Part I Filipino Body Shaming Culture: Changing the Meanings of “Fat”
Are Filipinos|Filipino Americans more prone to body-shaming? Is there a difference between the meanings placed on being “fat” and how it’s perceived and received in the Philippines versus in America?
Imagine putting on your best face and excited to meet up relatives you haven’t seen in a while. You enter the screened front door and in stead of being greeted with pleasantries and kamustahan (hellos) you hear:
Uy, tumaba ka ata (you looks like you’ve gained weight)!
At other times, it could sound like this-
What happened to you, you’re like a stick. Payat mo masyado ( You’ve lost weight too much weight),
Ang sexy mo yata ngayon (you’re looking sexy).
It feels like if you turn right, you hit a wall and when you pivot to the left, same goes. You tell yourself, “ I don’t know where to place myself with you guys.” And sure, you might convince yourself that you’re the empowered American woman who just doesn’t give a %$# about what other people say.
In reality, we are social beings and caring about what people we care about think is a form of primal survival. Deep down inside, you want to be be accepted and feel like you belong to those Filipino potlucks without being body-shamed.
Being raised in the Philippines, the type of greeting where someone points out a physical attribute (or two) is something I’m familiar with.
If you’ve been following me, you probably heard me share that I’ve been to hundreds, at least 400 Filipino (American) homes. In visiting lots of Filipino homes, I get these types of pointing-out-physical-attributes statements quite a bit. They range from-
“ Uy, tumaba ka,” to,
“mukhang pagod ka ata ngayon (you look tired), to
“ my beautiful therapist is here.”
I notice that a person’s tonality do not change from the type of compliments they give. In fact, traditional Filipinos typically see it as a compliment that they notice something in you-the good, the bad & sometimes the ugly.
As an immigrant myself, I too, have learned intrinsically from being raised in the Islands to focus less in the actual statement but on the purpose on why such statement was released.
It's important to point out that certain people can simply be ill-intent. I’m going to talk about ways to navigate your conversations when you feel body-shamed in a way that is culturally-relevant to both you and an elder. I will cover this in Part II: Filipino Body Shaming Culture to Body-Image Love.
In this post, we will uncover meanings placed on being fat or thin and taking a closer look at body shaming statement not for its content rather for its purpose to the speaker. In this way, you can stand a bit distant to see the picture as it is and find ways to negotiate healthier conversations.
Without this understanding, we will all lose sight of potential meaningful conversations because our wounds are exposed to the perceived source (the body-shamer) of it- and retaliating seem like a reasonable move. When you’re able to widen your lens to view the source as part of a system rather than one who has a character flaw, having a healthier, less charged conversation seem more possible.
FAT: THE MEANINGS OF MATABA IN THE PHILIPPINES
A syringe for a baby that has been poked painfully for inoculation means pain.
A syringe for a body buider poked to raise up his testosterone level to build bulging muscle means strength.
A syringe for an aging woman who gets poked for botox can mean youth.
At any point, the object of these meanings-the syringe did not changed.
Our experiences, imprints of the past, social influences, feedback loop received from others, all influence the meaning we placed on words, like syringe and Fat.
One of the most used words in describing children in the Philippines are fat, malusog and healthy.
They are often used interchangeably.
The word healthy may bring up images of eating a balance diet, vegetables and fruit, exercising to name a few. Growing up in the Philippines, one measure of good parenting is to raise children who are “healthy.” As they may fit the above definition, they can also mean fat or hindi buto’t balat (not bones and skin).
The Philippines and America differ significantly in their socio-economic standing. The former is known to be an under-developed country and the latter as a developed country. Parents in the Philippines whether rich or poor work hard mainly for two things- to put their kids to the best school they can afford, and to provide with food and other material necessities.
One of the evidence therefore of a good parenting and a successful household is to produce healthy, malusog, not stick and bone kids. So, having a “fat” kid isn’t seen as detrimental (although the Philippines is getting more informed about providing kids healthier options) but rather, even a compliment.
It’s not uncommon that a Filipino from the islands would describe a “fat” kid as
“ Si Jordan ang healthy healthy (Jordan is so healthy).”
This is a very popular video in the 90’s. I’ve seen this commercial numerous times growing up. Now, one can argue that this is brought about by commercialism and the hotdog industry’s marketing tactic to push their product into Filipino household. There is no argument here but why this speaks to the Filipino family is what I want you to be more curious about.
PAYAT: MEANINGS OF THIN IN THE PHILIPPINES
Philippines has a very complex social economic hierarchy and class system. Based on socio-economic status, a Filipino can fall under Class A, B, C, D & E.
Class A as the affluent strata, people who have disposable income and live in exclusive subdivisions like Dasmarinas Makati or Forbes Park. Class E are the deemed “squatters” who inhabit lands without permission or don’t pay rent.
Most people fall under Class C & D according to the Philippines Social Weather Station, with Class D significantly higher than Class C. People in these two categories are colloquially called “ the masa.”
The poor scrape off their plate and their pockets each day to just feed their children enough. Consequently, their children may be thin and malnourished.
In the Philippine culture and in images played on TV, these are kids who need help and whose parents have failed in providing them enough nurturance. Many poor people attempt to beef up their kids with cheap foods like hotdog (as with the rich) and chicheria (chips and junk food) to demonstrate the ability to parent and provide well for their children.
Many times, this is an unconscious move from the parent. The picture of a payat (thin) child may conjure up feelings of inadequacy as a parent and the image of a fat child serves as evidence otherwise.
In short, payat means you don’t have enough food/ material possession and therefore belong to a particular class.
