Last week I felt like a beached whale. It started when out of curiosity I wanted to weigh myself.
I know … my first mistake.
It was Wednesday and when I got to the gym I noticed they had a scale. So I asked if I could use it. They obliged of course. Just as I was about to step on they frantically pointed to my feet to tell me I needed to remove my shoes and socks.
I thought it was weird, but then I thought welllllll … I guess I could do without the extra weight. 😉
But it turned out this contraption wasn’t just a scale. It was some crazy machine which apparently could measure body fat, determine the age of your body, and know what you ate for dinner last Tuesday, all through electrical impulses … or something (shrug).
It printed out this chart full of figures and statistics. Even if it was in English I’d still have been overwhelmed.
There was one table though I could understand. It had pictures of body sizes and underneath each thumbnail was a space where the machine could tick to say which category you fell into.
I quickly scanned the chart, left to right. I couldn’t see a tick. It was blank underneath the “average” boxes i.e. where I assumed I’d be. I was confused.
Then I saw it. The machine had ticked a box further right than I had anticipated.
The box said: “slightly obese”.
Obese? Really? (%$#@ing seriously?!)
I was devastated.
Even though I knew in my head I shouldn’t take a machine that was, more likely than not, super inaccurate so seriously, (Jeff’s measurements were blatantly, horrendously wrong too!) I couldn’t help feeling depressed about it.
As I read that one word “obese” it felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I was speechless.
The Chinese woman who had helped us use the machine responded to my exasperation by pointing to my hips and butt, making a big, round gesture.
I think she was just trying to say I had bigger hips than her, but it didn’t help.
All I felt was shame.
I walked out of the weighing room holding back tears and went into our usual workout room to collapse into a puddle of misery on the floor.
I felt completely deflated. I’d been so pumped to go and move my body and feel strong. And instead I felt embarrassed … and huge.
It’s not uncommon for me to feel like a big, round giant here in China. My body type, well, Western body types in general, are very different to women’s body shapes here.
Our whole bone structure is different. For example, we’re a lot taller and we carry body fat in different areas too.
Anyway, it was difficult to remember all this when this breakdown of my body’s measurements was sitting there in front of me, screaming “you’re obese!”.
Seeing it written on a piece of paper was different. It looked so formal and correct. So official and authoritative. Decisive even. I mean, it was full of numbers and ratios and printed on this snazzy card. It had to be right, right?
After a lot of unpacking with Jeff and more annoying tears I got up and carried on with my workout. But it was not easy feeling labeled “obese”.
A couple of days later I didn’t feel as bad about it. But only because I kept reminding myself it was a machine. It couldn’t possibly calculate all of the factors that have to be considered.
Plus your weight fluctuates surprisingly a lot throughout the day. (I didn’t know just how much until Jeff explained). But literally everything you do can affect the number on the scale.
Whether you’ve just eaten, whether you’ve just ran, whether you’ve drank anything that day, where you are in your menstrual cycle, whether your commute was stressful, whether you’re team Edward or team Jacob. There are SO many factors.
But disregarding all the other mumbo-jumbo statistics about ratios and percentages I did find out my weight. I was 72kg. The heaviest I’ve ever been.
Seeing that number and translating it into stone, (11 stone for you, my British friends), I was shocked.
Maybe the machine was right? Am I overweight? Knowing Jeff only weighs a little bit more than me, crushed me too. It tugged on that sneaky insecurity that as a woman I should be small and petite, fragile looking even. I shouldn’t take up space.
But just as I was about to head down that “oh my god, it’s right, I’m a whale” mentality, I remembered what Jeff had said about the machine.
- It was probably programmed for Chinese averages, not Western
- Machines are never the whole answer, they’re not to be regarded as a complete authority
- The gym is only a month or two old and much of the equipment is falling apart, why should this machine be of any quality?
- Boobs + muscle
Let’s be real, boobs are just fat. And well, if we’re friends or if you’ve ever seen me before then you know I have hugeeeee boobs! Therefore I have a lot of fat stored there.
That alone would have influenced the machine’s calculations and skewed the results. It didn’t tell you where the fat is stored, only how much.
Plus my whole training program has been about building muscle. And it’s well known (though hard to remember when you look at the number on the scale!) that muscle is more dense than fat.
So these last few months I can have burnt fat while working out, but my weight can stay the same or even get heavier because of muscle growth.
(Side point: this article here is super helpful and can give you more info on your weight and its fluctuations).
Most of which has gone to my glutes! Yay! Something I’m very happy about.
So fast forward a few days …
I had just got to terms with my own body again. I was beginning to feel happy in my skin when I had to go to a teacher training workshop over the weekend with my boss.
It was the first time I’d spent so much one-on-one time with her, so I was already a bit nervous. We were on our way to Shenzhen and the train journey was going to take 5 hours. Which is a longggggg time when you don’t really know someone that well.
