Japan is beautiful

Japanese women want Cinderella's wasp waist

In Japan, only a slim woman is considered beautiful. Even expectant mothers pay undue attention to their weight. This has health consequences and can affect life expectancy in the country.

Aki Yamada has clear plans. After working in HR for a few years, the 27-year-old married a good year ago. "I'll be giving up the job soon because I want to get pregnant," she says. When you are born, your career is over. " It is always like that. That is why the woman from Yokohama thinks especially of her body now. You will pay attention to a healthy diet, because: "I want to try not to gain weight so much."

She wanted to avoid thick legs and arms or wrinkles on the stomach and under the chin. "You gain weight a bit during pregnancy, but later on I want my old body back," she says. Everything else is not only unhealthy, but also not beautiful. "I want to stay pretty." Aki Yamada is 1.52 meters tall and weighs only 42 kilos.

Many in Japan think like Aki Yamada. The ideal of beauty has become the norm, you not only see it in everyday life, but studies also show it. In many other countries, too, those who are slim are considered beautiful because they also radiate firmness of character and success. In the East Asian country this goes even further: women are constantly told how desirable to be thin is. A woman who stays thin is a popular example. This even affects expectant mothers.

Circumference of the upper arms: 18 centimeters

A few years ago, a men's magazine caused a stir when it listed the characteristics of the supposedly perfect woman on a full page. Among other things, it said that ideal for a height of 160 centimeters, a weight of 48 kilograms was. After all, there was heated discussion on Twitter about whether that wasn't asking too much.

In Japan, children are confronted with such strict guidelines. Magazines aimed at young women compile lists of supposedly perfect body sizes for girls of different age groups. It's about the thickness of the forearms, thighs, neck or calves. The magazine “Nicola”, for example, which adolescents read, gives the following measurements: A 12- to 14-year-old achieves the ideal when she is 1.55 meters tall and weighs 34 kilos. The hip circumference is 57 centimeters, that of the upper arm is 18 centimeters.

Because of such norms, the so-called Cinderella diet is popular in Japan. The ideal weight is based on the body of the fairy tale character with the wasp waist from the Disney film. To determine your own Cinderella weight, multiply your height in meters by yourself and the result by the number 18. At 1.65 meters, the ideal would be 49 kilos, which according to the body mass index for a 30-year-old woman already means being slightly underweight. If you are above this, a calorie reduction is recommended.

The Japanese like norms

Not only when it comes to being slim are people in Japan rather strict with themselves. The Japanese like to orientate themselves to vague standards, sometimes to concrete norms. They try to meet them without much questioning. We keep hearing from women that giving birth after the age of 30 is dangerous for the health of the child. Men, on the other hand, tell themselves that they need a steady job first in order to be able to get married, because the wife will probably stop working afterwards.

Whether it's about gender roles, professional life, or looks, Japan tends to value what is considered normal. One often speaks of the “homogeneous society” in which everyone is similar. There is also a saying: "A nail that sticks out of the wall is hammered back into it." Uniformity is the key.

This type of collectivism becomes torture when ideals are barely attainable. The idea that young women should be a little thinner established itself in Japan by the 1990s at the latest. It was then that the career of the very slim singer Namie Amuro, who is still considered the “Queen of J-Pop”, began. "We all wanted to be like them," says Chika Tsuda, a 37-year-old teacher from Osaka, "and amazingly, today's children and young people still want that."

For Chika Tsuda, the ideal of slimness has not lost any of its power, as she observes in her students. Fortunately, her mother banned her from dieting when she was a teenager. The same thing when she got pregnant nine years ago: "My mother made sure that I gained a lot of weight." Today around one in four women in Japan goes into pregnancy with underweight. Thin women with a thick, balloon-shaped belly are praised by “mama talent”, which means “star mother”.

Lighter babies at birth

Over half of women in Japan want to gain less than the government recommended 12 pounds during pregnancy. This is shown not only by the example of Aki Yamada mentioned at the beginning, but also by a study published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2018. Most of the respondents believe that a small amount of weight gain is beneficial for a safe birth and therefore also for the health of the child. A misconception: women who gain little weight during pregnancy are equally likely to have a caesarean section. A slight gain in weight with a baby in the stomach is therefore also unhealthy.

This pursuit of slimness does not only seem to have health consequences for expectant mothers, but also for the child and ultimately for society as a whole. The authors of the study mention that the birth weight of children has dropped to an average of 3 kilos over the years. At the same time, people in Japan are getting smaller. For comparison: at the end of the 1970s, a man was on average 1,715 meters tall. Today he is 0.7 centimeters smaller. The value for women has decreased by 0.2 centimeters from 1.583 meters.

In a further study by the Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo and the Australian Monash University, the low birth weight was also linked to the frequent kidney ailments of Japanese people. In turn, the researchers fear that these developments could have a negative impact on life expectancy over generations.

Japan has a global reputation as a country where people live longer than anywhere else. Japanese men live on average 81.1 years old, women 87.1 years old. There are some indications that life expectancy will continue to rise. But the opposite could also occur with the weaker newborns.

Small thick countermovement

Now there is tentative resistance to starving according to norm. In Japan, only 3 percent of adult women are overweight. This small minority is increasingly opposing the slenderness norms. One of their representatives is fashion entrepreneur Naomi Watanabe, who weighs 110 kilos and likes to be photographed with candy on Instagram while she shows her body. Watanabe sees himself as the «mouthpiece of plus-size women». The Japanese edition of Vogue magazine named Watanabe Woman of the Year in 2016, not least because of its clothing line for plus sizes.

Pop music is also following, which is to some extent partly responsible for the problematic ideal of beauty. The girl group "Big Angel" consists of five very overweight young women. The band leader Michiko Gotochi explained in an interview how her trademark came about: “I wanted to be a model and was hungry for it. After six months I was fired from the agency, and that's when the frustration began. " She once weighed 54 kilos, today a little more than twice that. She never thought that fat musicians would win fans. But that's exactly what makes the band popular.

Swimming against the current of the thin may be beneficial, and yet: There is no rethinking in Japanese society. Ideas of the perfect body persist. In a survey, women in Tokyo were asked about their desired weight. Most wanted to be thinner than they are.