Why is it, when there are so many uncertainties ahead, I am wasting time and energy worrying about how I look, and more specifically, how people will react to that, when I’m in Cambodia? I know objectively it is ‘ridiculous’ that ‘it doesn’t/ shouldn’t matter’ but I also know in my heart that I will be perceived as different, as fat, and that I’ll struggle with that. Daily observations on how you look, whether intended to be critical or otherwise, are dehumanising, isolating and play havoc with self-esteem. When I was working in Vietnam I have never been so aware of how physically different I was to others around me, and it was strange and uncomfortable. It knocked my confidence and made me feel self-conscious This being so, it seems simply honest to do a post about this. Name the problem if you like, then (hopefully) move on, and perhaps return to the topic once I’m there to see if my fears were justified or not, and/or whether of not any of my planned coping strategies helped one iota. Watch this space!
I’m into the countdown to departure phase now. I’ll be boarding that plane to Cambodia to teach in Phnom Penh in just a few weeks time. It’s normal I guess, that I’m getting angsty. Will everyone hate me? What if I can’t do the job? Will I lose any essential medication en route/ be brutally mugged within seconds of arrival? Can I do the job? How will I cope with the heat? Blah de blah…. Most of my anxieties are in the realms of normal apprehension. Previous experience suggests it’ll all be fine. There are more good people in the world than not, a positive attitude and a smile will go a long way, and yes, bad things might happen, but they might happen if I stay at home too.
On all my travels, the only time I had anything stolen, it was in fact everything (and I mean everything – I was left with nothing more than the clothes I was dressed in and fortunately my cash and passport which I’d kept with me) was in Australia. I’d checked my backpack, crammed with all my worldly goods, into a coach station ahead of taking a lengthy over-night coach trip. The ‘secure’ luggage storage facility was ram-raided (no really, you couldn’t make it up) and everything in the care of Melbourne coach depot was taken away in a big lorry. Even at the time, annoyed as I was at losing my diary and contact lenses, and every item of clothing I possessed, I took a high degree of comfort that they’d also stolen a couple of weeks worth of putrefying backpackeresque filthy laundry squashed in along with all my other worldly goods. Normally I’d have been embarrassed at the thought of anyone encountering that, but on this occasion it gave me real pleasure. I hope they heaved at the very sight of my festering smalls, and have nightmares still. It was inconvenient losing everything, but you know what it wasn’t the end of the world. Far from it.
I didn’t have any travel insurance at the time (I wouldn’t travel without now, and reflecting back I don’t know what I was thinking at the time to have not even thought of it) , but the consequence was that the coach company paid out on their’s. Well, my backpack was in their safe-keeping at the time after all. They were so worried about bad press and a rash of false claims, that when I reported that my luggage had failed to arrive at my destination, they said it was possible it had been loaded in error on another vehicle. Therefore, no compensation would be payable until all coaches had reached their final destinations and unclaimed luggage would be obvious. Australia, as you may know, is pretty huge. It took several days for coaches to travel from Melbourne to Darwin – the furthest distance one was traveling, and as a consequence, by the time this had happened and my backpack was still missing, the company acknowledged I’d lost any reasonable opportunity to recover anything. Upshot was, the coach company paid out on their insurance, not generously, but not badly either. I used the money to travel to Thailand, and also, thereafter traveled with basically two pairs of shorts and a couple of shirts, life was so much easier, no more lugging unnecessary crap around ‘just in case’. It ended up being quite liberating. I came to realise just how little I needed, it was great.
The point is, I don’t really expect anything dire to happen in Cambodia, there will be some shit days sure, but I can have them in the UK too, but even if it does, mostly things can be sorted, it may even lead to the discovery of an unexpected but completely marvelous silver lining within that cloud of misfortune. In my case, yep, I lost my backpack and all my worldly goods, but on the plus side, I effectively got an all-expenses paid trip to Thailand, I’d call that a result! So, basically, whatever happens, I will endeavour to smile on through, keep things in proportion, and even if life is really challenging, it’s about remembering that I’m pretty privileged to be able to travel at all. Whatever I encounter, it won’t be forever. It will be an adventure. It may be type two fun (only fun retrospectively, not fun at the time) but it will be fun nevertheless. What is comedy after all, but tragedy plus time? (Though granted the amount of ‘time’ will be different for different people, and I can keep the memory of injustice simmering for an impressively long, if unhelpful, duration). I don’t know why zebras feature in the picture below by the way, but I just thought time for a picture, and zebras are fun aren’t they? Well I think so, but then I’ve got very good at making my own entertainment over the years.
