Beauty standards are ridiculous and frustrating all over the world, but Japan can be an especially difficult place to live for people with curvier and more voluptuous figures. Since moving here, I’ve lost about 15-20 pounds due to making some extreme lifestyle changes, and I am incredibly proud of my hard work. While there are still a few goals I am working toward, I feel happier and more energized. However, that doesn’t stop the inappropriate remarks from colleagues or rude stares at the gym, nor does it help me squeeze into certain clothes in the fitting room. So how can people who “don’t fit” into the very narrow range of beauty in Japan learn to embrace and love themselves?
My weight has been a point of insecurity throughout my (and almost everyone else’s) entire life. From childhood, I always had a slightly larger frame than the other kids. Like all the beautiful and intelligent women on my mother’s side, I carry any extra weight in my butt and thighs. I realize that to many of you, this sounds like a blessing. Thanks to a shift in pop culture, the Kardashians, and a recent push for body positivity in the West, having a bigger booty and fuller hips is no longer the crime it once was. But I still vividly recall the hot tears pouring out of my eyes as I locked myself in a bathroom stall before P.E at twelve-years-old because a mean girl made a snide remark about my backside. (Why are middle schoolers so vicious??) As a result of that and several other bullying instances, I started my first diet which was very restrictive and not safe for a growing child. Oh, if only I’d had the courage to stand up for myself back then like I do now. Sorry, Olivia, but I rocked those pink shorts! And if only I’d started to learn to love myself for my bright personality, weird quirks, and desire to help people instead of being so focused on what I saw in the mirror. But better late than never!
Anyways, over the past few years, I’ve really pushed myself to develop my self-esteem so I can love and honor my body for all its curves, stretch marks, and dimples. Almost all of us have one if not all of these extra accessories, and they make our bodies unique and special. Now, this is not to say we cannot desire to change and grow or work hard to achieve new goals for our health. Of course, we can! Just before I came to Japan, I realized I had stopped prioritizing myself and, as a result, my weight had crept back up on me. In early 2019, I was about 180-185 pounds and suffered from persistent hormonal acne and fatigue. My sleep schedule was a mess, and I relied on alcohol and parties to escape my depression and anxiety. I knew I needed to make a change, and Japan was the catalyst. However, even though I put in the work and got down to a healthier weight, I still face constant criticism from the people around me and the media.
On average, Japanese people are naturally a bit smaller. Women are typically more petite and have smaller breasts with narrower hips. Please note there is nothing wrong with this body type; all bodies are beautiful!! However, the pressure to conform to a rigid ideal of beauty is toxic and unhealthy. The “lucky” men and women who meet these harsh standards face pressure to maintain their looks even if doing so brings about unnecessary harm and stress. Japanese people and foreigners alike are bombarded daily with ads and messages that idealize a certain body type. There is a mindset that thinness equals beauty and hard work while “fatness” equals laziness and ugliness.
Since high school, I have worn clothing sizes ranging from a US 8-16. During my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I weighed about 150 pounds. After surviving a very difficult period in 2015, I reached my heaviest weight at about 190 pounds and wore a size 16. At that point in time, my wardrobe consisted almost solely of Aerie yoga pants and hoodies. It’s important to note that at both of these weights, I felt insecure about my body and often wore baggy clothes to hide my shape. I did not love myself properly or care for myself very well. Most days, I turned to food for emotional comfort or ate fast food because I was too tired and apathetic to cook for myself. Thank goodness things have changed.
Now, I am comfortable between 160-165 pounds and wear a size 10 or M/L clothing in the US. While I still have some “bad mirror” days where my thoughts can become a bit too critical, my body image has definitely improved over time. However, it’s something I’ve had to consistently work on especially since moving abroad. In Japanese stores that do carry larger sizes like Uniqlo, I am anywhere from an L-XXL depending on the cut of the material. I do most of my shopping at foreign stores like Zara and American Eagle. I’ve had great success with GAP back home, but in Japan, they unfortunately only carry up to a size 8 in women’s pants. Most cute Japanese boutiques are free size (one size fits all) but I can assure you nothing there fits me. I’ve tried on multiple clothes only to realize they are too short or restrictive against my breasts. Bras don’t work at all, and I must order those from Amazon. I’ve squeezed into a pair of pants that fit so tight I couldn’t sit down even if I sucked in my stomach. Buttons regularly don’t button or zippers don’t zip. If I need new clothes it can be exhausting and overwhelming to figure out where I’ll obtain them. Sure, there are always online stores and overseas brands that carry a somewhat wider range of options, but it can be exhausting when the culture you are in does not place a priority on making clothing that fits and complements a variety of body types. It can be hard not to become self-loathing and obsessed with the numbers both on the scale and on the calorie label of your afternoon snack. A trainer at my local gym kindly told me I was obese. An older man from my hiking club remarked with grandfatherly concern I should probably lose some weight. I’ve overheard colleagues say since I’m the largest woman in the office, I should eat the least rice during lunch. Those comments sting. But I choose not to let them get to me.
If you are a beautiful, curvy person in Japan, remind yourself every day that what you are doing here has nothing to do with your weight. Can you do your job well? Can you have coffee with friends? Can you enjoy the culture, the parks, and shrines? If the answer is yes, then congratulations, your clothing size doesn’t matter. (But just between you and me, even if the answer is no, it still doesn’t matter!) Tell yourself every day you are beautiful and confident even if you don’t necessarily believe it. It takes a strong person to move across the world and start a life in a completely foreign place. Be proud of everything you’ve achieved!
If you need some more inspiration on how to love yourself when you’re feeling insecure, here is a list of things I do to keep my body image in check!
- Keep shopping trips that involve trying on clothes to a minimum.
- Order clothes online to try on at home.
- Write down and say positive affirmations daily. Example: “I am beautiful today!”
- Watch and follow body positive Youtube and Instagram accounts. The F*ck It Diet on Instagram is great.
- Unfollow accounts that make me feel bad or negative toward myself.
- Eat fruits and vegetables daily.
- Journal about my feelings.
- Take daily walks.
- Stretch and exercise if able.
- Enjoy nature and the local community.
- Listen to empowering music and podcasts.
- Wear clothes that make me feel good and flatter my body type.
- Make lists of all the things that define me that aren’t physical.
- Do something creative when my mind starts to go to a dark place.
- Get off social media when I’m feeling anxious or down.
- Ignore comments made about my weight or appearance.
I hope this helps in some way. If you’ve ever felt discouraged about your appearance while in Japan, please feel free to share your experience below. I’d also love to hear any tips you might have! Thank you for reading.