Allow me to introduce you to Katherine. New to one of my evening classes, this inquisitive little girl shocked me with great pronunciation and speaking fluency. That, and what she'd say to me with that top-notch fluency.
On our classroom break, my students sped out to grab water or mess around in the school lobby. Katherine stayed behind to munch on some cookies and bother me.
"You're really thin."
"Uh, well thanks, Kathe ..."
"But teacher, your legs are FAT."
Those legs she was referring to were only just that week re-revealed to the world after a long, harsh Beijing winter. I stared down at my pasty-white legs and looked back at her. Rail-thin, as most kids are, she just stared back with beautiful little eyes and a mouthful of chocolate chip cookies.
So it goes. This wasn't the first time my weight or appearance had been commented on — by students or teachers or random passers-by, here in China.
Standing at a lofty 180cm, my quirky hair sometimes adding another couple centimeters, I already get plenty of looks. Add in the curves, good and not ideal, and you have a body type altogether uncommon here.
I'm not, however, fat, as my students love to suggest.
I'm no fitness buff, as any of my readers know, especially in my years as the Beer Girl. I've also never been particularly worried about my physique either way.
My heaviest (college years) was never heavy, nor is my current lightest all that thin. I have a perfectly average, perfectly nice figure.
I'm very lucky, and I know it.
Here in Beijing, I'm "fat" because of a few things. One: There's no such thing as a filter on what you say to others — blunt comments fly often and with healthy, cutting zest. My nickname at the school, for example, is "Gaogao de laoshi," (really tall teacher), or perhaps the "piàoliang laoshi gen dà de yanjìng" (pretty teacher with big glasses). I'm not kidding, it's blunt.
Unfortunately for our more curvy teacher, they also don't miss a beat in calling her "pàng laoshi," or fat teacher. Loudly, and with no qualms.
It's the way things are.
Next: As it is elsewhere in the world, there's an increased premium on unrealistic body standards.
While this is nothing new (remember foot binding a century ago?), it's just as unhealthy as ever.
Women must be thin. No, not an athletic or healthy sort of thin. I mean A4 challenge thin. Often, this means even muscle is unflattering. No butt, no thighs, no nothing. Breasts are OK, but not if getting them means you've gained weight.
In fact, "Ms. Perfect" translates to "Báifùmei": white, rich and beautiful. All local skin products bleach your skin. Plastic surgery is on the rise, with many women in their 20s looking for the double eyelid, V chin and, on the rare occasion, a boob job. The reason for this surge: to better your chances of getting a good job.
As the foreigner, it feels a lot like madness swirling around me. In my own way, though, I do what I can to fight the norms and help my kids see a healthier option.
To little Katherine, I explained that these "fat" legs were actually muscular. I pushed on them as I bent my knees, saying that while I still had some healthy fat, these thighs were big because I did exercise and liked to hike. I wobbled my underarm muscle and laughed, showing them it could be amusing to still have some work to do.
For my part, I combat local beauty stereotypes by being considered pretty while still looking utterly out of place. My students can't always explain it. Yes, my hair is crazy and my piercings too numerous. Yes, I was too tall, too "fat," too oddly dressed. Yet they still thought I was great — crazy, beautiful and great.