So, what’s my point? Well, my point is, that I do have an Achilles heel in all of this. Practical challenges are one thing, but my fragile self-esteem over my physical appearance is another thing entirely. Now, I can’t quite believe I’m going to do a post about body-image and weight specifically, because how I look is probably (I hope) the least important thing about me. Please don’t judge my personality, priorities and whole blog based on this one post. However, we can’t escape the reality that we live in a world where people are judged by how they look, and in particular, I can’t escape the coming ever closer reality that when I get to Cambodia I will be very fat by local standards and I know from my experiences of traveling in Vietnam that it is highly probable people will not hold back from commenting on this. Why would they, they speak the truth!
So, my coping strategy is to acknowledge that this reality check probably will take a toll on my already fragile self-esteem, so if I think it through before I travel, maybe I can develop a bit of extra resilience by putting it all in some sort of context. Whilst in the UK I’m curvaceous and within the realms of normal body shape for a middle-aged woman, I know from my experience in Vietnam that transposed to Cambodia, I will be seen as gargantuan, super-plus size, and I also know that people won’t hold back on commenting on this to my face. I am scared about this, to be on the receipt of daily fat-shaming isn’t going to help my fragile ego. Then again, maybe it’s more authentic that people say what they are thinking, than just think it anyway but keep their views to themselves. The problem is, that whilst in the UK I’m within the boundaries of ‘normal’ in Cambodia I won’t be, and I’ll need to develop a thick skin fast to cope with that unwanted attention.
In the UK, we are so accustomed to body shaming, that to name what is apparent, call someone ‘fat’ is an insult. To be fat is to be stigmatised, to be ‘blamed’ to be labelled weak, inferior, lacking will-power. Whatever laudable efforts are made by body positive campaigners it is not OK to be overweight in the Western world. Fat remains a feminist issue. Women in particular have their bodies picked over and objectified in a way that makes my (ample) flesh creep. Some fat-shaming is legitimised masquerading as health campaigns. We all know the health risks associated with obesity, we have the daily misery porn of ‘Embarrassing Fat Bodies‘ or ‘Biggest Loser‘ and equivalent on our televisions. The veneer of ‘helping’ the overweight to conform with perhaps impossible demands of beauty, apparently justifying public humiliation on a scale beyond imagining. Never mind that competitive dieting regimes might kill someone one day. Better dead than fat apparently.
Women’s magazines feed the angst with articles on women dying from diet pills purchased on the internet on the one hand, and celebrated for dramatic weight loss after some humiliating incident such as being unable to fit into a fairground ride/ being bullied at school on the other. Health gurus who talk of ‘simply’ regarding ‘food as fuel’ clearly have little concept of the emotional complexity of how food is viewed and used by many of us. Comfort eater anyone? Self-medicating for depression? Using food as a substitute for affection? or even taking pleasure in a shared delicious meal now and again, it’s not a crime (though some might have you think otherwise). Food manufacturers have a vested interest in fostering over-consumption, it’s a jungle out there! Because of this, many women, including women of normal size, with normal bodies that have done amazing things (given birth, climbed mountains, run marathons) still feel insecure about how they look. As if how we look is more important than what we do, how we think, our place in the world. If choosing a doctor, a teacher or leader would our first criteria in the selection process be to ask to see a photograph of who we might employ/ elect or would we maybe prefer to see their qualifications and a statement of their ideals and beliefs? I’m hoping the latter, though frankly the way the world is right now I’m beginning to wonder if everyone feels the same. There was that scientist quite recently who complained that women were a distraction in the lab which led to some hilarious posts by female scientists flaunting their distractingly sexy looks…
The point stands though. Yet the most professionally and personally competent among us has probably felt insecure about how they look compared to some unachieveable ideal from time to time. This would be hilarious if it wasn’t true. It isn’t as if there is a universal definition of beauty in any case, it’s culturally determined, so we are all essentially in pursuit of an impossible dream. Madness. Destructive madness.
