As someone who has watched many anime with all-girls casts, there’s a trend I’ve noticed over time. Anime girls are always going on diets – it happens in Sailor Moon, Love Live, Uma Musume, and even in Lucky Star. And loads more. I began to ask myself, “Why are all these girls so obsessed with weight loss?” The obvious answer is: they want to be skinny, which is the ideal body image for many people.
But I thought there must be another reason, something culture-based. So, I did some digging. And my suspicion was correct. It turns out Japanese culture greatly emphasizes being thin… to the point where it’s a little ridiculous. Of course, being a healthy weight and in shape is never a bad thing, but the Japanese seem to take it to the extreme at time. Why, though?
When I was at Anime Fest, one panelist (I think it was Blake Shepard, but I am not entirely sure ;_; Sorry panelist!) said that it’s related to Japanese’s culture stress on politeness. He said that Japanese people don’t like taking up too much space because it’s rude to other people. On the other hand, in the article “Being Fat in Japan,” Laguna Levine (2014) explains that being overweight and “[taking] up a lot of room in stores will get you dirty looks from strangers, especially if your butt knocks something off a rack.” So, I think that this could very well be a reason why Japanese people want to be slim.
But the girls in anime that diet are usually very thin. I mean, look at this picture of Honoka from Love Live. In this scene, her mom and sister were freaking out over her gaining “a ton” of weight. But look at her! She is perfectly fine and is beautiful the way she is. And yet everyone gets on her case about losing all the weight she supposedly gained.
And like I said, this is seen in many anime – as well as real life. Besides being polite, it seems that, based on my research, being thin is considered attractive in Japanese culture, whereas being overweight is unattractive (Levine, 2014). This may be true for many cultures, but, as the article “Japan’s Beauty Standards: Who is Considered Beautiful in Japan?” (2017) explains, this idea may stem from the fact that “[those] that are slender tend to fit better in traditional Japanese clothes like kimonos and yukatas as well.” And, in general, being slim equals being beautiful in many people’s minds.
Extreme Weight Loss and Fat Shaming
In fact, being skinny is so “desirable” that it is highlighted greatly in Japanese media. In her very thorough article “Body image and the foreign female in Japan: survey shows frustration with one-size-fits-all thinking,” Louise George Kittaka (2016) surveyed foreign women in Japan and asked them about their thoughts on Japan’s weight loss obsession. In the article, she talks about a Japanese women’s magazine that promoted weight loss and explains that “Among the women in the [magazine’s] article, five had BMIs under 22.5 before they even began dieting, while their ‘after’ BMIs ranged from 20 down to less than 17.” 20 may be a good BMI, but 17?! According to Livestrong (2017), a BMI under 17.5 is considered underweight or even anorexic. And this magazine was aimed toward women in their 40s It’s insane. Women do NOT need to be underweight – or almost underweight – to be seen as beautiful. That kind of idea is dangerous.
Now, this is just one example; not all of articles or ads may be so extreme. For example, the one pictured below isn’t quite as bad (54.4 is 119 pounds and 48.KG is 106 pounds), although it’s hard to say for sure without knowing their height. But at least they look healthy.
But either way, young Japanese girls are seeing weight loss ads presumably everywhere -in magazines, on TV, in the subway, and other places, all pressuring them to be skinny. And let’s be honest. As much as I love idols and cute girl anime, female characters in these shows are almost always incredibly thin. With all of these reminders, it’s no wonder that Japanese girls – as well as adult women – feel the need to be skinny.
To make things worse, fat shaming exists in Japan. In her article, Louise George Kittaka (2016) explains that “heavier/curvier women are rarely seen. When they are, it is normally in a comedic or derogatory context.” In the article, one of the women who was surveyed said, “It disturbs me that overweight Japanese TV personalities are often made fun of and sometimes quite cruelly mocked for their weight.” She goes on to explain that she saw a variety show where a chubby woman was insulted by a bunch of children. I have also seen comments in articles and videos that say overweight people are bullied in Japan.
And unfortunately, fat shaming happens in anime too. In episode 4 of the original Sailor Moon anime, Usagi apparently puts on some weight and decides to go on a diet. But again, look at her! She is as skinny as a pole and does NOT need to lose weight. To add insult to injury, Luna makes fun of Usagi by drawing a chubby version of her. The episode also shows Haruna-sensei “getting fit” when she was perfectly fine to begin with. Now, this is a filler episode and isn’t in the manga or Sailor Moon Crystal. As many anime fans know, Sailor Moon is actually known for empowering women. And I love Sailor Moon! But this particular episode is not okay. You can read more about this episode and it’s negative attitude about weight in Ann Lee’s article “Stop Fat Shaming! Episode 4 Feminist Commentary.”
The Sailor Moon episode is just one extreme example. I don’t want to assume that every chubby or overweight person is fat shamed. According to discussions, forums, articles, and comments I have read, visitors to Japan have received mixed reactions when it came to their weight. Some people had negative experiences, but many didn’t. Nobita from the YouTube channel Find Your Love in Japan interviewed a man named Mully (2017) who has lived in Japan for many years. He said he has gotten comments from people about his weight, but he doesn’t think they are intended to hurt his feelings. He also says that he has a positive attitude, so it doesn’t really bother him. But as a foreign male, people may react differently toward him than a home-grown Japanese female.
