American in Vietnam, pen and ink on graph paper, doodle
© 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
I once went bathing suit shopping in China. The store I went to was tiny, the size of a master-bedroom closet. All the swimsuits were either Large or Extra-Large. After poring through the racks I finally found one Medium-sized bikini. I took it to the sales clerk, pointed to the M on the tag and asked by motioning around the store if there were any others that size.
The sales clerk looked at me askew. At the time I was a size 4, and what I really wanted was a Small but figured I’d have to make due with Medium. I pointed again to the M on the tag then to myself, and with all the flair of Vanna White I waved my arm up and down the length of my body as if to say, See? I’m not Large or Extra-large.
The clerk said something in Mandarin, at which point four Chinese shoppers broke out giggling. She disappeared to the back of the store and soon emerged with three more bathing suits, all size M. I picked out a bikini with bottoms more like shorts than panties, gave her my money, and walked back to my hotel without trying on the suit.
When I got to my room and changed, I could hardly pull the bottoms up over my hips. Once on, the fabric squeezed so tightly that what bit of fat I had rolled over the waistband. The top was even worse. I could barely get it over my shoulders and breasts, and in the end it looked like parts of me were vacuum packed. It was then that I realized that Large and Extra-Large in Chinese women sizes were more like Small and Medium in U.S. women sizes.
The night before I bought the suit, I’d walked down to the pool and noticed a man who I assumed to be European, rather large in the belly, wearing such a skimpy Speedo that you could barely see it under his rolls of flesh and flab. When I saw my own reflection in the mirror, that way-too-small bikini pressing me like sausage casing, I decided to go down to the pool anyway. If men had no compunctions about flashing their imperfect bodies, well, I’d have zero shame about bearing mine.
This might seem a tad disingenuous, a size 4 woman lamenting the phenomenon of incredibly shrinking body sizes in Asia, but on my recent trip to Vietnam I became even more aware of how large we Americans look next to the Vietnamese. I asked my female work colleagues about it and they said that young Vietnamese women are extremely body conscious and have landed on the tiniest of sizes as the body ideal.
When I lived in Spain in the mid-1980s, women in their early 20s smoked and drank coffee to stay thin. The food I loved most—sharp cheese, air-cured ham, and chewy rolls—was comida non-grata among my Spanish amigas. My best friend regularly pulled the soft doughy sections out of her dinner rolls, and at times after I finished eating whatever was on my plate, I’d polish off the guts from her bread.
As middling ages tend to have middling effects, my body has slowly grown into a size 6, which it is barely holding. I can’t keep up with the exercise regime that once kept me at my thinnest and firmest. One of my Vietnam colleagues and I talked over dinner my last day in Saigon, and she confirmed that in her country, size 6 is not even close to Small. More like 0 or 1, she said, which is not surprising given that women there naturally have much smaller frames to begin with than we Americans.
Fortunately, like me she enjoyed good food, and so the two of us ate our several shared meals with gusto.
For better or worse, I did feel more self-conscious of my body while in Saigon than I’ve ever felt before. Walking behind throngs of size 0 Vietnamese women, I found myself wondering what will become of the body ideal over time as images of super-thin supermodels become ever more pervasive.
Interestingly, the woman across from me on the flight home from Hong Kong was a U.S. Olympian returning from Beijing. Her body was muscular yet by no means small. She looked healthy in all her sinewy glory.
In the end, I realize, it’s not size that matters (except insofar as weight—too much or too little—imperils one’s health). What matters most is how you feel, inside and out. One can be super-thin yet unable to swim across a pool or hike up a mountain.
What good is a skinny body that can’t do much but look great in clothes?