Facebook doesn’t help, the proliferation of doctored selfies, reinforcing the sense that only I am afflicted with bad skin and muffin tops… I am so naive, I only found out a couple of days ago from a friend’s teenage daughters that not only are profile shots regularly photo-shopped, but ‘everyone knows’ you should never take a selfie with a camera positioned anywhere other than higher than your head – that way no double chins ever, will adorn your mug shots. Most educational. The fact is, consenting or protesting, most of us have internalised a sense of what it is acceptable to look like, and being fat isn’t part of that. Not fair, not rational, but how it is in the fickle world of body objectification. Is it any wonder so many of us end up self-conscious and uncomfortable about how we look? Now I find this hard, because my politically principled self knows this is all an artificial construct and it should not matter, but my insecure bumbling around ‘self’ wishes I had a body that was svelte and toned. I am trying to brace myself for negative reactions to my appearance in Cambodia, and it isn’t a comforting process. Of course I know I should learn to love myself and not care about the opinions of others, but it doesn’t always work like that does it? I’m never going to see a lion in the mirror, but this is partly because I am a human being not a cat, and also I am female not male, but this was the most apt picture I could find through the lens of google images!
I feel incredibly conflicted about this, and in some ways I fully acknowledge that it is ridiculous and disproportionate to be posting about something as shallow as my poor self-image, it’s hardly living in Syria is it? On the other hand, reader, I cannot tell a lie, I have googled ‘being fat in Cambodia‘ in order to prepare myself for what might lie ahead. Now, the very fact that I did this suggests it’s really bothering me. What’s more, the number of hits I got, suggests:
a) I’m not alone in my fears, and
b) my concerns are not unfounded.
I know it may seem strange, and certainly disproportionate. After all, I’m fifty plus and generally speaking of an age where I have accepted I’m never going to turn heads on entering a room (unless it’s a really quiet one and I’ve just farted loudly say, but that’s not quite comparing like with like), and mostly I don’t really care, I am what I am, get over it. I’ve done time as the ugly friend and frankly there are advantages in hanging out with the A-listers. By association gaining access to areas that I’d never get to go to based on my own assets. Also, escaping some of the worst manifestations of sexual harassment, being able to pass under the radar of drunken heckling men. The invisibility of the middle-aged woman is a curious thing. It is not OK for opinions to be overlooked and promotions passed over on the basis of age and looks, but there is a certain element of relief (for me anyway) in being no longer expected to compete in a daily beauty pageant just to go to the shops. I never have done this by the way, but the difference is that now I feel less judged for not having bothered to do so. Alas, transposed to Cambodia, I will not be invisible any more, and I fear I will become visible not in a good way.
I suppose I hoped my google search would reassure me my fears are unfounded, but it did not. There are lots of people talking about their experiences of being fat or perceived as such whilst traveling, and it is a real issue. The problem is three-fold I think. Firstly, that we are fat, comparatively speaking, what was ‘normal’ at home, is remarkable in some countries overseas. Body shape is different, and it is noticed, of course. Secondly, in the UK, people don’t usually remark on weight on first acquaintance, so if they do, it is perceived as rude and attacking. So I suppose the third point is that this is all part of cultural difference. It is my cultural background and expectations that will make me feel inadequate, after all, my host country’s cultural norms mean that why wouldn’t you comment on something so blindingly obvious. It’s not an insult, it’s just a statement of fact, you might as well try to ignore the weather, it is logically silly and strange to avoid commenting on something that is so clearly and literally in the public domain – and unusual enough that you might reasonably choose to remark on it! Perhaps it’s all just part of inevitable culture shock.
My experience in Vietnam was that people do routinely comment on physical features (fat, thin, tall, short, age, eye-colour, skin tone) in quite a matter of fact way like you might talk about the weather. It isn’t necessarily a negative judgement, though it is an acknowledgment of a noticeable physical difference or distinction. I couldn’t hear it like that though, it felt like a fat-shaming judgement to me I felt humiliated and inadequate. I am dreading going through all of that again, and yet I am angry at myself for worrying about it too. My weight shouldn’t matter, I am what I am, and yet it does. I am trying to lose weight in advance of my travels, but it won’t change my fundamental body shape, and I know I’ll still stick out even as a thinner version of myself. I’ll be old in a population of relatively young people (the average age in Cambodia in 2010 (flawed statistics, but illustrate a point) was around 23 years old. So many of the population were wiped out by the Khmer rouge, only young were left behind. Similarly, in Vietnam that I was fifty years old seemed to many extraordinary, to be that age and unmarried and childless unfathomable. It made me the focus of much curious questioning. The whole point of cultural exchange is I suppose to celebrate difference in a way, I can be an ambassador for a different sort of traveler, but in reality, I’d far prefer to blend in. On the other hand, some of my other equally undeserved physical characteristics bestow some advantage. My blue eyes were a source of extreme fascination to some people I met. And, weirdly, my pale, sallow, lifeless skin was considered ‘beautiful’. Well, I’ve been called many things…. So there’s a yin to the yan here, both equally unjust, repellance at my fat physique will be partially counteracted by my pale skin and blue eyes.
