Aiming For 45 kg: Disordered Eating Recovery In Japan

How To Stay Healthy When Diets And Weight Loss Are Just Everywhere

By Elizabeth Sok
October 19, 2020
Health & Beauty, Lifestyle

Navigating Japan’s cultural landscape can be fraught with triggers when you are recovering from disordered eating behavior. Learning to balance mindfulness and self-care with all of the tastiness that Japan has to offer can bring you one step closer to being at peace with your body and soul.

In the last few years, in bookstores in Japan, I have often been drawn to the women’s lifestyle section and dieting books. Maybe all of the advertisements on the Yamanote Line when I was in Tokyo in 2018 had pierced my subconscious, but Ishimura Tomomi’s book, ゼロトレ(“Zero Training”), in particular, has recently caught my attention again.

“After trying Tomomi’s exercises, my waist shrank by 7.5 cm in one hour!”

… so it says on the publisher’s website, as well as the ad that I stared at with my daughter strapped to me in a baby carrier on the packed train. It doesn’t attract my interest because it’s an especially interesting idea, however. Rather, it merely reflects one of the biggest weights that I carry—a history of food restriction and disordered thoughts about eating—repackaged in the country I now call home.

My own story with Disordered Eating

By the time I first visited Tokyo, I was in my early twenties and had already spent many years dodging questions about my weight from doctors and mental health professionals in Canada. 

Unfortunately, my history with disordered eating, like many women’s goes back far too long: to when I was still in elementary school. I can remember the first time that dieting seemed appealing. It was the late 1990s and I was flipping through a magazine at the dentist’s office. By chance, I came across an article about butter as the “enemy of a slim figure.” Enthralled, I kept reading, strangely attracted to the idea that one could achieve an ideal merely by omitting a simple morning toast topping. And so, I declared my own personal and very quiet war against butter, cutting it out of all of my routines, morning and otherwise. I relished the sense of calm that I felt when I declined an offer of it, followed by the statement, “I don’t really like it.” This was blatantly untrue when it came to flavor, but very true on an emotional level. By banishing butter, for a moment at least, I was in control. 

unfortunately, my history with disordered eating, like many women’s goes back far too long: to when I was still in elementary school

Although I never was diagnosed with a full-blown clinical eating disorder, my eating patterns and thoughts were certainly disordered throughout my late childhood, adolescence, and early twenties in North America. I was always small, borderline underweight on the BMI, but I forever yearned to be slimmer anyway. Despite being very much in recovery now, visiting and then living in Japan has exposed me to a similar yet different set of assumptions about eating, diets, weight, and body shape.

“Rebound”: Aiming for 45 kg

When a friend suggested that I watch “Rebound,” a 2011 Japanese romantic drama, she expected me to enjoy it because of the variety of cute sweets profiled. And indeed, the drama, starring Aibu Saki as Nobuko, a woman struggling with her weight, and Hayami Mokomichi as Taiichi, a pastry chef, has its fair share of treats. But, unbeknownst to me when I began watching, the desserts take a backseat to the show’s obsessive focus on Nobuko’s fluctuating weight.

By the age of 23, she had reached 78 kg, thanks to the delicious tonkatsu that her parents had cooked for her while she was growing up. Aiming for her dream job, which comes with a weight restriction, Nobuko fights her way to her dream size—a mere 45 kg. The drama centers around whether the heroine can stay at her tiniest or succumb to the pastry chef’s creations and charms.

the show glorifies thinness as a body idea and simultaneously presents being skinny as the direct result of personality and perseverance

While in most ways “Rebound” is not a particularly noteworthy drama, it is an accurate and disturbing reflection of Japanese social norms about body weight. The show glorifies thinness as a body idea and simultaneously presents being skinny as the direct result of personality and perseverance. In the show’s universe, to be fat is to be undisciplined, slovenly, and unwomanly, while to be thin, and especially very thin, embodies ladyhood. Although “Rebound” aired almost ten years ago, today’s media climate remains highly critical, and harmful stereotypes about body size abound. 

Struggling with Body Image in Japan

Japan’s rates of clinical eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, pale in comparison to Western countries. However, as with many mental health crises in Japan, clinical data certainly doesn’t show the whole picture. In a 2010 review of academic studies on body image in Japan, researchers found some concerning, but not surprising, statistics. Disordered eating behavior—like taking diet pills, skipping meals, and occasional binge eating and then vomiting—is widespread in Japan, especially among adolescent and young women. 

Despite the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare concerns with obesity among males, women’s obesity rates have been consistently falling. Instead, the percentage of women who are underweight has been increasing for the last 25 years. Among adolescents, the vast majority of normal and underweight girls also report consistently trying to lose weight. And, as anyone who has spent time in Japan knows well, public commentary concerning weight gain and loss is exceedingly common, with weight loss always deemed positive.  

among adolescents, the vast majority of normal and underweight girls also report consistently trying to lose weight

So, what does this landscape look like in practice? One area of struggle is, of course, clothes shopping. Japan’s infamous “free-size” clothing leaves little room for body types that diverge from the thin ideal here. Yet fitting into the “free size”, for anyone with a problematic history with food, can also be a double-edged sword: a validation of size, regardless of the mental or physical resources used to get there.

Interactions with other women also—whether in service situations, like salesgirls, Mamas in the park, or coworkers—are rife with triggers, given all of the talks about skipping meals, dieting, and digestion “aids.” Friendly and well-meaning banter as well, such as a simple 偉いね (erai ne, “wow, great job!”) for skipping dessert at lunch, can also be triggers for unhealthy patterns of restriction or binging. These are a few examples, but sadly, I could easily write many more. As much as I adore living in Japan, being here also requires an extra level of self-awareness for anyone recovering from disordered eating: your distorted thoughts are openly reflected back at you from everywhere around. 

Aiming For 45 kg: Disordered Eating Recovery In Japan

Self-Care: The Way Forward

Yet, being in Japan has also offered new paths for sustaining a healthy recovery from disordered eating. In my experience, one of the key aspects of recovery is through self-care, which can come in many different forms: read on to find out a few of my favorites! 

1. Enjoy Cooking

Japanese food, rightly touted for its health benefits, can be a great ally in recovery. I get lots of joy out of cooking and eating in Japan, especially when experimenting with new or seasonal ingredients. 

2. Be Playful About Food

Also, sometimes, it’s okay to have a strawberry shortcake paired with a sugary royal milk tea if that’s what will boost your spirits! Being playful about food has helped me maintain a healthier outlook. 

3. Diversify Your Media Feed—Or Log Off

One aspect of self-care and boundaries that can be ignored or downplayed is regulating social media content. Just as we are what we eat, we are also what we consume on the regular. So, if your Insta or Tik Tok are triggering you, log off for a while. Or, look for more body-positive models in Japan or abroad to diversify your feed. 

4. Take Care of Your Body

Eating disorders are often about using your body to achieve some form of control, so why not give back to it a little instead? Try some gentle and mindful exercise, like yoga or dance, that can help you reconnect and be grounded in your own physicality. Also, I have come to really appreciate my skincare routine in Japan, using gentle products that make my skin (and soul!) feel soothed and calm and well taken care of. It’s been through a lot, after all!

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