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COUNTERING SLIMNESS 'CRISIS'

Scourge of skinnies stands firm on fleshiness

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

A third of the models who appeared in Madrid’s civic-sponsored Cibeles collections last year were banned from the same fashion event this September. The move — which triggered debate in and beyond fashion circles around the world — came after city officials declared that the women’s extremely underweight figures would encourage eating disorders.

And even now, in skinny-worshipping Japan, there is one man who is boldly challenging the “emaciated beauty” norm and striving to make people realize that a woman’s charm is in her fleshiness.

“I was always attracted to women who are somewhat round and soft, rather than the many girls who look like walking skeletons,” said Seiji Nonaka, the 40-year-old owner of a company that designs and sells T-shirts.

He said, however, that it wasn’t until late 2003 that he decided to take “firm action” on the issue after he went out drinking with a good illustrator friend of his, Radical Suzuki, and his female assistant in her early 20s.

“She was a nice girl, but I remember becoming more and more irritated as she went on and on about the new slimming methods she was trying, even though she was already skin and bones,” he said.

Throughout the evening, the woman kept talking about food supplements she’d tried, such as nigari (brine used to coagulate tofu), which she said was supposed to speed the metabolism while slowing down the absorption of fat and sugar. Another one she mentioned, which was a fad food at the time, was supposed to “wrap around fat in the stomach and excrete it.” In fact, advertisements for that product were banned by the health ministry in December 2004, as it was found that it didn’t do what was claimed.

“I thought there must be something wrong if a bag of bones like that took such weird supplements. That’s why I started a movement to eradicate all yaseta-garusu,” Nonaka said, using a Japanese wordplay he’d invented meaning both “thin girls” and “girls who crave being thin.”

According to a 2004 health ministry survey, 18.9 percent of Japanese females aged 15-19 were underweight, due to their body mass index (BMI; a person’s weight divided by the square of their height) being less than 18.5. The proportion was 21.4 percent for women in their 20s, and 15.6 percent for those in their 30s.

Looked at another way, a Japanese woman of the average height of 157 cm, would have the minimum BMI of 18.5 if she weighed 45.6 kg. But according to a health ministry official working in the area of health and nutrition, for a woman of that height, a BMI of 22 — or about 54.2 kg — is medically viewed as the optimal weight associated with a low occurrence of illness.

As it is, more than 73 percent of Japanese women aged 15-39 have a BMI of between 18.5 and 25, meaning they are of “average” weight. However, the health ministry survey found that more than 43 percent of those women were laboring under the misconception that they were either “fat” or “a bit fat” — with just 13.1 percent reckoning they were “thin” or “a bit thin.”

As part of his movement to eradicate yaseta-garusu, in March 2004 Nonaka produced a T-shirt bearing the legend Onna wa Niku, meaning “Women are [best with] Flesh.”

Then, in October 2004, he launched a Web page on Mixi, the Japanese social-networking site, under the same name, with the appeal: “Please help me eradicate all yaseta-garusu.”

The first year, only a few dozen people joined the community, and only five T-shirts sold. But two years on, the site now has close to 700 members and about 100 T-shirts are being sold each year.

“The logo ‘Women are Flesh’ might sound offensive to feminists, but I wanted to make a strong impact,” said Nonaka.

Certainly, though, many men who visited his site have praised his move.

“Why did such site not exist before?” one asked, while another said, “You are totally right!! Skinny girls are so unsexy!!!” Yet more emphatically, one man even declared that “only mucchiri [voluptuous] women were attractive — not pocchari [chubby] ones” — and someone else said he was only interested in women whose weight was “in three digits.”

“I think girls have, among themselves, made up a culture in which they must be skinny — but that’s the opposite of what many of us like,” Nonaka said.

Interestingly, Nonaka went on to say that most people who bought his T-shirts were women — buying them as presents for their boyfriends.

“These are girls who are chubby and insecure because they are a minority in Japan. They want to confirm that their boyfriends are truly happy with the way they look.”

To such girls, Nonaka hands a gift card designed by his illustrator friend, which shows a full-bodied girl wrapped by a ribbon. “It’s a message to ask the boyfriend to accept her,” he said.

While Nonaka admitted the motivation for his campaign was in part to raise the number of possible candidates to be his “ideal girlfriend,” experts such as Hideki Wada, a psychiatrist and professor at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo, said the national obsession about superthin young women and girls is a “crisis” — and the media is to blame, he said.

“As many as 100 young women die of anorexia each year in Japan, but the media keeps idealizing pathologically underweight women,” he said.

One of the prime media candidates that Wada singled out for blame was Seventeen, a magazine published by Shueisha Inc. He said he had just learned that the (same) model who had been Seventeen’s top pick for seven years, but left this summer at age 21, had a BMI of as low as 15.

“Emi Suzuki, who has modeled for Seventeen since 1999, is 168 cm tall with a nominal weight of 43 kg — which gives her a BMI of 15, or 30 percent under her standard body weight,” Wada said.

“Suzuki might have a rare physical trait, but at 30 percent under the standard body weight or more, brain and other crucial organs often start failing. It’s very dangerous for a teen magazine to present someone like that as ideal, because girls imitate them,” he said. In addition, he pointed out that the girls most prone to anorexia are aged 14 to 17 — precisely the magazine’s target age group.

“Like what happened in Madrid, it’s important to convey the message that pathologically thin people cannot be beautiful,” Wada said.