In Vietnam, such was the desire for pale skin, women would keep themselves covered from head to foot, in what another compatriot referred to as ‘ninja wear’. Caps with face veils like from Lawrence of Arabia, long-sleeved gloves, coats and tights or trousers were the norm whatever the heat. Whatever it took to avoid the sun. I had a go at donning ninja wear. It was hilarious, but not practical. Cycling in it gave confidence because you had no idea what was going on around you, often an advantage negotiating the Vung Tau traffic! Still, shows the lengths people would go to, in order to fight against genetic ethnicity in pursuit of pale skin. Why is it, I can see that as ‘ridiculous’. My skin colour is an accident of nature, not a moral quality or indicator of my skill as an English teacher… and yet when it comes to my weight, I am agonising over how I will be perceived. Crazy. You’ve got to love the ninja-wear though haven’t you. Way to go! Yes that is me, and yes, I did wear it, I am terrified of the sun too, fear of burning though, rather than a desire to stay pale.
Sooooooo, who did I find on the interweb? Well, I think the significant point here is ‘quite a few’, this is a thing, finding your body shape an object of curiosity in South East Asia. There was the female traveler who concluded her post saying she felt her self-esteem was quite broken down by the time she reached the end of her travels – and she was by no means plus size by Western standards. There is another blog, kept by a young woman in Thailand – she made a post ‘You’re fat and other compliments in Thailand‘ she is nowhere near ‘fat’ in western terms, but she too experienced blunt commentaries on her appearance when working in Thailand. She also makes the point that it is our western sensitivities that hear insult in such observations. Other travellers – men mostly, refer to the experience of having children run up to them and rub their bellies before scampering off laughing. Their behaviour being a tribute of sorts to ‘Happy Buddha‘.
A gorgeous Welsh woman living in London keeps a blog very much about her curvaceous physique and her experience of travel From the Corners of the Curve . Her mission in her blog is to be body positive, but she too found Cambodia bruising. I did wonder if some of her experience was because she did wear for example bikinis and culturally it is more usual and appropriate to keep covered up. I’m not saying she should not wear a bikini if she chooses to do so, but it could be that that might be seen as a more exhibitionist garment in Cambodia than it would if donned on a beach in Spain say. This woman is gorgeous, she has great charisma and style, but she found it hard at times. However, she also says in her post ‘being plus size in south-east asia‘ that she too came to realise, that comments on weight weren’t rude, just facts, they might even be positive affirmation if we’d only put them in context.
‘when I arrived inside the shop a young guy who was also working there asked if he could translate something that the lady (who owned the shop) was saying to me. He began by telling me that the lady had seen me every day walking from our guest house and said she thought I was the singer Adele, he then went on to say… “She thinks you are very fat and beautiful and she wishes she could have nice clothes like you” Many women might find being called Fat offensive, some people just don’t like that term at all but I didn’t mind, in fact I left with the biggest smile on my face. You see, something I came to learn quickly was that for most people calling a person fat was the same as calling a person tall, it was just a descriptor and to be called fat and beautiful in the same sentence was something I had never ever experienced.‘
That’s quite a powerful statement. We – I should own my statements and say ‘I‘, can only hear the word ‘fat’ targeted at me and feel shame. It is a value laden word… for me. Her statement echoed my experience in Vietnam, I know from my own interactions with people in Vung Tau that no offence was intended when people commented on my body shape, eye colour and skin tone all in one sentence, so why am I still worried? Well, because she too, once she got to Cambodia, found the attention ratcheted up, and made her uncomfortable. Uncomfortable to the point that she didn’t want to leave the confines of her hotel. Only later, was she able to reflect that:
So here’s the thing, I thought that my experience was all about me when really it wasn’t, cultural differences are something you cannot avoid when you visit another country and the reality is that in countries such a Cambodia people are very poor, and in their eyes fat equals wealth. I took the attention negatively and let it really hurt me when in reality they most probably weren’t even thinking of me in that light. Yes you will come ac cross people who are ignorant but at the same time to have the privilege and opportunity of being able to travel the world is something that isn’t accustomed to everyone. Many people are ignorant because they have never seen anything else other that their usual surroundings and they simply are intrigued and interested even if they don’t show it in the politest of ways
This is the issue, my fear about being judged says more about my insecurities than anything else. However, we all know how emotive some issues are, our head tells us one thing but our hearts experience things differently.
