It has been exactly a year, almost to the day, that I wrote a post about weight and how Indonesians shamelessly comment on your appearance, particularly on how “fat” you look. Today, I am looking at this cultural issue from the other side of the coin.
First of all, I haven’t been trying to lose weight. I never thought I needed to because I never seriously thought I was fat. I don’t even exercise. (I don’t say that with pride, trust me.) And honestly, I can’t really tell I’ve lost that much weight since I wear loose clothing most of the time to school, or stretchy clothes that fit people of all sizes exactly right, and I don’t own a mirror. Still—as my last visit to the Surabaya PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) has confirmed—I’ve lost a significant amount of weight, but by all accounts I am healthy, just thinner. Try telling an Indonesian this.
Last year, I reached the height of my annoyance tolerance level with Indonesians constantly telling me that I looked “fatter than before.” I had no idea how much worse it would be to lose a bunch of weight and be called kurus or thin. Now, I know. The comments are incessant. In the past month or so, most teachers—especially the male teachers—have commented on how before I was “fat” and now I am thin, followed with a barrage of questions on whether or not I’m on a diet and equating my thinness with being “ugly,” “sick” and “old.”
Here’s a typical conversation with a male teacher I barely speak to in any other context:
Male teacher: Whistles at me to get my attention and motions me over.
Me: I walk over grimacing because I know where this is going.
Male teacher: Wah! Melanie lebih kurus sekarang! Melanie sakit? Diet? / Ah, Melanie is thinner now! Are you sick? Are you on a diet?
Me: Tidak, saya tidak tau kenapa. Mungkin stress. / No, I don’t know why. Maybe stress.
Male teacher: Melanie harus makan banyak jadi lebih gemuk dan lebih cantik. Kurus, itu jelek! Seperti orang sakit. /Melanie must eat more to be fatter and more beautiful. Thin is ugly! You look like a sick person!
Do these men ever pull me aside to comment on my work or to talk to me about anything other than my appearance? No. Are the comments affecting my psyche? To some extent, yes, but not because I feel insecure about the way I look. I’m not having the meltdown in front of the mirror that occurred last year, but—though I thought it was impossible—I am more bothered.
When I get past the rage I feel on this commentary I must get at least once per day, I stop to think about it objectively. What about this bothers me so much? I’ve been in Indonesia long enough to know that comments on my appearance are just part of the territory. It’s how it goes. I expect it, and thus, I am not surprised or taken aback as it may have been at the beginning of this journey. Still, it is tiresome, and after much thought, I’ve determined that the reason I am bothered is because this is a magnified instance of people projecting their beauty ideals on me and telling me what’s “best.” (I’m talking about Indonesians here, but what does every single beauty magazine attempt to do in the Western world? And take a look at its results.) Even the people telling me I look “good,” are reaffirming what they think is good.
I respect that in Indonesia, people will actually say whatever they think to your face, but—in an ideal world, I realize—why say anything at all? I am no longer offended as I write this, it’s just a genuine question: If you believe my weight is a reflection of my happiness level—which is actually a valid belief—wouldn’t the more appropriate question be: How are you? What’s going on in your life? Instead, when I barely think about how fat or thin I am because I feel healthy and I’m concerned with things I care about infinitely more, people’s unsolicited comments invade my mental space on a daily basis and make beauty a focal point. And if that wasn’t enough, they proceed to tell me how to “improve” my appearance. Improve for whom? To what end? So I can please the male teachers I encounter? That’s the last thing I would ever do.
In Peace Corps, I feel these types of societal invasions—that are also present in the United States or in Ecuador—more intensely because I don’t have the usual distractions that would make all of this fade away; but it also helps me see it more clearly. It’s a fact that no matter where we may be, we all need bulletproof brains to prevent what other people or even, what entire societies, think from affecting us. It’s not an easy feat. In a world with so much noise and outside influence, every tiny comment we directly and indirectly receive eventually accumulates into some kind of internalization, whether positive or negative. We must always be on guard and it requires a lot of focus to recognize and often, dismiss, unsolicited criticism or even the compliments that overvalue some physical trait. The same amount of effort must go into remembering that beauty goes deeper than what can be seen, and that the only thing that matters is that we are healthy, happy and being true to our own goals and ideals.