Friday, 1 November 2013

If You Don't Diet...

Crayon Shin-chan is one of Tiger's regularly watched shows, meaning I watch it too. I quite enjoy it actually, particularly the way his poor mother Misae (who coincidentally is my age and from Kyushu) tries to cope with her son's antics (I suspect Tiger and I are laughing at different things in those scenes...).

Last week's episode was all about Misae's attempts to diet using meal replacement shakes and wearing a 5 kilo apron while doing housework.* By the end of the episode her eyes are sunken dark hollows, her checks are inverted and she barely has the energy to pick up her baby. In the comedic climax she succumbs to her hunger and her husband and kids walk in on her chugging a beer and frying some meat.

A couple of days after we watched this episode, Tiger commented to me ダイエットしないと。。。Which is a typically open-ended Japanese statement lacking a subject, but basically in context is "you'd better diet" or more literally "if you don't diet...". So, I asked him "What? If I don't diet, what?" (ダイエットしないと何?).  "Oh," he replied, "I don't know. Just, you should diet." Again, I asked why. "Well, you're fat." "OK," I said, "but why is that a problem?" "I don't know", he shrugged, and went back to playing with the dogs.

I found the exchange really interesting. First, he doesn't link weight to health or even to attractiveness. You're fat, so you should diet. That's the extent of it. Perhaps, in fact, what he has internalised from the sum of the media he has consumed is in fact just "you're a woman, you should diet". In its most basic form, it isn't even an imperative "should", it's just how things are. Tiger is interested in what is normal, a fascination that is both common for all kids his age and especially interesting for him because so many of his circumstances are less than "normal". What he understands to be normal comes predominantly from television. He sees mothers on TV dieting, and thinks that is what mothers do, so he asks me to do it. He has lived his whole life in an institutional bubble, and TV has been his primary (sole?) source of information about the world outside.

It's really challenging me trying to be respectful of his ideas and cultural background while also wanting to introduce him to my values and beliefs, all with limited language ability. I mean that in both the good sense of challenge as making me think harder and deeper, and also in the euphemistic sense of "difficult". At the stage where we are now, the most I do is question him about why he thinks the things he does. I draw the line at TV shows that depict cruelty to animals and ask him to change the channel, and although I cook meat at home for him I won't buy him MacDonalds and we have had a good few conversations about why that is. That's about as far as we go. Complex issues of public health and body image can wait, but I do appreciate the chance to see what he thinks and where the influences come from. Coincidentally, as I was writing this post I clicked over to facebook and read this fantastic article:

Is obesity a serious issue? Yes. But obesity is just one symptom of the real issue which is unhealthy living. By focusing solely on obesity, we are turning a "lifestyle" issue into a "fat" one and are completely missing out on giving people the information they need to be truly healthy.
The dangerous part about this is that instead of encouraging people to get healthy we are demanding that they get skinny and the truth is, skinny is not always synonymous with healthy.

I wrote a lot more on the same topic including thoughts on the considerable weight gain I've experienced in Japan when I wrote about annual health checks. At school the female teachers often transfered half their lunch to a male coworker's plate. In the classroom, I heard teachers say to kids "there's some extra left over, any boys want seconds?" and others say "if any girls want to eat less, please reduce your servings now before you start eating". I wouldn't say that these were common things to hear and I ate with a lot of different classes, but hearing them at all was disturbing. Miss Fatty was disturbing. This post isn't about health or weight so much as it is about the way I see kids (and mine in particular) distilling these issues into the simple message they take away: Woman=diet.

*Funny how these representations of motherhood are never brought up in the articles circulating the media explaining how the birth rate is low because of video games and lack of sex drive. It must be the video games, I mean, what isn't attractive about being an unappreciated overworked SAHM obsessed with losing baby weight?!
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