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