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Geez America, why can't you be more like your sister Japan?

Check out this article on Japanese attitudes towards weight. I feel almost like the author is saying "Gee, if Japanese women can lose weight and keep it off, what's wrong with Americans?"
They say the rates of anorexia and bulimia aren't any higher over there than they are here, but I have to wonder if that's because the idea of an average-sized woman not eating because she wants to be thinner is so widely accepted as normal. Certainly the act of specifically not eating or eating only vegetables when you are hungry for more is something of a disorder, whether it's officially anorexia or not.
Anyone have any other ideas about what might cause the disparity between our attitudes toward weight and that of Japanese women?

Fattie, love thyself | UCLA Lectures Update

DeeLeigh's picture
March 7th, 2010 | Link | I think that the idea of an

I think that the idea of an average-sized woman not eating because she wants to be thinner is just as well accepted here as it is in Japan. We also have strong social pressure to be thin, and a lot of thin to average women suppress their weight.

But, fat people are affected differently. When you can't go from "fat" to "thin" by losing 25 pounds or less (which is manageable for many people) because your natural build is nowhere near thin, it opens up a whole new can of worms. Yo-yo dieting makes most people heavier over time. That may well be the reason why American women have gotten heavier, on average.

The vast majority of Japanese people seem to be born with the same small, slight build. The weight range that Japanese women tend to fall into doesn't vary as much as the weight range that American women naturally fall into; Americans have every conceivable type and mixture of ethnic background. Maybe with Japanese women, lifestyle affects weight more predictably between individuals. And, even if that isn't true - even if people there just believe it is - it could keep all the women trying to suppress their weight in competition with each other.

For myself, I can say that when I went to university, lived in close quarters with thin women for the first time, and found out that they didn't (as a rule) eat less or exercise more than I did, I stopped taking the social pressure seriously. Of course, I still noticed that many women thought they were better than me because they were thinner, but I knew better. I love competition, but I'm not going to play an unpleasant and destructive game that I can't win.

I took myself out of that competition without feeling I'd lost it and without internalizing the "lazy, slovenly pig" stereotype; I know that I can be none of those things and still be fat. If a "fat" Japanese woman with a BMI of 20 doesn't understand that about herself, that's very sad.

This idealization of thinness is like a disease. It spreads from culture to culture, even causing misery among ethnic groups where almost everyone is naturally thin to start with.

richie79's picture
March 7th, 2010 | Link | It's hardly a valid

It's hardly a valid comparison; not only is Japan much more ethnically and culturally homogenous than the immigration-based US, with a dominant ethnic group that tends toward being naturally slim, its more pluralistic approach to society and economy stands in sharp contrast to Japan's reputation for cultural conformity. Increasingly the Sumo tradition seems an anomaly (and itself one where size is increasingly socially frowned upon despite conferring a practical and competitive advantage) in a country where the 'Metabo' laws - under which men with waists over 33" (35" for women) are 're-educated' and fined - passed with minimal protest, despite Japan still having both the highest average life expectancy and one of the lowest measured obesity rates on the planet.

"When people fear the government, there is tyranny; when government fears the people, there is Liberty." - Thomas Jefferson

lilacsigil March 7th, 2010 | Link | Metabo laws

You should be aware that the article to which you link rather exaggerates the Metabo laws. Metabo laws apply to a very small group of people, mostly male, who work for a particular small group of large companies and in government employ. These people are already under extreme pressure to conform in a number of ways - from the person they marry to where they live, from how they dress to the temperature in their office, to the number and type of items on their desk to what they do after work hours. Size, age, race and sex discrimination rule supreme in these particular group of companies, so waist measurement is just one of a vast number of conformity issues. Of course, these big companies and government offices are meant to be setting an example, so this conformity is posed as desirable!

lilacsigil March 7th, 2010 | Link | Having lived in Japan, the

Having lived in Japan, the number of diet products on the shelves certainly exceeds that of Australia.

