“The food there must be really yummy, yeah, they made you gain all this weight!”
“You look so dark!”
Nine months I hadn't seen them, and these were how my friends and relatives greeted me.
This was not the first time I went away for a long time and was welcomed with such greetings, but it didn’t make it less hard for me to accept. I gritted my teeth to hold myself from saying things I might regret later; a question filled my head: Is this how Indonesians, people who boast of being friendly and proper, treat each other?
Women are the ones most likely to make physically focused remarks, though men are not completely blameless. I, too, have received similar comments from male friends or family members. Our cultural norm of commenting on people’s physical appearance is not confined to a particular gender. But it makes me think about how it reflects our society as a whole.
Caring is compassion
Some argue that commenting on a person’s physical appearance shows that you care, as physical appearance is most easily observed and most people would agree that appearance matters. True, there might be some people who truly care, and commenting on their friend’s physical appearance is one way to show it.
But it is not the most compassionate way to show you care about a person, as it only shows the importance of physical appearance above any other quality a person has. The habit of remarking on people’s appearance also reinforces the unrealistic notion of the “ideal beauty” in society – in girls this is fair skin, slim body, and long hair. Many girls and women go to the extreme to meet these ideal standards of beauty such as using whitening cream and taking slimming pills, which may contain dangerous chemicals.
There are numerous reasons that make a person look “fatter” or “thinner” or “darker”. Maybe she is on a hormone therapy to get pregnant. Maybe her gene keeps her on the heavier spectrum of physical built, although she regularly exercises and eats healthily. Maybe he needs to eat more because studying in a four-seasoned country means that he needs to stock up on more fat to stay warm during winter. Or maybe he’s skinny because he's broke and so he must cut back on meals.
I could take the whole space of this article talking about the possible reasons why a person’s body looks a certain way. Nevertheless, us not knowing the reason behind it is never a justifiable reason to give a (potentially) hurtful comment to other people.
Commenting on people’s physical appearance often crosses the line, making it an improper social conduct. And apparently it is not confined to interactions between friends and families. In the online world, it has become a new normal of interaction between strangers.
Photographer and blogger Andra Alodita wrote in her blog about being on the receiving end of hurtful comments about her looks on her Instagram account. Someone even created a fake account to mock her look. This might not happen to everyone, but when common courtesy is forgotten in a society that deifies physical beauty, it is not only saddening but also a cause of alarm.
A cultural thing
I told a group of friends from college about my unpleasant experience back home. A Japanese-American friend, who is here to do a research, looked at me and my other Indonesian friends as if we grew a second head. She was taken aback by our experiences and could not understand how it could be the norm for people to make personal comments to greet another.
Ironically, we are very much known as friendly people. Websites for foreign tourists or expatriates describe Indonesians as “friendly beyond the call of duty,” “have good sense of humor,” and “very nice to each other.” I wonder if foreigners are spared our annoying habits to remark on people’s weight, though I won’t be surprised if they’re not.
To me, what this habit shows is that we overestimate friendliness, not realizing that we cross boundaries and become intrusive and insulting. I hardly think calling another person “fat” being friendly.
We are also too hung up with certain standards or social constructs that we feel we can freely comment or judge those who do not conform to them. Commenting on people’s physical appearance is akin to asking why someone has not married yet or hasn’t had kids yet. There might be an ounce of plain curiosity and compassion behind it, but the truth behind the answer might be really hurtful.
I hope someday in the future when I get home from college, people would ask me how my research is going, instead of how I’ve gained all my weight.
Aqila Putri is a sophomore studying at Wesleyan University, trying to pursue her degree in Economics and International Relations. Her daydreams consist of owning a bakery and a kitchen like Gordon Ramsay's. Hit her up at @aqilalistya to talk about food, cat, and social justice.