Dear Asian Youth,
I remember my time in Vietnam very clearly. The mopeds were incessantly honking outside. Kids with their parents were eating pho on stools in the streets, and men were drinking Vietnamese coffee with their morning newspaper. By my seventh day, I still had not found any new clothes that fit me for my time there.
When I packed for my trip, I was told to pack lightly. Shorts, breathable t-shirts, and shoes that I could walk around in. Why would I bring my own clothes that were totally not fit for a humid climate when I could go there and just buy more? My goal was to find a beautiful ao dai to take back to California, since my mom told me that nothing could beat the ones in Vietnam.
That’s when I found out that not a lot of the clothes that were in stores fit me. I was called “big” by a male family friend when he picked us up from the airport. Nobody even batted an eye at it. It’s pretty standard behavior there.
In America, I’m a standard Large. I weigh around 160 pounds. I can find shirts for myself almost anywhere I go, except maybe Brandy Melville or Pacsun. But in Vietnam, I quickly found myself feeling like an outsider. I went from seeing the “L” on my shirts to seeing “XXL” or even “XXXL.” Storekeepers would have to dig around in their boxes to find shirts that could fit me. It was impossible to find a bra in my size at the department store—the clerk asked me and my aunt why I didn’t just go to a lingerie store or somewhere they could cater to bigger girls like me. She said that in “normal” stores, they wouldn’t just carry around clothes that were that big because it wasn’t a common size that many women looked for.
Of course, I could not find any ao dai in my size premade or being sold in any kiosks. I came to a shocking realization: Vietnam’s typical clothing sizes were way different than our sizes, and there was a lack of plus-size clothes.
Unfortunately, fat-shaming is not uncommon in Vietnamese culture. We are a group of brutally honest people who speak our minds and comment on our family members’ images without much hesitation. I cannot count how many times I have been called too fat or have been told I’m showing too much cleavage because my shirt was too tight, even while wearing a sweater. Additionally, there is an image most girls there try to reach: cute, petite, with long hair and a beautiful smile. My mother has told me many times she wishes I could dress more like a Vietnamese girl, in the Korean-style fashion that has become popular there and with lots of pastels, or wear less makeup so I look “more like a young girl and less like a witch.”
Obviously, not every girl thinks this way. There are rebels everywhere, and, as we become more and more progressive, the culture of fat-shaming starts to peel away bit by bit.
The Vietnamese are slowly accepting all body types, but the only way I can see this change happening fast is by having more conversations about how different body types are all beautiful and adding more inclusive size ranges.
However, nothing can change if we keep letting our family members chastise us for our weight and accept having no representation on Vietnamese television of any women who aren’t petite. Nothing can happen when Vietnamese media continues to promote petite celebrities as leading characters and show hosts while casting aside plus-size actresses, like Nguyen Minh Thao, as comic relief and supporting roles.
Vietnamese game shows are all the hype there right now, more so than soap operas or scripted shows, but there is still a stigma of having women of all body types represented on them in a positive light. On a comedic dating show, Bạn muốn hẹn hò, the men on the show typically express a desire for small, pure women, casting aside any desires for women not fitting into this image. Men, on the other hand, don’t seem to struggle with this issue. This is because while men of course also face these issues, it is not just expected of men to be thin to look good for women. Not a lot of the women on that dating show ask for thin men compared to all the men who ask for tiny, petite women. All of this adds to a toxic culture so hyper-fixated on women’s weights that it has become a literal joke.
So what can we do? Until the culture of fat-shaming can end, we need to realize how disgustingly judgmental and toxic it is. We have to stand up to family members who comment on our weight. We have to advocate for more diversity in Asian media. It’s time for our generation to be able to openly discuss weight in a positive manner and realize that we are able to change how body image is perceived in our communities.