Fat in Singapore-my story

Recently I’ve had a number of conversations about fat-from the technical to the political.  But there’s also been a discussion about what it’s like to be fat in Singapore, and I’ve been asked to share my story.

I am fat.  This is a simple fact.  The baggage brought to this fact, however, isn’t so simple.


Me sitting on my first car in 1996

I’ve never fit the image of the perfectly thin female body type.  Even as a little kid, I was thin everywhere but for a tummy.  Until after I injured my back at 16 and stopped being active, the best description of my body type was stocky with a bit of extra fat around my stomach.  Looking back, I see a lovely young girl and young woman.  At the time, I hated my body-loathed it-because it wasn’t the super lean body of my peers.  Over the past 18 years since that injury my body type has gone from stocky to fat.  I’m not going to explain, justify, or pathologize that change.  I don’t owe an explanation for my body.

I could fill a thousand blog posts discussing my experiences from childhood until now that relate to weight, my relationship with my body, the psychological impact people’s treatment of me (from friends and family who genuinely care, but in their well-meaning comments) have hurt me and deeply impacted my self esteem, popular misperceptions about weight and weight loss and my body, and so forth.  But for the purpose of this post, we’ll pick up right before we moved to Singapore.

Screen Shot 2013-06-16 at 12.56.51 PMRavi, myself and Ellie, Singapore Zoo, Feb 2010

Prior to moving to Singapore, I read a lot of books and blogs about life here.  I knew, walking in, that Singapore isn’t the easiest place to be fat.  When we came for our look-see visit to Singapore, I did some looking and couldn’t find one plus sized store.  The British Chain Marks & Spencer carried up to a US 18 (UK 20) but that was too small. At the time, though, the only way that it affected me was to ensure that I bought a lot of clothes before moving here.

IMG_4641The first photo of me that I posted on the blog-E and I at Palawan Beach in SG, 2010

Over the years, I have mostly rejected the idea that my life would be better when I was thin, or that weight loss would make me a better/more worthwhile person.  So in my day to day life, I just can’t be bothered to worry about what others will think of my outfit of choice, or that I’m daring to be fat in public.

However, this is not to say that being fat doesn’t affect my life-in general and in Singapore.

I’ve gotten emotionally devastating comments from doctors in the US. Two days after losing my first pregnancy, my OB (at the time) said I’d never carry a pregnancy to term while fat-that I’d effectively killed my wanted pregnancy with my fat.  I still kind of want to show up at her office with my two girls and say “SEE!! F**K YOU!!”–that’s how much it damaged me at a fragile moment–that it still profoundly affects me almost 6 years later.

Knowing that doctors in Asia have the reputation of being extremely hostile to fat patients (and have a lower number than the west for what constitutes healthy), I avoided doctors as if they carried the plague here.  Until I decided to get pregnant, the only time I sought out medical care was when I needed antibiotics.  I made a point of finding a medical practice with expat doctors because I thought they’d be less hostile.  The irony, then, is that while it has taken a bit of effort (5 OB’s before I found one I liked) the doctors who have been the least hostile toward my weight have been Singaporean.  Not without exception, but the doctors I trust most today are Singaporean, not Western.

IMG_5385In the pool, 2010

I have a great deal of privilege in Singapore.  As a white expat, my weight may be unattractive, or even mock worthy, but there’s a perception that Westerners-and perhaps especially-Americans, are fat.  My local friends get far more crap than I do about weight for being a lot thinner than I am.

The reality is that I can buy clothes in the US and have them shipped to me–privilege.

I’m married, which means I don’t have to swim in the dating pool here.  From what I’ve heard, this would change my relationship with Singapore and my weight.

IMG_82232010-Photography Class

I’ve had a few encounters where someone has fat shamed or mocked me.  There have been  instances where a child has called me “fat” in a cruel or mocking tone.  I’ve had a cab driver try to give me weight loss advice. I’ve had a doctor or three strongly suggest Weight Loss Surgery without admitting that there were risks.  People here are sometimes/often blunt to the point of what Westerners would consider rudeness about all kinds of things-not just weight.

At the same time, these last three years have been a time of education for me.  While I’ve had a far healthier relationship with my body in the past 9 years than ever before, it’s only been the last few that I’ve begun to learn about the politics of fat, largely thanks to the writing of Lesley and Marianne on xojane.  This year has been a year of breakthrough for me in finally learning to separate the notions of weight and health, and have been introduced to the idea of Health at Every Size.

I think that my entry into fat politics was well timed.  Because while I haven’t experienced a lot of direct antagonism about my body, living in Singapore can be very damaging to a person’s self esteem.

20130612_104050One of a million similar signs

When it comes to Singapore, the most damaging aspects of being a fat person here is dealing with the everyday cultural landmines.  The thing about getting shamed/bullied by an individual is that (mostly-with noted exceptions) I can write an individual off as rude or an asshole.  A deeply entrenched social norm?  That’s far harder to distance yourself from, especially when there’s no counter voice to shout it down.

