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Dealing with Body-Shaming in Japan

Although it's not as common to approach a stranger to make a negative comment about their body directly, having people openly make comments about your weight, size, and eating habits is still something you'll have to deal with if you live in Japan.

For many expats, this is a sensitive topic and we can often feel surprised or even offended when a Japanese friend says "Oh, it looks like you've gained weight!" after not seeing us for a few weeks. It doesn't matter if you're plus-sized or not, these kinds of comments can negatively impact your mental health.

The results of the 2021 Body Image Survey for foreigners living in Japan provided some valuable insight into the shift in confidence and self-perception after moving to Japan.

Survey Highlights:

  • Foreign female participants reported a significant decrease in confidence in their appearance since moving to Japan. In female participants, 54% reported confidence about their appearances - this number dropped to 23% after living in Japan for 1 year or more.

  • 66% of foreigners report that they worry more about their appearance in Japan compared to their home country.

  • There was an 11% rise in disordered eating habits after participants moved to Japan.

  • A staggering 97% of foreign participants feel that overweight people are viewed negatively in Japan.

  • 55% worry that they will be judged negatively based on their weight.

Although these answers may not be a direct result of comments personally received, it does indicate that living in Japan can have a negative impact on one's body image and mental health.

The focus on weight may be a result of the emphasis on health in Japanese culture. From a very young age, people are encouraged to live an active lifestyle and receive food education. Being overweight is considered a serious medical condition, and is spoken about as such.

However, there has also been a shift in focus from health to appearances- as in, it doesn't matter if you live a healthy lifestyle, if you're not thin you're perceived as unhealthy. Likewise, if you are thin, you are perceived as being healthy.

So, how do we navigate this topic and prepare ourselves for the (often inevitable) comments about our appearances? Here's a little list of some things you can prepare yourself for if you're plus-sized living in Japan.

Doctors are direct when they speak about your weight.

Japanese doctors will often tell you directly that you're overweight or obese and will not shy away from telling you the implications it could have on your health. The use of BMI is still strongly relied on, and your BMI may impact how your doctor speaks to you. Although it can be difficult to hear, coming from a healthcare professional consider it more of a general report on bodies in the same BMI range as yourself, rather than a direct attack.

Avoid self-body-shaming comments in everyday conversation

It's not uncommon for friends to body-shame themselves when they're hanging out. Although they may be a healthy weight, they may often complain that they're too fat, talk about their extreme diets, and compare bodies. This can be very uncomfortable especially if you feel that you look physically different from your friends. Don't feel the need to engage - you don't need to put yourself down or pay false compliments.

Work on Self-Acceptance before moving to Japan

The first step to dealing with comments is to cultivate self-acceptance. If you know this is a particularly sensitive topic for you, try to improve your confidence and body acceptance prior to moving to Japan. It’s easier said than done if it’s something you know you struggle with, but working on this aspect of yourself will help guard your well-being.

plus size in japan

Prepare yourself for indirect comments and cultural differences

Get ready for this one, because it’s unavoidable. If you socialize with locals, use SNS in Japanese or consume Japanese media, you are going to hear body shaming comments often. It can be difficult to hear these things, even if it’s not directed at you. In most cases it’s recommended that we limit exposure to triggering topics as much as possible - but it will not be possible to avoid hearing these comments in Japan. Prepare yourself mentally if discussing weight, appearances and eating habits is triggering for you.

Redirect the Conversation

When confronted with unwelcome comments, you can redirect the conversation to a different topic. For instance, if someone comments on your diet, you can say, "Speaking of food, have you tried that new restaurant? It's one of my favorites."

Educate Without Condemning

If you are close with the person who is making the comments, instead of reacting defensively, consider explaining that you're not comfortable with their comments about your body. Be aware, though, that this will likely make the person extremely uncomfortable, as this may be a normal behavior for them. If you can't communicate clearly with the person, or they're not a friend you talk with often, it may overly strain your relationship. If comments become persistent or offensive, it's important to set boundaries respectfully. You can say something like, "I appreciate your concern, but I'm comfortable with my choices and body." This conveys your assertiveness without causing undue offense.

Seek Support

Sometimes, discussing challenging topics with a friend or support group can help you process your feelings. Expat communities, both online and in-person, can provide a safe space to share experiences and strategies for handling comments. If living in Japan is negatively impacting your confidence, reach out - you’ll be surprised how many people feel the same way.

Stay aware of your mental and physical well-being

Without realizing it, you may begin to develop disordered eating habits as a response to feeling pressured and physically different to the majority of people around you. It’s not uncommon for expats to adopt extreme eating habits. If you have struggled with an eating disorder, or currently have one, really evaluate if living in Japan is the right step for you. Living in Japan may exacerbate your disorder, and there are very limited resources to help you recover. Being separated from your support network may leave you vulnerable.

Dealing with comments about body shape, diet, and eating habits can be emotionally draining. Practice self-care by engaging in activities that promote mental and emotional well-being, such as mindfulness, exercise, or seeking counseling if needed.


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