However, all the discussions and other sources I read had one thing in common: Japanese people usually won’t make comments directly to your face. Or, as the panelist said at Anime Fest, people will say one thing, but really mean something else. He said they can be very passive aggressive in Japan.
But just like anywhere, people will behave differently based on their personality. There will be some people who are more blunt about it. In fact, in the Japan Times piece, someone commented, “The Japanese are an incredibly polite society…until it comes to talking about your weight.” Another commenter said that weight seems to be a special category in Japan. People aren’t afraid to comment on it, unlike other things. (You should go through and read all of the comments in that piece. It’s very, very interesting.)
Health And Other Issues
It seems some doctors make comments too. One woman in Louise George Kittaka’s survey (2016) said that she has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which can make her weight hard to manage. The woman said that medical professionals in Japan did not understand her condition and said her heavy weight was due to “lack of willpower.” As a result, she felt ugly and her self-esteem suffered. Louise George Kittaka’s article also explains that Japanese doctors expect women “to adhere to strict guidelines on weight gain,” which “led to feelings of stress and shame for some [of the survey participants] during their pregnancies.”
The pregnancy thing is NOT okay. It’s normal for women to gain weight during a pregnancy – women need the extra weight to help hold the baby. It also helps them breastfeed. And feeling stressed during a pregnancy can hurt the fetus or have negative consequences. Hopefully, the pregnancy thing – and other doctors giving bad advice – is not a widespread thing in Japan.
The whole weight loss obsession does seem to be a far-reaching problem, though. With all of the pressure, it’s no wonder that anime girls – and real Japanese girls/women – are constantly dieting. They are taught that being thin is “more beautiful” and “healthier.” And it doesn’t help that Japanese culture greatly emphasizes conformity, so girls may feel even more pressured than in other countries.
And again, it’s just not young girls. Mari Suzuki, from the Japan Association for Eating Disorders (JAED), explains that “the percentage of underweight women in the 30-50 age range is rising.” In another piece by Louise George Kittaka (2017) on Gaijin Pot, she explains that a female friend in her 40s was worrying about weighting over 1.5kg (just a couple pounds) over the average Japanese women’s weight. In this article Louise explains that underweight women can develop Locomotive syndrome, which affects “mobility, due to the weakening of bones, joints, muscles and nerves” (2017). So, in reality, being thin does not always equal being healthier. I really hope that girls and women aren’t so obsessed with their body image that they starve themselves. It’s very upsetting to think about.
This is unrelated and obviously not as serious as health problems… but apparently Japan’s fascination with skinniness makes it more difficult to find clothing that will fit you. But apparently, it is hard for women to find anything over a Medium, which is small, at least in Western standards. Now, to be fair, Japanese people are genetically smaller than Westerners (The Guardian, 2016). But no healthy-sized woman should have to lose a ton of weight just so they can fit into something fashionable.
Now, I am going to be play devil’s advocate for one second and say that having a wider range of smaller sizes is a good thing, in my opinion. I am 4’11” and 100 pounds, and in the US, I find it very difficult to find women’s clothing that fits me – they are all too big! Especially pants. Most of my clothing is from the Juniors section, and I literally wear a Girl’s 14/16 for some of my clothing. But again, EVERY size should be available to everyone, so they can feel comfortable. (I wonder how people in Japan would feel about me actually wanting to gain some weight?)
What About Busty Anime Girls?
I just want to say that all body types are beautiful. But unfortunately, anime series are showing Japan’s preferred body image. And anime girls are just echoing what regular girls in Japan do. I do hope, though, that future anime series stop emphasizing girls needing to be super thin. I also hope they draw a wider range of body types.
That being said, there seems to be a weird inconsistency. Voluptuous or curvy anime girls have been popular for quite a while. Most of them would still be categorized as pretty thin, but they aren’t sticks like some anime characters. Are these types of women considered beautiful in real life Japan?
It’s hard to say. In his piece on Japanese beauty standards, The Japan Guy said one of his friends claims that the hourglass figure is much more popular in Japan, and that some of his other friends agree. And let’s not forget all anime girls that always complain about wanting a bigger bust size.
But apparently large breasts are a problem for traditional Japanese clothing like kimono. According to Tokyo Girls Update (2017), “People who have a curvier figure may actually bind down breasts before putting on the traditional clothing.” And in Louise’s survey (2016), one foreign woman actually got a breast reduction because all of the negative attention and comments she received about her large breasts. (In my opinion, she shouldn’t have done this… unless they always bothered her, even without the comments.)
So, again, it’s hard to say if the hourglass figure is accepted – but most likely, it probably depends on personal preference, like most things. As mentioned, curvy figures and large breasts are very popular in anime. But if real large breasts are undesirable, why is this the case? Chris Kincaid explains anime’s obsession with breasts in his research piece “Anime’s Breast Obsession Explained.” Go give it a read!