You might also note the vastly reduced participation of women in the workforce and the pressure on married women, especially mothers, to not work, but instead provide intense, full-time care to their children including home-cooked meals, daily grocery shopping, and public judgement about their and their children's appearances. In most areas, public transport is excellent and walking or cycling to public transport is the norm - note also that public safety is also very good. Everyone at the university dorm where I lived would ride to the station, park their bicycles in a park, then return after dark with no fear and no problems whatsoever.

There is also the high prevalence of osteoporosis, a disease for which thin women are at higher risk. (On a side note, the mortality rate for osteoporosis is not quite as high as might be expected, because femur density is very high in women who use squat toilets their whole lives. This may change as squat toilets are increasingly replaced with Western-style toilets.) Other people have noted Japan's relatively homogenous population.

What can we learn from this? That when there is excellent public transport and safe public spaces, people will use them and increase their exercise, not in a punishing way, but in a useful and fitness-building way. This is where governments should be putting their money. We can also learn that when the majority of women are excluded from the workforce, there's more home cooking and fresh ingredients. Is this is reasonable price to pay? I don't think so.

EDIT: Just thinking, mental health services are generally pretty poor in Japan, and the suicide rate very high (for a number of reasons, not just the mental health services). I wonder how many eating disorders just go untreated and are neatly packaged away as something else to spare the family shame?

Alyssa March 9th, 2010 | Link | Repression of Women in Japan

I'd like to echo some comments of others. Japan has a long history of repression of women, and one of the hallmarks of such societies is controlling women's weight and appearance. The article states Japanese men "prefer petite women." Yeah right, even as they grow fatter. That Japanese women are hypercritical of one another's weight is only evidence of internalized repression. Men now have to police women less because women are doing it for them.

Tobysgirl March 14th, 2010 | Link | Traditionally, the Japanese

Traditionally, the Japanese did not have enough to eat, which is why small amounts of food are served there very elaborately. My understanding is that the national diet has increased in protein, but perhaps that is only for males.

Tofu is a staple of the Japanese diet, and it is known that men who ingest so much phyto-estrogen have smaller genitalia, etc. Perhaps Japanese men prefer petite women in order to provide some contrast to themselves. It has been my observation in the United States that as men grow less and less traditionally masculine -- strong, competent, able to fix things -- women are required to become more and more ultra-feminine -- i.e., thinner -- in order to provide a contrast between the sexes. In Maine -- "She's a Maine girl" is a popular way of expressing that a woman is large -- women can be pretty chubby and still considered attractive, but much of the male population is well-muscled and engaged in traditionally male activities. Whereas in NYC, so many men are quite thin and a man is considered handy if he can hang a picture on an apartment wall. Consequently, women are under enormous pressure to conform to a feminine ideal that is more akin to a child's body than a woman's. But that 95-pound woman makes her 130-pound boyfriend look manly.

I hope what I'm trying to say is comprehensible. I am not suggesting that there used to be a good old world where men were men and women were girls. But in industrialized, urbanized societies, women's strength is not valued, and we're still stuck in a place where women are supposed to be shorter and smaller than men.

TheRealKay March 10th, 2010 | Link | I lived in various parts of

I lived in various parts of East Asia (not Japan) for some time. The women there were very obsessed with dieting and weight loss, although it's impossible for me to say whether it was more or less pronounced than in the U.S. On the other hand, even the "fat" women (and men) who didn't care what they ate were not very fat by Western standards. Our genetic pool is different and much more prone to being big (fat, tall, large framed, etc.)

pani113's picture
March 11th, 2010 | Link | I Wonder

I wonder if the metabo laws were applicable to Toyota executives? It has been suggested by studies that weight obsession and intense dieting affects judgment and cognitive abilities. Maybe that was one price of weight obsession! Are comments closed by WaPO? Those commenters were among the most stupid anywhere. Maybe they believe all the pharma lobbying? Sad people in are capital are that ignorant!

"Fat can be beautiful. Intolerance is ALWAYS ugly!"

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