When you’re a bigger person, in a much smaller world, things are going to be different, and sometimes they may even be hard, but that doesn’t mean you need to fear them or avoid them. Body image in Bangkok and most of Southeast Asia is vastly different than what we face at home.
As a foreigner in Bangkok (or anywhere else in Thailand or Asia), you’re going to get more attention than you’re used to at home. You’re different. And if you’re off the beaten path and visiting small towns, there’s a good chance some of the locals have never seen a non-Thai person before. It happens. If you’re a foreigner and happen to be overweight, then you’ll get a little more attention than the other foreigners. It’s going to happen, you should probably accept before you continue reading.
You. Are. Different.
When I first arrived back in Bangkok, about two weeks ago, I wrote about how the taxi driver had made a motion with his hands to indicate that I was fat and then proceeded to guess my weight in kilos. Some were offended by this, and I can understand why, especially if you’ve never travelled in Asia. Having a total stranger try to guess your weight, sounds, and is offensive. So how do you deal with that? I ignore it. Seriously, it’s not worth getting angry about it because yelling at them will do nothing, except make you angrier. It’s a cultural thing, and while that doesn’t excuse it, it does explain why it may happen, and why you are not likely to get a reaction from the offender if you get angry with them.
Asian cultures (and there are many) do not operate the same way as North American or European cultures. Things we consider to be ‘good manners’ at home, do not translate over in Asia. Just as there are things that Asians consider to be ‘good manners’ that we, as travellers, disregard every day. Why? We’re generally not aware of the fact that we’re being offensive or rude. Of course, in most cases when someone tells us we’ve been offensive, we apologise, but once again that is a cultural thing that doesn’t translate in Asia.
Having locals comment on my weight can sometimes be a daily occurrence, and usually, happens in Thai. Sometimes I notice, sometimes I don’t. When I notice people staring, I smile and say hello, “Sawasdee-khaaa”, catching them off guard.
Last week I hung out at a bar/café with a travel writing friend. We had decided to sit at a table facing the street and I was telling him about my taxi encounter, and talking about the local reaction when I walk around. I’m not talking about the occasional stare, I’m talking about people going out of their way to stop, stare, and then make sure their friends are staring as well. I’m talking about catcalls that are not sexually based, but more like ‘Whoa, look at her, she’s big’, but in Thai. Things that happen every five or so minutes when I’m out exploring.
He believed me, but he didn’t really understand until we were sitting at that bar, looking onto the street, and being passed by locals. I spent the next couple hours nodding, smiling, and saying hello in Thai to every single person I caught staring at me. At one point he exclaimed, “Oh my God, it’s a whole bus!”, and yes, they were all looking right at me. I smiled, waved, said hello. They blushed, smiled, and some said hello back. Honestly, it made me laugh. We had basically turned it into a game to see who I could catch off guard.
I don’t always respond with a smile and a ‘Sawasdee-khaaa’, I’m not nearly perky enough. I’ve chided tuk-tuk drivers and listened to Arab men in Nana tell me that I need to walk more. I’ve caught women in the mall walking to their husband to have him check me out, and I have stood there staring at her, eyebrows slightly raised, with a smile on my face. The fact that she hid behind her husband, kind of made my day. I didn’t do or say anything, all I did was make her aware that I had heard her, I knew what she was doing, and I wasn’t okay with her choice. She got the message.
Body image in Thailand, and many places in Asia is very unhealthy. It’s a society where thinness is preferred, and overweight Thai people (they exist) grow up being called a cow, pig, and other horrible names on a daily basis. This is part of the culture, but not indicative of the culture (or the people) as a whole.
Thailand, and Asia are a truly fascinating part of the world. Some of my best travel experiences have happened in Asia, and I am so happy to be back.
It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous about visiting a new country. Everything is unknown, you have no idea what is going to happen, but don’t let your nerves or fear take control of your life. Yes, you may have rough days, every traveller does, it’s part of the lifestyle. The most important take away is this, learn to be happy with who you are as a person; what you look like, where your life is headed, everything. If you can learn to be happy with yourself, nothing, and I mean NOTHING, else matters.
During my time in Thailand, I used the Lonely Planet guide, which was quite helpful in terms of the base planning – a good option for getting the basics together. Once that is done, I highly recommend speaking to locals and fellow travellers for up-to-date tips and advice.