My favourite blog post on the topic, pleasingly is also the most recent that I’ve come across ‘Why so big?’ A Canadian woman doing research in rural Cambodia notes the same phenomenon. Whilst being touched and groped by strangers (who are curious, rather than making a sexual approach) is never comfortable, and made her feel ‘hyper-visible’ she did come to the view that comments are not usually hostile in intent. It is just that she (we) are fat by comparison to the petite local population. This being unusual, it does attract attention and comment. I had a whole store of shop assistants cluster round a changing room in a Vietnam store because they were astonished that I couldn’t fit into even their XXXXL clothes (and I’m not even that big by UK standards). I’m not going to escape this attention, but if I am mortified by such interactions that probably says more about my insecurities and cultural difference than it does about the local people. Again, she comments that:
Being a plus-sized female traveler brings with it challenges that other travelers won’t have to face. It can be isolating, exhausting, and dehumanizing to be receiving public commentary about your size in ways that would largely be culturally unacceptable in your home country. Although these observations may always sting, it’s essential to remember comments, questions, or prodding excess fat are common (in my experience) in Cambodia. In this way, I’ve learned that being able to exist and thrive in new cultural environments can enrich your travel experiences by forcing you to understand how you react and respond to unexpected cultural quirks
There may be another truth lurking, an equally complex injustice that is another example of cultural difference. Maybe too fat is not as bad as too dark – perhaps the quest for lighter and lighter skin at some personal risk (toxic skin bleaching products, poisonous skin lighteners) is a sort of similar obsession to the one we in the west have with diet and weight. Both battles are ultimately pointless and a ludicrous misdirection of effort.
I should look after my body, eat healthily and keep on running, but I should do all these things, not because I hate my body, but because I love it. It may have many imperfections, but it enables me to do things. I can travel, I can run (badly) I’m lucky to be healthy and long may it continue so. The human form is an amazing thing in all its glorious variety. We should celebrate that diversity, and desist from punishing our bodies and depriving ourselves. Who wants to be thin if instead they can be strong.
Bottom line. I probably will get some flack because of my size in Cambodia. It will probably get to me sometimes, it does in the UK. However, I need to see it in a cultural context. My body shape is not that of my Cambodian hosts. I will also be comparatively wealthy, old, pale skinned, childless, unmarried, all of which will no doubt also be subject to scrutiny. The whole point of travel is to learn from other cultures, see things from new perspectives. I do know that whatever comments I attract, they on the whole won’t be delivered with malicious intent, and surely a small price to pay for getting to explore a whole new world. I just hope being forewarned is to be forearmed.
Those of you who are body confident might not get why I’m making this post at all. Good for you. However, I’ve experienced years of feeling inadequate because of my appearance in the UK, and I know that in South East Asia I will feel self-conscious and inadequate all over again. To try to shore up my fragile self-esteem, what I need to remember is the following:
- I’m never going to be skinny, but I’m lucky because I’m fit and healthy and strong, my body can do things and that’s way more important than how it is perceived by others
- How I look is probably the least important thing about me, it is only because I’m being transported to another context that it will become an issue, I need to get over it in that respect and believe my own rhetoric. As long as I am within healthy parameters of weight my body shape is my business and mine alone
- I need to remind myself that ‘fat’ has negative connotations to me for cultural reasons, it isn’t necessarily meant as an insult from others, just an observation. If I hear criticism, that is my cultural specific response not the intention of the speaker
- A laugh and smile can usually deflect any hostility in any situation
- It may not be fair, but when I’m having a down day, I still have pale skin and blue eyes to counter-balance my silken layer
- One blog post I read, which I won’t link to because it made me sad, was a woman who was very overweight and had a terrible time traveling because of it. However, she subsequently had a really bad motor bike accident and ended up picking up an infection in hospital which made her extremely ill. As a consequence, she lost an enormous amount of weight. She told this story as ‘good news’. I never, ever, want to hate my body to the point that I would celebrate an event like that. It’s only excess fat, it is not a manifestation of evil. How distorted is the world we live in that anyone would be rather be thin and ill than fat and well, that they would wish on themselves a near death experience if that led to weight loss?
- Beauty is culturally determined, if I find I cannot rise above the slights, then I can always head over to Tahiti or Fuji where being fat is considered attractive and being fat is celebrated. Always good to have a back up plan eh?
- Last, but not least, who blooming cares? It doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t.
Enough now. I’ll post again in a few months time and see to what extent my fears were justified. Time will tell, it usually does!