In a weird way, maybe curvy women in anime may help bring some acceptance of different body types. But then again, you will get problems with objectifying women, unnatural body portions, and other issues, which I really don’t want to get into right now ._. It’s certainly a situation that can have many pros and cons.
Is There Hope?
After all this research, it’s really obvious why anime girls diet so much. But it’s really NOT okay. If you are a healthy weight and feel comfortable in your body, you should not feel pressured to lose weight unnecessarily – to the point where you might be underweight.
Is there hope for Japanese girls and women? Yes, I think so. Japan isn’t set in stone; hopefully attitudes will change over time. And of course, you can always… not care about other people’s opinions! Or, you can trust that not everyone in Japan is going to say something mean. Take Nobita from Find Your Love in Japan. He is Japanese and says he doesn’t care about a person’s weight – all he cares about is if you’re a nice person. In his video, “3 Things Fat People Need To Understand Before Coming To Japan,” he gives some advice about what to do if you want to go to Japan but are overweight. (One piece of advice is to not care :D).
If someone is suffering from an eating disorder or low self esteem because of their body image, there are clinics and specialists in Japan for both foreign women and homegrown Japanese women. Hopefully, impressionable teenage girls will take advantage of them (Kittaka, 2016).
But the thing, or rather the people, who give me the most hope are women in Japan who are doing their best to change everyone’s perception of “fatness.” There is a new trend called pocchari (which means chubby) that rejects the idea of fat shaming. It also embraces the idea that chubby women can be cute and attractive.
One of the forerunners of the pocchari movement is Naomi Watanbe. She is a Japanese comedian, a social media star, and, most importantly, a plus-size fashion icon. She has gained popularity all over the world, including the US. And to help women feel better about themselves, she created a fashion line for plus-side women’s clothing, called PUNYUS. According to Affinity Magazine (2016), “Her brand, and her representation, encourages girls to wear what they want, to be comfortable, and to be fashion forward…. Naomi offers choices to plus size people that have never had that option before.”
Along with Harumi Kon, Watanbe also helped launch the fashion magazine called La Farfa, which focuses on fashionable clothing for bigger-sized women. They even have their own idol group, la BIG 3, that performed a song, showcasing plus-size clothing. One of the girls in the video is Ui Ando, who also wants Japanese girls to feel better about their weight. And there is also a idol group called Chubbiness, whose members are little bigger than the average Japanese woman (The Guardian, 2014). Hopefully, these women can teach girls and women in Japan to not be so concerned with a skinny body image.
In the end, is being thin a bad thing? No, of course not. Having a healthy weight and being fit is important for all women, whereas being too overweight or obese will have negative consequences. But girls and women in Japan – or any country in the world – should not feel constantly pressured to be “thin” when they are already a healthy weight. Although it’s just reflecting an existing culture, anime doesn’t help with this issue. I mean, some of the most iconic female characters in anime also feel pressured to be thin! As time goes on, as activists spread their messages, and as people become more aware of the issue, hopefully Japanese women (and anime characters) will learn to love their bodies.
Find Your Love in Japan. (2017, Dec 19). 3 Things Fat People Need to Understand Before Coming to Japan. Retrieved from YouTube.
Ash, Donald (2017, March 15). The Eight Standards of Japanese Beauty. Retrieved from www.thejapanguy.com/japanese-beauty-standards/.
Bristol. (2017, Feb 18). Naomi Watanabe Is Revolutionizing Body Image in Japan.” Retrieved from affinitymagazine.us/2017/02/11/naomi-watanabe-is-revolutionizing-body-image-in-japan/.
Cespedes, Andrea. (2017, July 18). What BMI and Weight Are Anorexic?” Retrieved from www.livestrong.com/article/202485-what-bmi-and-weight-are-anorexic/.
Erika (2017, Oct 2). Japan’s Beauty Standards: Who Is Considered Beautiful in Japan? Retrieved from tokyogirlsupdate.com/ideal-beauty-in-japan-201710133652.html.
Find Your Love in Japan. (2018, Feb 24). What Being a Big Size Is Like in Japan (Feat. MULLY). Retrieved from YouTube.
Haworth, Abigail. (2014, Oct 20). Japan’s Pocchari Trend Celebrates ‘Chubby’ Women. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/oct/20/japan-pocchari-trend-women-fat-shaming-stereotypes.
Kittaka, Louise. (2016, Sept 21). Body Image and the Foreign Female in Japan: Survey Shows Frustration with One-Size-Fits-All Thinking. Retrieved from www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2016/09/21/issues/body-image-foreign-female-japan-survey-shows-frustration-one-size-fits-thinking/#.W8vJo2hKg2x.
Kittaka, Louise. (2017, Mar 17). Where Super-Thin Is Still In: Attitudes to Body Image in Japan. Retrieved from blog.gaijinpot.com/attitudes-to-body-image-japan/.
Lee, Anne. (2016, March 4). Stop Fat Shaming! Episode 4 Feminist Commentary. Retrieved from shojopower.com/stop-fat-shaming-episode-4-feminist-commentary/.
Levine, Laguna. (2014, May 21). Being Fat in Japan. Retrieved from www.tofugu.com/japan/fat-in-japan/.