30 Apr Social Stigmas In Asian Culture
I’ve had enough.
It’s been brewing for a while, but this was the final straw.
Last week I got a message from one of my clients:
‘Akash, I need to speak to you. I don’t think I can do this anymore.’
I called him up and asked what’s wrong, because up till now, this guy had been doing so well.
Almost 40 years old with 2 young kids, and in the shape of his life. At a time when most Asians are pre-diabetic and a ticking time bomb from years of gluttony, he’s sporting a body that’d make most 25 year olds jealous.
When he picked up the phone, this is what he told me:
‘Everyone thinks I’ve gone mad. I’ve just come back from a wedding. My mother in law thinks I’m dying. My aunt asked if I’m ill. I had three of my cousins ask if everything was ok. My uncle said enough is enough, you’ve shrunk up and look unhealthy. What do I do? Is this normal? I’ve never had this before.’
‘Ah, this again’, I thought to myself. This wasn’t the first time. And I know it isn’t going to be the last.
Because a large proportion of my client base is Indian and between the ages of 25 to 45, I have this conversation every few weeks without fail.
I love it. It’s the best compliment, and it means I’m doing my job properly.
But I’m also sick and tired of it.
Why is it that if we try to push the physical limits of our bodies, do we get criticised and outcast in a manner that forces us to think something is wrong with us?
It’s time for change.
The problem is, these societal perceptions are so deep rooted in our culture and way of living.
When I ask Indians of older generations why being fit and healthy is frowned upon, their answers are interesting.
They talk about how the sign of good health is actually the opposite of being lean. Being ‘chubby’ is seen as ‘healthy’. Being lean is associated with ill health and malnourishment. What’s interesting is that this is engrained into them from birth, and with blind ‘tradition’.
Look at how we feed new born babies. The goal is to fatten them up as quickly as possible with as many trans-fat laden foods as we can fry up.
There’s no regard for their health, their brain development, their motor learning or coordination.
It’s feed, feed, feed.
Even if the parents are somewhat health conscious, the elders will override and accuse them of bad parenting. They’ll scare the parents into thinking it’s bad luck, and that their child won’t be ‘successful’.
It’s pretty scary when you think about it. But it’s been happening for so long that it’s considered the norm.
The societal norm that nobody is willing to break.
Just like if you’re not a doctor, a banker or a lawyer, you’re doomed to a life of failure.
Apparently those are the only ways to make money, to ‘make your parents proud’, and to be a ‘success’.
I remember when I decided to scrap my plans of being a lawyer, and instead take the road less travelled to become a personal trainer.
Guess what the first thing my parents said?
‘How will you pay the bills?’
Perhaps a legitimate question when you consider your average personal trainer on the high street.
Yet, why is that the first reaction? Why wasn’t it ‘amazing, I know how passionate you are about this, and I know you’ll make it work’.
Circling back to my question to the elders about what being ‘healthy’ as an Indian means. The second answer was money and a ‘well-respected’ job.
Notice how they were answered together.
Essentially this all comes down to an identity crisis in our culture.
We love associations. It happens everywhere, but I can only speak of the Indian culture. And I know from speaking with others that it’s amongst the worst when it comes to this.
It’s why it’s so rare to hear of anyone doing something radically different. It’s all so vanilla and boring. Which is why I love it when people I know want to branch out and try new ventures. Life becomes exciting again.
And if you do go against the norm…then you’ll certainly know it.
Just like my client who experienced the ‘shame’ of being lean.
If you go to a family occasion as a ‘personal trainer’, watch how the faces drop.
I’ve tested this on multiple occasions at different events. If I get asked ‘what do you do?’ and I reply ‘personal training’, I’ll get an ‘oh, nice’ with a look of confusion and subtle disappointment. If I respond with ‘I run my own business’, then it’s a completely different story.
For my client who walked into the room in the shape of his life, instead of a ‘wow, you look incredible’, he got the opposite.
This ultimately comes down to the priorities we’ve been inundated with from a young age.
Self-care has always been put on the back burner.
Instead, you’re taught that achieving good grades, working as hard as you can, and eventually making lots of money should be your number one priority.
Anything else is a distraction, and a waste of time.
That’s why you don’t see many Asian people in the entertainment or fitness industry. Or many Asians playing high level sport (besides cricket of course!).
What we need here is a culture shift.
A shift to be more open-minded. To be more health conscious. And to celebrate the road less travelled.
We need more education.
I don’t think the elders do this out of spite. It comes from a place of good intentions. But also from ignorance, and ingrained behaviour.
When your grandma sees you and you’re lean, it’s not that she’s jealous of you, or thinks bad of you. It’s that she doesn’t understand, or know any different. It’s so deep rooted and generational, that changing the paradigm is going to take significant time and effort.
I’d love for my clients to ring me up one day and instead, say ‘Akash, I just got back from a wedding and everyone was raving about how much leaner, healthier and sharper I look. I had people asking me how I manage to look ten years younger!’
This might not happen just yet, but with every body we help transform, I hope we’re a little bit closer to making it happen.