The Skinny Aesthetic of Asia vs. The Fitspiration of the West: How The Two Opposing Ideals Fuel Body Dissatisfaction

“Your body is your own,” is probably one of the most common phrases you’ll hear when it comes to body positivity, and it should by all means be a given fact. After all, we are all human beings with our own quirks and personalities, and the same should apply when it comes to our body types as well, so why do we still need a constant reminder to think positively about our bodies? Unless you’ve lived far away from civilization all your life, you’ll know that our bodies are definitely not our own because it seems like our friends, family, and even the media have different opinions about how we’re supposed to look.


How many family gatherings have you been to? And how many times has someone made a comment about your weight? You’ve probably lost count already, and you either learned not to take them too seriously or you strive to change your appearance based on the opinions you hear. Either way, it seems like nothing you do is enough because the next time you’re at a family gathering again, there is bound to be someone who would say you’ve gained weight or gotten too thin. It’s not your relatives’ fault really; they probably only meant well. It’s just that we’ve all been presented with a very specific idea of what an ideal body type looks like, that we unconsciously want ourselves and our family members and friends to look like that as well.


The media is the biggest culprit when it comes to body shaming. Even though many media outlets have hopped onto the body positivity bandwagon, their progress towards better representation is still snail-paced at best, since they largely favor skinny actors and idols. It doesn’t help that there seems to be two different beauty ideals in Western and Asian culture.


Western culture has dominated the media for the longest time, but the recent rise of K-Pop has evened out the playing field. Now, South Korean culture has become just as widespread around the world and has even influenced Chinese and Japanese idol culture, creating a unified idea of what a beautiful Asian woman is supposed to look like: doe eyes, porcelain skin, and an extremely skinny physique. This shows that the body positivity movement is still somewhat underdeveloped here in Asia, as various Asian girl groups are being admired and coveted for their petite figures, even though they are close to skin and bones. Even if you aren’t easily affected by what you see in the media, you’ll find that the skinny aesthetic obsession is also reflected in Asian clothing sizes. Most Asian clothing brands offer smaller sizes compared to US and EU brands, which would easily guilt-trip you into thinking that you’re too big when you can’t find the right size.


Conversely, you have the Western countries, where the body positivity movement has definitely caught on. While the women you see on Western media are definitely still slim, they aren’t rail-thin like some of the Asian idols. However, the prominence of the body positivity movement has also given rise to a new problem: the “fitspiration” trend. You only have to scroll through your Instagram explore page for a few minutes, and you’ll likely encounter videos of celebrities and influencers sharing their workout routines. While it’s good that they are promoting a healthy lifestyle, a report shows these workouts are more about appearance rather than health. To make it worse, women are expected to be fit but not too bulky because overly muscular women apparently don’t look good. This creates a highly specific image of what it means to be beautiful and healthy, even though it isn’t exactly attainable for an average woman. 


The representation we see now in the media creates a disjointed image, as women don’t know whether they have to be unrealistically skinny like Asian idols or impossibly fit like Western influencers in order to be considered beautiful. And it’s not only limited to body type since Asian and Western media seem to have opposite opinions about how women are supposed to act. Asian media mostly shows idols who are cutesy and hyperfeminine, while Western media is more concerned with portraying the strong, independent woman image. There’s nothing wrong with these since we’re all unique individuals with different personalities, so to each their own. However, it might make the women who don’t fall under these polar opposites feel compelled to change themselves because they’re not feminine enough or empowering enough.


It’s not only women who are affected by these disjointed ideals presented by Asian and Western media because men can also experience body dissatisfaction based on what they see from famous personalities. Asian male idols are usually similar to their female counterparts: doe-eyed, pale, and equally as skinny. In China, this look is called 小鲜肉, which roughly translates to “Little Fresh Meat,” and it’s used to describe young men who are more effeminate, typically skinny, clean-shaved, and wearing make-up. This is a trend that originated from South Korea and caught on in China and Japan, and it’s definitely a praiseworthy trend since it breaks the barriers of toxic masculinity. However, the Little Fresh Meat look can easily turn into another skinny aesthetic obsession, as explained by this article, where fans become outraged when their idols start weightlifting because their attractiveness level supposedly drops once they bulk up. As a result, male idols are losing weight in a way that’s unhealthy just to maintain the Little Fresh Meat aesthetic. 


In contrast, you have Western media, where the superhero movie trend has made it a requirement for men to have big biceps and washboard abs in order to be considered attractive. There are countless videos on YouTube that show decently fit actors undergoing rigorous training regiments to look like Greek sculptures because otherwise, they will be ridiculed by fans, and even by producers and directors for being “scrawny.” In this case, being fit isn’t exactly the same as being healthy because the six-pack abs that you see in superhero movies require unnatural diets and dehydration to achieve. Now, men also have two opposing ideals to follow: they can’t be too bulky because it’s unattractive, but they must have superhero bodies as well because otherwise they are considered scrawny.


Asia and the West might be equally dominant forces in the media now, but they don’t exactly offer anything new in terms of body type representations. On one hand, you have the skinny aesthetic of Asia, which is something that should be left behind already in the age of body positivity, but on the other hand, you have the more body positive “fitspiration” trend of the West that fails to be inclusive towards the body types that are not deemed “fit.” Some might argue that having these polar opposite body ideals technically counts as representation, but what about the other body types that fall in between? Don’t they deserve to be seen as well? At the end of the day though, regardless of what both Asian and Western media shows you, you have to remind yourself that your body doesn’t simply exist for aesthetics. It’s a living vessel; one that’s unique to you, and one that’s living through a pandemic nonetheless. What’s important is that you’re healthy and happy, and you shouldn’t let the media tell you what your body is supposed to look like.

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