to get pregnant by age 50. Technically speaking, the expiry date for “leftover women” was marked a whole two decades too early.

Of course, on rare occasions, menopause can come as early as 30, and in that case the “expiry date” is correct. But it can also be as late as 60, and beyond that. So while the “leftover women” term is not only offensive in that it objectifies women and assumes that they only serve one purpose, it is also scientifically very wrong.

The concept of an “expired” woman is not exclusively an Asian ideal, but has its roots in Chinese culture. Even today, The Chinese Communist Party is holding classes to teach women how to become perfect housewives. Women are advised to “hold in [their] bellies”, “relax [their] shoulders”, and put their “legs together”.  

These cultural norms surrounding Asian women contribute to societal pressures on marriage, beauty, and value based on superficial desirability.

Today, Chinese culture is thousands of years old. Like all others, it has a rich history of war, prosperity, art, and is a written primarily by men. Yet perhaps the most unique aspect of Chinese culture is how painfully slowly it moves.