Content Warning: The writer discusses toxic beauty standards, fat and body shaming in Filipino culture with mentions of disordered eating and mental illness. If any of these topics are upsetting to you, be gentle with yourself. (Here are other stories of ours.)
Picture this: as soon as you arrive at a Filipino family gathering you brace yourself for the comments and questions about your body and weight. Sure enough, you hear the words poisoned with fat and body shame. The phrasing can be different each time but they always impart a bad feeling.
You’re told you’re either eating too much or not enough. Spending too much time in the sun or not enough time on your figure. For many of us, this is a tale that feels as old as time. Too much or not enough.
As a Filipina-Canadian with mental illness, I have to work really hard on my relationship with food so that it’s healthy. In the last few years, my weight has fluctuated thanks to disordered eating and depression. And believe me, I’ve noticed. My relatives have noticed. Sometimes, those relatives feel the need to voice what they’ve noticed.
It’s so tempting to clapback, respond with a “kayo rin po (you too)” and echo back what’s been said. But if there’s a chance for real conversation, self-reflection, and education, we can call in our loved ones so that the narrative changes.
This isn’t easy. Besides, where do you even begin?
Remember, even if body shame and “hiya” are directed at us by our Filipino families, our bodies are our own.
Underline that. Highlight it. Write it in the stars. Read it out loud for those in the back. TL;DR, they do not have authority over your body.
Whether we think someone’s body is a cause for concern or celebration, this remains true. When someone comments on our bodies, they assume they have authority to speak on something that is inherently ours and ours alone.
If you and/or your loved one aren’t ready for an ongoing conversation—which is totally fine—this point is the most basic boundary you can set. “Tita, I’m happy to discuss anything else in my life but my body is not up for discussion.”
When shame is at the core of our conversations, it’s hard to move forward. It’s why these points are both for ourselves and our loved ones.
If you need a moment or space from the situation or person, take it. If you’re not ready to share how you feel yet, that’s totally okay but know that you do not have to subject yourself to this.
But, I’m guessing, if you clicked on this article, you’re ready to address it. With that in mind...
You can make your response as low-key as possible. “Hey, that comment didn’t sit right with me. I would appreciate it if next time you avoided talking about my body.”
Now, when you call in body shaming, the word “concern” will probably come up. It certainly did when I spoke to my family about the language they use for my body.
It can sting when we receive comments like “I’m just looking out for your health” or “I’m just worried about you.” These statements may have been made out of love, but if we’re having a conversation about it, it’s probably because the intent is not at all shining through.
When the words hurt, share with your Filipino family that the impact of body shaming cuts deeper than the intent.
Throughout my mental health journey, I’ve struggled with disordered eating and a distorted body image for years. Some days, my depression keeps me tethered to my bed. Going to a Filipino gathering can feel overwhelming especially when someone I may not know very well decides to comment on the body I am still learning to accept.
It’s important to remind others and ourselves that when we choose to offer opinions on someone’s body, we don’t know what they might be going through physically or mentally. What you might think is a compliment could be a reminder of someone’s illness. What you might be concerned about could be the last thing on someone’s mind as they fight to stay alive.
Our bodies are always changing. Many of us (including myself!) have witnessed significant changes through the last year. At the very least, our routines have changed on top of everything else. Weight gain or fluctuation is a natural part of life, more so when it is in response to trauma (see: a pandemic).
Lately, I’ve told my loved ones that I need them to be clear with me. If they really need to express their concern, I’ve asked them to voice it plainly: “I’m worried about your health.” In doing this, I can immediately understand where they are coming from rather than being hurt by passive aggressive and imposing comments like, “You should be more careful about what you’re eating.”
When we clarify our Filipino family’s intentions, we might be able to delve into other reasons people participate in body shaming.
If “it’s just a joke,” we can remind them there is a world of humor beyond our shape and skin. If they’re worried we “won’t find a partner this way,” we can remind them there’s more to love and attraction than what’s skin deep.
To be clear, though, this conversation is reserved mainly for my closest family: people who I trust enough to share these concerns with me personally and in private. And honestly, even if I appreciate the intent and can hear them out, it doesn’t mean the comment is warranted or necessary.
Their intent is an explanation and not an excuse. Besides, sometimes the intent is misguided or shaped by misinformation.
So, if you’re willing, remind your loved one(s) that body shaming is based on skewed expectations of Filipino beauty and health.
Much of what we believe about bodies has been fed to us through media which is largely shaped by Western ideals. Beauty is subjective. Our ideas of what it even means to look Filipino can be constricted by colonialism and lack of representation.
Unlearning these ideals takes time, especially for ourselves. Ultimately, our family’s education (or miseducation) is not our responsibility but if it’s within our capacity to carry a conversation, patience is key.
As I shared in a recent love letter, my mom used to wake me up by pinching my nose. It took years for me to tell her how harmful this was to my self-esteem. Just a few months ago, we sat down and talked about how damaging it was to only see mestiza or European noses in Filipino media.
Now, when I tell her that I’ve been hurt by relatives’ comments, my mom empathizes with me. She’s told me how growing up, she felt judged for being too short or too Brown. It turns out we had more in common than we thought.
I know I’m not the only one who has experienced body shaming from the women I look up to.
I hold so much love for my mom, titas, and lolas. Being open to my mom’s experiences (and her being open to mine) allowed me to recognize that this is an inheritance that we can learn to refuse. We don’t have to participate in this behaviour even if it’s been passed down to us.
When we draw on this empathy, we aren’t excusing the harm, but we might bring a new perspective to our loved ones.
Emphasize that our bodies are not what define us as Filipinos.
When the very first thing we say upon reuniting with a loved one is tied to their appearance, we prioritize this one aspect of someone’s self over the others.
There are so many more things we can check in on: their family, job, dreams, mental state, relationships, common interests, and more.
Remind your loved ones that we always have options when we start a conversation with someone. Many of us know the saying, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.”
We can compliment someone’s appearance instead. We can also compliment someone beyond their physical attributes. Doing the latter can help dismantle our obsession with beauty ideals and appearances. Our bodies are the least interesting parts of our lives.
Let’s take this suggested dialogue from earlier and jazz it up a bit: “Tita, my body is not up for discussion. But you know what else I’ve got going on aside from these gorgeous curves?”
Of course, in the same way your body is your own, their actions are theirs. If they continue to cross this boundary, you can remove yourself from the situation.
Part of my struggle with borderline personality disorder (BPD) is finding a stable sense of self. While not everyone has BPD, most of us do have trouble with how we see ourselves. Sometimes my social media feed has felt like it’s drowning in a positivity that goes way over my head and I can’t reach.
In the past few months, it’s been revolutionary to me to recognize that sustainable self-love means we can come to a place of neutrality with our bodies.
My therapist tells me to make things easier for my future self even if it means enduring short-term discomfort.
When it comes to body shaming, I also think of the kids in my family and community. What kind of culture do I want to cultivate for them? What kind of harm have my loved ones endured?
There are going to be days where it’s harder to love ourselves. But I hope we show up anyway. May we all stay kind and intentional on calling in our Filipino family and passing down a culture we can celebrate.
Cover photo by Junessa Rendon.
Have you experienced body shaming in your Filipino family? Are you learning to love your Filipina beauty in all its forms?
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