My honeymoon period in Singapore ended the first time I went clothes shopping and discovered I’d become “plus sized” overnight. I wouldn’t have minded if it weren’t for one thing: I weighed all of 120 pounds.
That’s 54½ kilograms. Eight and a half stone. But in Singapore, thin is in. And in the land of the tai tai, I clearly wasn’t thin enough.
Singaporean women are impossibly tiny. They wear correspondingly tiny clothes that aren’t designed to accommodate the 3Bs (Boobs, Butt, Belly) that many Western expats bring with them when they relocate. I remember asking a stunningly beautiful salesgirl, who probably weighed 80 pounds soaking wet, if she had a certain dress in my size. Her gaze flickered over me from head to toe before she said dismissively, “We don’t have anything in your size.”
Buying bras was especially frustrating: in Singapore, the alphabet apparently stops at A. Discovering Marks and Spencer’s lingerie department was like finding a lacey oasis in the desert. There was a chart pinned to the change room door — to placate exasperated expats, I’m guessing — outlining the differences between Western breasts (“large and rounded”) and the Asian variety (“small and pointed”). I’m not sure I needed to know that, but I mentally filed it away in case I’m ever a contestant on Jeopardy.
Singapore is home to a very robust “slimming industry” that’s worth tens of millions of dollars. Search for “slimming in Singapore” and you’ll see what I mean: Google will obligingly cough up about 8,940,000 results in .24 seconds flat.
During the time I lived there, the country was captivated by the tragic story of local actress Andrea De Cruz, who almost died of liver failure thanks to bogus diet pills. It took her boyfriend’s donation of half his liver to save her life. (You can read her story on the site cosmeticsurgeryandbeauty.com. While you’re at it, take a look at the site’s tagline: “Because Nobody’s Perfect.” I know — the irony is killing me, too.)
The authors of a study published in the Singapore Medical Journal surveyed the literature to explain this preference for thinness among Singaporeans:
[E]conomic development and industrialisation are accompanied by a higher prevalence of obesity as well as increased media exposure to the norms of highly industrialised Western societies. As a result, there is a heightened level of societal concern with obesity, and values and norms relating to ideal body size change in preference for thinness, especially among adolescent females.
The pursuit of such an extreme body-type ideal can have far-reaching consequences. I’m no stranger to living in a weight-obsessed society, but it never affected me directly until I moved to Singapore. As disheartening as it was to have to forage for clothes that fit, what stung even more was the implicit message that not being a size 0 meant there was something inherently wrong with me.
While we sometimes whine about the differences we encounter in our host county, the onus is on us to adjust to them. But this issue goes deeper than a mere clash of cultures. The sad truth is that living in an environment where excessive thinness is the norm can lead to a warped body image and messed-up self-esteem for those who don’t conform to the standard. I’ve heard disturbing stories — some firsthand and many more through the grapevine — of risky weight-loss practices within the expatriate community. It’s a dangerous problem for which I don’t pretend to have a solution. I just hope that if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the unrelenting pressure to be thin, you’ll think twice before doing anything that may cause more harm than good.