Let’s Talk About Body Shaming in the Philippines
Let me start off by saying I am a fiercely proud mixed-race, Filipino-American woman. Growing up, I had the wonderful and rare opportunity to live in the Philippines for six years — I learned Tagalog, immersed myself in the culture, enjoyed the endless delicacies and most importantly, developed a very close bond with my family on my mom’s side. I am lucky to call both the Philippines and the United States my home.
If there’s one thing I can attest to during my six-year stay in the Philippines, it’s that Filipinos have earned their reputation for being some of the most friendly people in the world. And it’s true, we are! However, no culture comes without blemishes, and the Philippines is no exception. I want to highlight one of our societal flaws that no one seems to talk about: blatant body shaming.
Although I do not live there anymore, I try and visit as much as I can — because as any true Filipino, family-time is important to me. Every trip starts off the same way: After a 14+ hour flight, I am greeted by my cousins, aunts and uncles. Their first words to me are tumaba ka ‘you got fat’ as they simultaneously squeeze my “arm fat”. My excitement for coming home instantly fades, and I immediately want to hop on the next America-bound flight — I know that this is just the beginning of a summer filled with unsolicited commentary pertaining to my body.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a textbook case of body shaming on an entire cultural level”
At least I have someone who goes through this with me — my beautiful, older sister. Keep in mind, my sister and I are pretty healthy gals, but whenever we set foot in our island home, we are immediately pinned as fat or chubby. Why? Because Filipino’s definition of beauty can best be described as: stick-thin. My sister and I just aren’t built that way.
These comments are not meant to be insulting; unfortunately, it’s normal in Filipino society to comment on other people’s physical appearances — good or bad. So, really anyone who doesn’t fit within this society’s beauty standards has to deal with this nonsense. My sister and I have grown accustomed to this practice, so we usually brush off the comments and try our hardest not to be fazed. But as much as we didn’t want to be, we were fazed, we were very fazed — to the point where we used to put our bodies through hellish and unhealthy diets to try and avoid unwanted remarks about “how fat we are” during our next visit. Yet, no matter how much we refrained from midnight snacking or how many miles we ran, we were still categorized as “fat” the moment we stepped off the airplane. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a textbook case of body shaming on an entire cultural level.
One summer, my sister and I had reached our breaking point. After a much needed, cousins-only staycation, a family member asked my sister why she’s “so big” for about the 100th time that month — as if her bone structure was her fault. She snapped, and rightly so! She wasn’t going to take this treatment anymore, especially not from family.
This big blow up turned into a constructive conversation where I finally explained the negative emotional and physical effects these comments have had on my sister and me over the years. Interestingly enough, we got two very distinct responses during this chat. The first came from the older generation of our aunts and uncles who defended this behavior because it’s so widely accepted. They basically told us that because we are in the Philippines, we should conform to Filipino norms, and quit being so “sensitive”.
“The sooner we all realize that this language is toxic, the better.”
On the other hand, our cousins actually agreed with us. They grew up with pretty harsh nicknames related to their appearance — some as callous as panget ‘ugly’ or kuba ‘’hunchback’. And although they’ve always seemed unfazed by this, for the first time ever, they admitted that the name calling took a toll on their self-esteem — especially when they were all much younger. So, it wasn’t just my sister and me who felt this way, it seems like everyone our age is affected by this cruel practice, too.
Thanks to our united front, we were able to show our aunts and uncles our perspective, and they were able to put themselves in our shoes. Needless to say, my family has yet to comment on my sister’s or my physical appearance since that day.
I am grateful that my sister, cousins and I were able to get this off our chest, and that a positive outcome came from that conversation. However, I’m more concerned for my cousins’ children. As an adult, I was able to articulate how body shaming has affected me, but my younger family members are defenseless to this behavior. I remember exactly how being constantly reminded of my uncommon figure affected my self-esteem and self-worth, and I don’t want that for them. Sadly, this is not something I can shield them from since it’s so culturally accepted.
One conversation was all it took to make a change within my family, so maybe all we need is for more people to speak up and call this behavior what it is: body shaming. The sooner we all realize that this language is toxic, the better.
To my extended family — I love you and thank you for being open to change.
To my kabayans who may be reading this — let’s make a positive difference together by addressing this problem head-on.
Photo Credit: Shirley Waters
Illustration: Niki Waters
I’m so glad to have stumbled upon this today, just moments after reflecting on how ‘over it’ I am about being fat-shamed — by people of my own family & culture, no less. I think the over-glorification of physical beauty is so embedded in our culture. I admire you and your sister for standing up for yourselves and sharing your perspective with your family. Thank you for writing this.
fuck it! for just reason!!! it’s just an expression…. of course we haven’t seen you for a long time so it’s our right to say that…
No, no it’s not your right to criticize anyone’s appearance. Regardless of how long you haven’t seen them.
The people who dismiss “cultural difference” as an explanation are probably not aware how much of their own culture is unacceptable or wrong from the perspective of other cultures.
I’m not saying what the author described is right or wrong, but it actually is a cultural difference.