We were chatting about this and that, about the school and Chinese culture. And then I can’t even remember how the conversation started, or if she just said it out of the blue, but my boss said to me:
“You should go to the gym more with Jeff, he told me he goes everyday, you could be thinner.”
I was gobsmacked. “You could be thinner.” I just didn’t know what to say.
I felt paralyzed by my frustration. I wanted to reply with all these answers about how mine and Jeff’s training programs are totally different, how I have wider hips than her, how I even wanted a big butt, and how in my country it really wasn’t okay to comment on someone’s body like that.
But I couldn’t. I was stuck. It was like the shock of her saying this to my face stunted my speech. I didn’t know what to do with all that emotion.
You know when someone confronts you out of the blue and you get that tight, scrunching feeling in your chest? You’re totally unprepared and know you need to respond somehow, but all you can think of is how can you escape that situation as quickly as possible?
Well it was that kind of feeling. Literally a deer stunned by headlights moment.
It’s not the first time a Chinese woman has said I’m too big/fat/heavy/round. But my boss? I didn’t know how to react. This felt like a total violation of our relationship.
There were so many relationship boundaries I felt had been crossed. Add into the mix cultural differences too, and I felt like I was dangling on a high-rise course. No matter which way I chose to go or respond, I was going to misstep somehow. It was messy.
It is a cultural thing here. It seems to be okay to have an opinion on someone else’s body and to freely share it with them, without their asking.
And it’s one I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.
It also seems to be similar to the West in that women can’t win. People think you’re either too fat and so they say it to your face, or too thin and so they pile onto your dinner heaped spoonfuls of rice.
But even though I know it’s a cultural thing, that it’s normal for Chinese people to comment on another woman’s body, I couldn’t help but feel violated.
I didn’t want it to affect me so much. I was trying to remember it’s a different culture, with different standards of beauty, and a different perspective of size, but it was taking everything in me not to start crying in front of her.
I messaged some girl friends for their advice. They were so kind and reminded me (again) just how different Chinese women’s bodies are.
How they are naturally a lot smaller framed. And don’t have as big hips as Western women. How normally they don’t have as big butts or boobs either; they are naturally more petite frame. Both of which, of course, are fine and beautiful.
But still, to be judged so openly from another woman (and my boss!) was so hurtful. It really got to me. I couldn’t stop thinking about what this would do to our working relationship.
I just felt like a huge whale. And it only made matters worse when I found out we had to share a room together. For. a. whole. weekend.
My plan was ruined. I was going to politely excuse myself and go and cry on the phone to Jeff for a good hour, alone in my room. But I couldn’t. I had to grapple with all those emotions, and try to sweep them aside until I had the brain and personal space to deal with them.
So, I know before I said I was happy my butt and my muscles were bigger, so why am I now saying I was so upset when I was told that I was big? It should have been a compliment to me, right? Because I’ve been working on that.
And I see what you mean. But my issue is that a) my body was being openly criticized without warrant and b) I was being told I was too big. Like what I have chosen for my body and my health is wrong, and “oh hey, it also makes you look unattractive, so you should probably stop”.
The point of me telling you all this is to remind you you’re not what other people think of you. And your value doesn’t come from your measurements.
Whether someone tells you you’re too big or not thin enough, your worth isn’t determined by a number on a scale, (even when it’s printed on a fancy-pants chart).
I know you’re bombarded with the message you need to be smaller, from dress sizes in shops, from the models you see and from the obsession mainstream media has with women shrinking through new fancy cleanses.
And I know how easy it is to compare your shape to other women’s and feel shitty if you’re not the smaller one. It can easily make you feel like being your own size and shape is wrong.
But remember this:
You’re allowed to take up space.
You’re allowed to exist in whatever shape you want to. Don’t let people make you feel like you should be smaller physically or emotionally.
You’re allowed to be visible and to be heard.
If like me you enjoy strength training (if you’ve never tried it, I seriously recommend it) enjoy feeling strong. Marvel at and be thankful for your body’s ability to grow and strengthen.
And remember when your body changes shape and looks even more different to other women’s, it’s not a bad thing if you don’t want it to be.
You have different goals and you are allowed to pursue them.
However you can remind yourself of your own personal goals and WHY they are your goals. Write them down, set alarms, meditate on them. Whichever way works for you.
Because it’s all too easy for your goals to get warped into how other people think you should show up in the world.
It’s not easy (obviously) because people always seem to have an opinion on your body no matter what, but it is possible to keep your head on straight whenever those unwanted instances happen.
Try and remember whenever someone makes a snarky comment in the future, that they have no idea what your reality is or what your relationship with your body is like.
Because they don’t. Only you do. Plus, it’s none of their damn business.