The photo above is from my gym.  My gym is also a spa that offers “slimming” services.  Slimming centres are huge here.  They have a big ad presences-even ads that wrap entire buses. These aren’t the equivalent of Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, but centres that focus on slimming treatments like the one above.  If I want to hold a vibrator against my body, there are other places where it will accomplish a far happier result than against my stomach.  While I do roll my eyes so hard they almost fall out of my head when it comes to these centres (including the displays of slimming cream I walk by every day at the gym) I’d be lying if I didn’t say that they wear on a person.

I mentioned above that I knew that I wouldn’t be able to buy clothes in Singapore before I moved here, although it’s not quite true.  I underestimated the effect this would have on my psyche.  While I’ve been shopping at plus sized clothing stores in the US for years and my size has fluctuated, I’m not in any danger of being sized out of the ability to shop.  Department stores carry my size, and upscale department stores like Lord & Taylor carry designers like Michael Kors in my size.  Clothing sizes do vary country to country (I’m usually 1 size larger in the UK and Australia than I am in the US).   However, Singapore (Asia as a whole to my understanding) has radically different sizing–bluntly stated, I’ve been in a store with a 6x size and it’s still too small (I’m a 2x in the US).  I have friends here who are a Small/Medium in the US are an XL here.  The sizing differential is damaging to the point where I’ve gone from seeking out the few boutiques that carry “plus” sized clothes only to learn that their notion of clothing for fat people is barely plus sized in the US, or had a 6x not fit me to actively avoiding them because I know it will lead to serious body dysmorphia.

Screen Shot 2013-06-16 at 2.36.58 PMsource

Singapore does not have employment discrimination laws.  A job may legally require that you be a certain sex, age, nationality, or have a specific appearance.  A few weeks ago there was a an article that the government was “not ruling out” anti-discrimination laws…but this article implies that the only discrimination that they are considering legislating is to disallow hiring foreigners before Singaporeans. (There is legitimate criticism of nationality based preference, but that’s not the focus of this post).  Many applications require that you submit a photo as well as your CV.  Let’s not pretend that requiring a photo won’t weed out candidates for all sorts of superficial reasons, including weight.

Screen Shot 2013-06-16 at 2.56.38 PMsource

The above roast has men’s (larger) and women’s (smaller) portions.  Clearly this is not just sexist, but anti fat.  Yes, I’ve ordered the men’s portion and gotten the “look” because of it.  Because I’m transgressing sexual or weight norms? Your call-but mine is both.

Screen Shot 2013-06-16 at 3.01.32 PMFat and Happy in Singapore

So how to conclude my story?

I’d say overall I’ve reached a point of peace with Singapore.  When I get fat shamed it kind of blindsides me because I’ve made myself oblivious to it/have conditioned myself to roll my eyes at it to the point of desensitization.  I often find the sexism, racism (particularly aimed at foreign workers-maids and construction workers most, and all expats to an increasing degree) anti-gay sentiment far more troubling.  Yes, the entrenched sexism relates to fat bias.  Yes, the fat bias is aimed far more at women. But I’m far more worried by Elanor saying that “girls can’t do x” (which happened a few days ago and had me seeing red) than I am by someone insulting my weight.

That said, you may want to me to admit that other countries also have fat bias.  They do.  The US is no stranger to fat bias.

But one of the things that strikes me every time I go home is this feeling of my gut unclenching.  For while I may get fat shamed in the US, it is at least common to see someone who looks at me.  Most malls have a store or five I can shop at.  In Singapore I compartmentalize/repress/desensitize myself as a coping strategy to the point where I don’t realize how tense being fat in Singapore makes me until I feel that relief.

The key difference, I think, between the US and SG is that in the US there’s a community.  There is a fat activist movement back home.  The notion of Health at Every size is gaining traction.  When a professor tweets that fat people don’t have the willpower to complete PhD programs, it created a PR storm of anger and condemnation (including domestic and international coverage/condemnation of the remarks), as well as a response from the body acceptance movement in the form of a tumblr called FuckYeah Fat PhD’s.

My belief is that there wouldn’t be a huge backlash against a professor who said that here.  As an example about sexism as opposed to fat bias, last year a 27 year old PhD candidate asked the man credited with founding modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, “Given the big influx of immigrants here in a short time, and a dilution of the national identity, what can we do to create a sense of belonging and foster social cohesiveness?”  LKY’s response was a discourse on how SGean women aren’t having babies, badgering personal questions about her personal life, and a warning about the declining quality of her eggs, ultimately telling her to get her PhD AND a boyfriend. (source–blog article quoting a newspaper article and critique)  While the national (government controlled) newspaper published a letter from AWARE (a local women’s NGO) text here, I went through many pages of google results without even one mainstream media article coverage of the event.  Most of the responses that I did find were that those who had an issue with LKY’s comments were making a mountain out of nothing at all (source).  Not exactly the same thing as fat bias, but a clear enough example to demonstrate why I don’t believe there would be any mainstream backlash for a comment regarding weight.

Would I leave Singapore over the fat bias? No.  There’s no utopia-not when it comes to weight bias, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth.  There are plenty of positives about life in Singapore, which I’ve devoted hundreds of blog entries to. Today I am pointing out a negative.

That said, due to the sensitive nature and high trolling potential of this blog post, I’m making the rare choice to close comments.  

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