In the Arctic Summer School at Lapland University of Applied Science (Shameless Plug), we have many different nationalities. The 33 students hail from many different parts of the globe, however, we have a sizeable portion of the class from Eastern Asia. Of course, beauty standards differ in various areas.
For example, in the US, we have been making movements that support body positivity with #Effyourbeautystandards in an attempt to embrace beauty of all sizes, or the natural hair movement to encourage women to love the hair you are born with. Many more movements exist and more pop-up with increasing popularity, all with an attempt to make beauty a more inclusive term. Eastern Asian countries, in my experience, tend to steer toward a specific standard of beauty that promotes thin bodies and pale skin.
Not only is that a cultural norm, it appears that it is public scrutiny of your appearance is common, particularly in the family structure or with people you are closer to. I was told that mothers can easily tell their children they are fat, or need to stop eating so much, or to stay out of the sun out of love. In the US, we would easily consider that to be emotional abuse and unbelievably rude.
You can only imagine my reaction, when a classmate come to me, and while feeling my arms says that they are “fluffy like a marshmallow.” When I expressed how that was kind of offensive, the response was “It’s cute!” This is the same classmate that disclosed her mother’s tendencies to criticize her body. I was definitely ticked off and more than a little bit upset that someone who I felt close to would make such a rude and insensitive comment.
This point was noted again when a second classmate from eastern Asia patted my stomach and stated how had the same stomach, as she poked hers out and laughed. The original classmate then said “See!” It was meant to be in reference to Asian culture’s openness to discussing the body in negative/positive (depending on which end you come from) lights. Even after I explained how the statements were offensive, it was laughed off as if unimportant. When I asked how does it make them feel for their mother to say those things? I was expecting them to say it made them feel negatively, to inspire them to maybe not say those comments that I considered to be so rude. It was once again just laughed off and it was deemed to be normal and common, therefore unimportant.
I left that conversation very upset. 1) I felt like my feelings weren’t considered at all. In the US, if you offended a friend, even without the intent to offend, you would apologize. That wasn’t the case here. 2) I was saddened. Over the short period of time knowing these young ladies, I had heard them refer to themselves as fat and ugly. I had watched as they tried to stay out of the sun because darker skin or a tan would bring scrutiny to them. I had listened to their stories of their family members speaking of their bodies negatively. And the worst part, to me, was that they viewed all of this normal, as if it should be expected to hear and say these things.
The comments I felt were rude and would never refer to a woman’s body in such a way, especially in public, is common place. So when I was hurt and offended by the comments because my culture has deemed them insensitive, another culture saw no issue with comments therefore there was no reason to apologize.
Cultural differences play a huge role in how we view ourselves and others. While America is trying to push away from conventional standards of beauty, other cultures may have a totally different view on dismantling, or maintenance, of beauty standards. I still don’t appreciate the comments that were made (and admittedly how they responded to it as well) however, it has made me realize some important things.
- Self-love is crucial. I could let someone define and dissect my body based on their own preferences and biases, but how could I ever truly be happy always trying to live for the acceptance of someone else? My body may not be where I want it to be, but I love the skin I am. I whole-heartedly believe that I was not designed to be anything other than me.
- Culture plays a role on what is tolerated. Things that I felt shouldn’t be said, were perfectly common to someone else. Though, I may not like it, it’s important to be considerate of someone else’s culture (even if they aren’t considerate of your feelings lol).
- Finally, Words matter! As much as I would like to say the words didn’t affect me, they did. They made me look at my body in a way I hadn’t previously. It was very unsettling for a simple sentence could make me question myself. It made me wonder, how many conversations did I walk away from feeling fine while the other person felt belittled, ugly, unattractive, or stupid? Probably a lot, I may not have been my intent, but it was the reality. Instead of building someone up, I have, at some point and time, either deliberately or accidentally, torn them down and made them feel less than the wonderful person that they are. It’s a harsh reality, but a great reminder that sticks and stones leave physical scars, but words leave wounds that only the soul feels so deeply.