In the Filipino culture where hierarchy of many different types allow access and privilege into the world of the well-off and therefore-opportunities, a parent’s role although not (always) consciously realized is to at least “let their child’s foot in the door.”
Philippines also has a high prevalence for drug use especially for the street drug called shabu. One of the side effects of taking this drug is loosing weight. It is not uncommon that someone who has lost weight rapidly might hear the comment-
Nag-sha shabu ka siguro (you might be taking shabu).
The image one may have with someone taking shabu is that they’re “dead-beat,” or depressed-basically not happy.
The opposite image for someone who is “fat”-happy.
In fact, many comedians in the Philippines have been made famous by their weight like Dabyana, Dona Buding, and kid shows like Going Bulilit always ensure that they represent the fat kid on the block.
Fat is cute. Fat means well-off or well-provided. Happy. Care-free. Upper Socio-economic class.
Thin means not well provided for. Impoverished. Sad. Lower Socio-Economic Class.
Which one would you rather be in?
WHAT’S YOUR DEFINITION OF FAT?
The comments on my physical attribute as I was visiting Filipino homes were meant to be a greeting rather than an intentional insult. Growing up in the Philippines helped shaped the meaning I have placed on the word “fat,” & it also taught me more to notice the reason behind the statement rather than noticing the statement itself.
Again, I want to point out that some people can be ill-intent and you and I will cover this more on Part II:----. In this post, we’re focusing on most people- not the ones who get kilig (shiver inside from excitement) by putting others down. But ones who use language and the meanings they’ve attached to it as their way to communicate.
In the American culture it makes sense that you feel insulted when these body-shaming statements are used as a greeting. They bluntly sound rude. I hope this post can provide you an alternative story or a story we can all evolve from.
In the Western culture, the value system of saying what you mean and expressing your need are highly regarded skills to be a successful social being.
If you say I’m fat. That’s what you mean.
If you called me a stick. That’s what you mean.
These are hurtful words nevertheless and the imprints it leave many Filipino American children way into adulthood cannot be easily shaken off.
The intent to connect, to ease awkwardness or to simply sound like THE smarty pants in Filipino reunions can sometimes cost many to feel shamed-body shamed.
What meanings have you placed on the word Fat?
THE CLASH BETWEEN MEANINGS: FILIPINO FAT AND AMERICAN FAT
How many fat role models have you been surrounded with. I mean people who were well-liked by others. These are common models in the Philippines.
Commercials and TV sitcoms are well represented with images of being fat.
Many Filipino children’s books have a healthy, leaning to chubby looking characters.
Often one who looks thin may get the comment -
“Mukha kang may sakit (you look sick).”
The words fat, healthy, malusog, taba are words often used in the Philippines. They can also be used in a condescending manner of course with an obvious taunting pattern like-
Ay, ayan na si tabachoy...taba...taba..taba. (there goes fatsy, fat, fat, fat).
This can be easily detected but its not uncommon for an adult to teach a child to use fat-ness as a defense-
Daganan mo nga (sit on him).
Teaching that fat-ness and being big has its advantage.
I’ve shared a few meanings I grew up with (in the Philippines) and this is not to say that fat kids in the Islands are never ridiculed. That’s simply untrue.
I noticed that Americans use the word fat much less than I’m accustomed to growing up- in commercials, in children’s books, in conversations.
When watching Peppa Pig, a UK cartoon creation, the word fat can be heard often.
Two Fat Ladies, a delightful cooking show also based in the UK showcased these 2 fat women in their homestead.
I’m not sure if these types of languages and titles can be mainstreamed in America. It seemed like big and fat people can only be seen in shows like the Biggest Looser, or My Diet Is Better Than Your TV shows.
American fat and Filipino fat do operate in different meanings.
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THE DARK SIDE OF FILIPINO BODY SHAMING
As I’ve mentioned earlier the meaning placed on fat-ness is sometimes used to gauge successful parenting or the ability of a parent to provide well. Another gauge is one’s ability to exhibit self-control.
Self-control ties in with obedience which is the goal of parenting in the Philippines.
Interdependence over independence, of course this can vary from one family to the other. But an irritation for fat-ness may be connected more with the perception of poor self-control. And some Filipino parents may be more ashamed about their child’s (or Adult child) inability to self-control than the actual sight of being fat.
With the inability to express it verbally, Filipino parents who are more traditional may unconsciously link their ability to parent (or parented) tied to their child’s inability to self-control resulting to fat-ness.
For now, it’s important to be curious about how meanings-like the syringe example can shape your perception of the word fat.
How can a baby have such adverse reaction like crying, turning red, kicking, with the sight of a syringe?
And how can...
A middle-aged woman getting botox can be so excited and filled with energy with the same syringe sight?
Meanings are formed by our experiences with words or experiences offered by others (parents) around a word.
Filipino Americans and the context of the word fat brought about by (traditional) Filipinos clash with the meanings represented and modeled in the American pop culture.
It makes sense that words often used to serve as a greeting or to ease awkwardness can be so abrasive and body- shaming.
Despite of this, the dark side of Filipino body-shaming cannot be denied.
In understanding meanings for both sides-
Traditional Filipinos using fat statements as a way to connect or to passively communicate shame vs Filipino Americans feeling body-shamed.
My hope is that Filipino Americans can integrate other stories around fatness as it is my hope that “traditional” Filipinos can soften their tone as not to leave imprints of shame in our young.
Roanne has been a Psychotherapist for more than 12 years. She has frequented at least 400 Filipino homes and counting. She is the author of the Ebook: 5 Pinoy Love Languages and the creator of the presentation entitled: Filipino Core Values & Considerations in Culturally Responsive Care.