Written by Amélie Keyser-Verreault
One of the most important criterion determining whether a woman is considered beautiful is thinness in Taiwan and elsewhere. Under the influence of an increasing cult of beauty, my field works reveal the existence of various forms and causes of multiplying and exacerbating fat-shaming and beauty-related conflicts within the contemporary Taiwanese family. Although the idea that a close linkage between physical appearance and womanhood is certainly not new, recent research on women’s experiences of body transformation underscores that the degree of beauty pressure is unprecedented in contemporary societies.
In fact, the new intensity of bodily scrutiny is not only an amplified pressure for women’s beautification, but it also signals the increasing control, surveillance, and rejection of “unattractive” bodies. Given the cult of slenderness and a global culture that demands a commanding appearance, women who are judged as overweight are now suffering an unprecedented wave of fat-shaming and various other forms of size-based body discrimination. Moreover, the cult of beauty feeds a fat-phobic culture, encouraging open disdain for those living in larger bodies. As a result, the valorisation of beauty means the apprehension of fatness and fat-shaming is inherent in this beauty cult.
Weight-related stigma is still dominant in Taiwan, and there is an active discrimination of fat women based on their looks and their assumed characteristics or behaviours. For example, people regularly regard obese persons as responsible for their own corpulence. A very famous nursery rhyme in Hokkien Taiwanese (a commonly spoken language in Taiwan) even describes fat people as an “ass” or a “stupid” person (大胖呆): fat people are presumed to be unintelligent or to lack social skills. Another example is that there is a very popular Chinese saying that goes, “One white complexion hides three flaws and a bit of fatness destroys all beauty (一白遮三醜 一肥毀所有).”
In Taiwanese families, the disciplining of female bodies takes a great variety of forms, including gentle advice, material aid, emotional support, information sharing (e.g., beauty talks), positive reinforcement, and so on. In fact, modern parental discourse in post-war Taiwan favours proximity and a deep connection with children. This modern parenting discourse contributes to heightened surveillance. As mothers are responsible for developing and honing their children’s social and cultural capital, they are keen to exercise surveillance over their daughters’ beauty assets.
The intensification of surveillance has the potential to cause many tensions within families. In my fieldwork, there are two dominant categories regarding mother-daughter conflicts. On the one hand, disagreements about the so-called “normal” weight, family members’ indifference toward women’s weight loss projects, and mothers comparing their daughter with other female family members. Regarding the first category, many mothers provide guidelines or watchwords regarding their daughters’ clothing or makeup, while others have precise and non-negotiable limits about their daughter’s maximum weight. In other cases, one or more family members are indifferent to or show no understanding of diets.
In the second category of mother-daughter conflicts, the dominant ideal of beauty and the importance of physical appearance in a woman’s life are ingrained. A typical intergenerational conflict occurs when such fat-shaming takes place during family gatherings. Many mothers get into the habit of comparing their daughter with other female family members like cousins or cousins’ girlfriends. Many participants consider this kind of comparison one of the most humiliating things that can happen to them.
In Taiwan, more and more women cannot or do not want to abide by the thinness ideal, and anti-fat-shaming protests are multiplying. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that some participants confirmed that they proudly confront their parents and say things like “a beautiful face is not the only important thing women should care about” or “I do not count on a pretty look to earn my life.” Finally, the ever more present cult of women’s beauty also generates disputes in couples, especially between married women and their spouses, since husbands are not always on board, and some disagree with the kind or the intensity of their wife’s aesthetic labour.
A particularity of discrimination based upon body shape in the East Asian context is that, for many Taiwanese mothers, their daughters’ perceived corpulence is failed intensive mothering. In other words, the issue of face-saving may be understood in terms of the relationship between a daughter’s body shape and a mother’s self-image and social reputation. In Taiwan, parents are facing increasing pressure to check or control their children’s body shape (身材審查), and how a child’s corpulence provokes interrogations regarding a mother’s ability to perform the “good” parent. In the particular case of daughters, their bodily shape is tightly associated with the parents’ and, more often, the mothers’ face-saving or face loss. Beauty is seen by women and their families not only as a personal asset (as is often the case in Western societies) but as a symbol of other family members’ qualities. In my interviews and fieldwork, a pervasive theme was the idea that a daughter’s plumpness means failed mothering or a mother losing face.
When it comes to fatness and physical appearance, there are three specific intense moments in every family. Firstly, special holidays and important family days (e.g. the Chinese New Year, the wedding of a family member) are particularly difficult moments for many women since they are occasions of aesthetic competition between female family members.
The second moment is the postpartum period. Given the extraordinary proliferation of representations of celebrity maternity, being a pregnant beauty and then regaining a pre-pregnancy figure after childbirth—that is, becoming a “Yummy Mummy”—are now the socially sanctioned options for a mother. Women’s failure to regain their pre-pregnant figure causes altercations between women and their spouses and in-laws.
The third moment of tension in the family is the period when a woman returns to Taiwan after studying abroad. Living and studying abroad allowed them to loosen their hold in relation to their bodily discipline and reconsider many gendered inequalities. One of the strong themes emerging from the interviews is the feeling of freedom or limitlessness that many women experienced while they lived abroad. I was repeatedly told of this liberation from the pressure and criticism associated with women’s shape and weight. Many women revealed how they felt good when they did not need to be slender and were not afraid of getting dark skin (because of suntan) or being criticised when they ate happily. Many of them discovered that the fat-shaming norm in Taiwan is not universal.
When allowing their children to study overseas, parents make an important investment in their children and see it as an assurance of future success. Consciously or not, many of them wish their children to embody a modern and aspirational figure in the eyes of others. Parental expectations are somewhat greater for women as the “upgrading” of their human capital often includes the realisation or maintenance of the dominant aesthetic ideal. When they see that their daughter does not conform to the beauty canon, the mismatch between parents’ expectations and reality often causes conflicts.
Recently, the film Heavy Craving (大餓) (2019), portraying the story of a rotund woman who suffers from everyday sizeism, bears witness to the increasing sensitisation to fat-shaming-related discrimination. For many women living and studying abroad or those taking feminist courses in Taiwanese universities, many highly educated women have become critical of or now refuse to embody the dominant ideal of beauty and maintain a slim but sometimes unhealthy body. Body transformation, including the endless pursuit of physical attractiveness and the regulation of unattractive bodies, is a particularly rich cultural site for examining women’s constant negotiations between the self, kinship, and social norms. I wish to underline the fat acceptance movement, promoting the value of body diversity, has fostered feelings of fat pride for many women.
Amélie Keyser-Verreault is a postdoctoral fellow affiliated with Tübingen University. She holds a doctoral degree in sociocultural anthropology (Laval University) and research body politics and gender with a focus on beauty politics, maternity, aging and resistance in East Asia.
This article is published as part of a special issue on European Association of Taiwan Studies.