Caught Between USA & Japan: Body Neutrality in 3 Months
TW: Mentions of eating disorders.
After struggling to claim possession of my body within the confines of the diametrically opposed cultures of America and Japan, a salesmanship lecture from my Japanese shibuchō (branch manager) was what put me on the path to body neutrality. Gaining ownership of one’s body can be a struggle between unchanging genetic traits and ever-shifting politics. These politics are upheld by geographically contained cultures, causing mental schisms for those who live within those physical boundaries, and deeply impactful on increasingly mobile, ethnically diverse populations. My shibuchō’s “it takes 3-months to form a habit” lecture unlocked a new relationship between my mind and body that was not dependent on any culture’s standards.
I am a cisgender white male, who is 5’6” (167cm) and roughly 120lbs (55kg). Despite these unremarkable statistics, my body was always the target of ridicule and questioning, both in America and in Japan. Moving from New York to Maine at 8, I stood out in an area plagued by childhood obesity. Masculine ideals both nationally and locally rejected those who occupied little space. As a child, “rod”, “stick”, and “runt” were mild criticisms I received from both peers and adults. Later, I experienced pointed and overt assertions of malnutrition, anorexia, and abuse to open doubts regarding my gender identity. As local retailers served the needs of the greater population, it was challenging to find properly fitted clothes. I chastised my physique for the isolation it caused throughout my adolescence.
At university, I majored in East Asian Studies. Visiting, studying in, then moving to Japan spurred a radical reconceptualization of my proximity to traditional masculinity. Suddenly, I easily fit into the Japanese clothing market, going from an American XS to a Japanese M. This convenience helped clothe me, yet in itself could not mend the ingrained dejection of my body.
Japan brought a new set of imposing ideals of masculinity and propriety. I was no longer “tiny” nor assumed to be a child. So, what was I? Many Japanese men seemed to have even more aerodynamic, slender frames compared to my thick thighs and round torso, both of which were minuscule not long ago. The M label on my Japanese clothes induced a slight panic as if by crossing the border, my physical self immediately warped. Being peppered with questions about deodorant, facial hair, nose curvature and the like created new fractures between my mental and physical selves.
At my English conversation school job in Kansai, we received salesmanship workshops on how to express the need for supplementary materials to students. I was new to the school and impressed with the shibuchō’s fervor, which possibly explains why her statement: “it takes 3 months to form a habit” was so striking. I had yet to cultivate a consistent running habit, yet this proposal of a 3-month-bullet reignited my drive to try.
I began running at night after work. Running has numerous benefits, improved cardiovascular health, and physical stamina being my motivations to start. However, it provides few external changes that many men in the West desire from exercise, namely bulk. I did not chase any culture’s masculine ideal as I ran. I worked to improve my distance and time, noticing my gradual increases in energy during the day and better sleep. Before the 3-month mark, post-work running became a firm, uncompromising ritual.
Comments and criticisms about my body lost much of their potency as I became increasingly pleased with my running progress. Internally focused, each part of myself became ever-more independent from American and Japanese ideals. Notably, I did not seek out nor was even aware of the term “body neutrality” at the time – concentrating on improving my running stats seemed to spur a transition toward this concept organically.
Externally, I began feeling license to experiment: growing facial hair; buying clothes I liked regardless of whether they cast a culturally desirable illusion; trying accessories. Not chasing a cultural standard meant that I was no longer compelled to engorge my American self to gain weight, nor look to surrounding Japanese men to reaffirm the validity of my body.
Culturally dictated body ideals are constantly in flux, with sensibilities determined both through tradition and trends. Forging a new, internally-focused relationship with myself established ownership over my body and image outside of cultural pressures. While I have not reached perfect body acceptance, alterations to my diet and habits are now primarily health-motivated. And as roadblocks appear when introducing something new to my mental or physical routines, I am reminded that 3 months of consistent effort can bring life-changing results.
About Richard Scheno
Richard is a writer living between Japan and New York City
Edited by Emiru Okada
Graphic by Maya Kubota