Earlier this month, the French Parliament began contemplating a bill that would make it illegal to promote extreme thinness. Following the death in 2006 of a Brazilian supermodel from complications associated with anorexia, the issue of young women purposely starving themselves for the sake of self-image has come to be taken very seriously, and not just in the fashion world.
Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are not unknown in Japan, but their recognition is muted by a media culture that takes extreme thinness for granted. An article in last week’s issue of Aera says the quest for the smallest waistline is not confined to teens and young women, the demographic most associated with extreme thinness.
The article focuses on a 48-year-old homemaker named Shino, whose own abdomen is an astonishingly tight 56 cm. Shino used to fluctuate between 63 and 66 cm until she gave birth, after which she ballooned to 86 cm. She was so depressed that she became a recluse and even thought about suicide. None of the dieting methods she tried worked, and then one day, while taking in the laundry, she came up with an odd but apparently effective exercise method while taking in the washing. Within six months she was back to her old waist size and just kept going, parlaying her success with weight loss into success as a fitness guru. Her books have sold more than 900,000 copies.
Shino’s waist is extreme even by current standards of skinny. According to Aera, the waistline measurement that’s optimally desired by women in Japan is 58 cm (which, coincidentally or not, is the numerical inversion of 85 cm, the waist size experts cite as a prime indicator of metabolic syndrome in men).
However, 58 isn’t an arbitrary number. Linguist Asako Iida says in the article that the number has a strong “subliminal effect.” In 2001, undergarment maker Wacoal polled women who felt the ideal waist size was 60 cm. Iida says that women tended to “reduce” their measurements. Moreover, “8” has significance in Japanese numerology, as evidenced by the practice of ending retail prices with an 8 or an 8 followed by a zero. In America, stores will set a price at $9.99 because it seems cheaper than $10.00. In Japan, using a “9” is considered too obvious a sales ploy, so “8” is used instead. Japanese women use the same line of reasoning in terms of their figures.
The 58-cm target goes back to the 1970s when pinup idols like Agnes Lam and Masako Natsume “publicly announced” that they had 58-cm waistlines. Aera implies that these measurements were probably not true, but in any case the number took root as the ideal for female celebrities whose careers are based on their looks — pretty much all of them.
The article includes a chart listing the “official” measurements of some of Japan’s most popular female celebrities, and no one has a waistline larger than 60 cm. A Wacoal publicist says that people in her industry take these claims with a grain of salt. She assumes they’re probably closer to around 67 cm, which is still slim. Wacoal’s research has found that compared to women in other world capitals, women in Tokyo have higher bust-to-waist and hips-to-waist ratios, meaning their proportions (merihari) are considered more pleasing to the eye. However, the same research found that more women in Tokyo are dissatisfied with their bodies than Parisian women, whose merihari ratios happen to be much lower than their Tokyo counterparts.
The reality is approaching the ideal. According to the health ministry, the average weight of Japanese women in their 30s has decreased by about 12 percent over the last 20 years, and 20 percent of all women between the ages of 20 and 40 are, medically speaking, underweight. The ministry even says that women are, on average, lighter now than they were right after the war, when a lot of Japanese people couldn’t eat.
This trend is a media creation. Many advertising campaigns feature females who are very skinny and, depending on the product, anxious about their figures.
In a commercial for Suntory’s Oolong Tea, a Chinese ballet dancer advises another dancer who is not eating to drink the beverage with her meals if she’s worried about getting fat. Laxatives are aimed exclusively at women, indirectly marketed as diet aids. Many bulimics use them religiously, so it’s a little unsettling to see the commercial for Biofermin’s new laxative for children in which a 12-year-old girl yells happily to her mother “Deta! (It came out!).”
These commercials would have no purchase on viewer imaginations if it weren’t for a media culture that sees women with (allegedly) 58-cm waistlines as the norm. All other women on TV are rendered as being abnormal. Full-figured TV personalities are classified as debu tarento (fat talent) with no identity separate from their body image.
Comedian Kanako Yanagihara takes advantage of her unfashionable proportions in her routines, many of which lampoon the vacuousness of girl-centered consumer culture. People laugh, but as shown on a segment of the now defunct Fuji TV variety show “Saturday Midnight Channel,” these attitudes are impervious to ridicule.
In that segment, Yanagihara tried out for a job at Cecil McBee’s in Shibuya 109, Japan’s youth fashion mecca, whose sales clerks are as famous as magazine models. The store manager complimented Yanagihara’s people skills, but the staff are required to wear the clothes they sell, and there was nothing in Yanagihara’s size, which is XL.
It’s not just Cecil McBee’s. Go to almost any nonspecialty clothing store in Japan and you will have a hard time finding women’s clothes marked as any size larger than M. That’s because retailers believe no woman will buy anything marked L, much less XL. It’s as if normal bodies didn’t exist any more.