When I was in the Philippines last month, I witnessed this for both sides of the coin. My tita asked me why my mother had gotten so thin. She had lost quite a bit of weight between her last visit and this, and in the best shape she’s been in for a while, and my tita thought she wasn’t eating properly or something. On the other hand, the same tita also asked my sister last year why she was so ‘big, though she’d definitely skinny. Also, my gf’s relatives and people who my girlfriend barely knew commented on her weight, one even asking if she was pregnant, and she’s in great shape. Though, i don’t agree with your claim that ‘stick thin’ is the pinnacle of Filipino beauty standards. It’s definitelyskinny and small
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This is so true . Thanks for writing about it:)
What you wrote is very true, that’s why most of the Filipinos (I myself included – yet in the process of transforming) have a very low self-esteem despite the fact that we are talented individuals. It is always associated with the cultural mindset that the Philippines has. But Im glad that you step up and vocalize your truest feeling regarding body shaming. At the end of the day we can always shrug off our shoulders with negative comments yet developing ourselves daily to be the best version of ourselves.
The body shaming Is this done much in the phillipines?
I was once called an ugly frog 😦 it broke my heart. I left home and ventured outside….all I can say to all who bullied me…”look at me now, look at me now”!!! 😂
Body shaming isn’t uncommon in Chinese culture either. Like the Philippines (and pretty much most of Asia), one has to be super-tiny and look “delicate.” Want to look like Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman? Forget about it. It just isn’t feminine. However, I think she looked FIERCE!!
Let’s develop a culture of affirmation instead.
I agree body shaming should stop in the Philippines. People will always be different from each other. Though I being the one you may call stick-thin also receive this kind of criticism. And it also doesn’t feel good when they keep telling to my face that I’m so thin. No one will be perfect. So I say let’s develop a culture of affirmation instead.
I, for one had my share of blatant body shaming from my friends. We had this high-school get together last Saturday and sadly, I was the butt of the jokes. Me being a “higante” and me being so “Sexy”. It took a toll on me and I event posted my feelings on Facebook. It makes me really angry how people, especially my friends could be so rude and cruel. I think I just have to accept the fact that this is of the way of the world, and I should be the one to adjust. I am seriously contemplating not going to future events where they will be present just to be spared from all of the body shaming. 😦
To be honest, this is one of the reasons why I hate Asia. The culture is so sick and weird, just imagine someone looking like a walking cadaver be considered beautiful. Oh yes that’s the f**king Asian standard of “beauty”. If you go to East Asian countries, body shaming and colourism are everywhere. I’m also sick and tired of being called “chubby” because ever since my puberty, I experienced body shaming even from my own mother that took a toll on my self-esteem big time. My sister, mother and her side of family have the classic Asian face and body (my sister looks very Southeast Asian/Malay while my mom and some aunties look East Asian) while I inherit a lot of my mixed features from my dad’s side including my medium-built bone structure.
Usually when teased like that I just say “So what?! You are fucking ugly as well!” simple as that. Peace!
You’re a fat idiot, fix your problem instead of blaming on big bones or stupid reasons. You’re just lazy and instead of writing stupid articles you should figure out what you’re doing wrong.
I got nothing else to say.
Your disrepectful comments and hatred are proving Erica’s point that body shaming is real. The fact that you feel this way AND on top of that, thought it was okay to say it, is a huge problem. I hope one day you’ll learn to be capable to having a meaningful, helpful, decent and maybe even an intellectual conversation.
People, including Erica, have so much more to offer than their bodies. And have personalities that can shine and attract a community like this one.
Have a good one,
You can’t control how others see you that is a fact! If you don’t like how others see you that is there issue, do not make it your issue. That being said, whining about it will not change it, go see a therapist and fix your self esteem.
Ugh! I relate to u completely. I have the same experience every time I go home to pinas. It is very frustrating. I was get upset reading ur experience because I have experience then myself… Yes I would try my best to lose weight before I go home and lose pounds only to be disappointed again and again bec I am not skinny enough or “ sexy “as they call all skinny female people they see. I have broad shoulders and i can’t help that. I am considered petite here in US but I’m fat when I’m in the Philippines. And I feel that way too. It’s unfortunate and upsetting.
It is hard not to be offended, trust me I have tried but it still gets to me. My husband says it’s a culture thing. Well it needs to stop. I tried to explain this to his parents and other members but I don’t think it’s getting through to their heads because the comments haven’t stopped.
I may lose it one day and just let them know in anger how it makes me feel. Maybe they will finally get it…
Thank you for sharing and writing this article. I wish I can share it in Facebook so my nieces- in -law can read it and maybe they will have the courage to say something too. They get the same body shaming and just accepts it.
I’m honestly so glad to come across this post because this is my exact experience every time I go to the Philippines. My sister and I work out like crazy every day for a few months before our flight to go to the PI. Right when we meet with our relatives they say “wow taba” right away. And makes me want to just leave and come back to America! I will forever be on the thick side because I love food. But never will I go to the Philippines anymore because I’m spending hella money to go there to be with family who will just body shame me.