Skinny, but Healthy: Perceptions of Bodily Perfection in Japan

by Jaime

Ideas can come from the strangest of places. The idea for this essay came to me as I was struggling to bench what I felt was an immense weight in an attempt to achieve musculature that would make my body more aligned with most American’s perceptions of bodily perfection and attractiveness. In simpler terms, I was trying to get “big”. It seems natural for stronger guys to be more attractive because in movies, social media, and at school the stronger guys almost always get the girls that I perceive to be the most attractive. These observations mislead me into assuming that big muscles were one of those characteristics of attractiveness that transcends cultural differences. This assumption came crashing down after I visited some friends of mine that lived in Tokyo, Japan.

In Japan, there were no really strong guys to be seen anywhere. The movies stars, the models, and just about all of the people were small and skinny. Historical particularism dictates that one should view each culture as unrelated and not governed by universal laws [1]. Viewing Japan through this lens, it is clear to see that its perceptions of bodily perfection developed as a result of its unique history. Japan has historically had a distinguished and cherished cuisine filled with foods that are less energy dense than most western foods, meaning they consume less calories than most “westerners” (calories are a unit of energy that are important muscle growth and the production of fat). Japanese people are also thought to enjoy their food more without even eating it. It is said that they first “eat with their eyes” and try to enjoy the overall beauty of the food even before biting in to it [2]. These behaviors together have historically contributed to Japanese people being some of the thinnest people in the world!

Clifford Geertz believed that specialists within a society could derive symbols and their meanings from the interpretation of observable characteristics [3]. In accordance to this, the perfect Japanese body can be thought of as a symbol of the attitudes most important to the Japanese people. We can observe that a perfect Japanese body is toned, skinny, and healthy, and Japanese author and nutritionist and Naomi Moriyama believes the idealistic Japanese physique is representative of hard work and resilience, (qualities most Japanese men and women aspire to have), thus one can derive that the ideal Japanese body is symbolic of certain cherished characteristics within the society [2].

Attraction is not a static notion. Rather it is an ever-changing part of one’s culture that is unconsciously learned and influenced by one’s upbringing. It is understandable, therefore, for the idea of bodily perfection, (a component of attraction) to vary from culture to culture. Furthermore, notions on attractiveness might inherently be symbolic of important social characteristics within a society.

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23 Responses to Skinny, but Healthy: Perceptions of Bodily Perfection in Japan

  1. Larissa Hunt says:

    Your essay is a very unique way of looking at the modern, western, trend towards muscularity and “bodily perfection”. I think it’s really interesting because you brought in an outside culture that is relatively isolated in that most people don’t tend to look at japanese cutlure as a health oriented culture. But in this case, I thought it was interested in how you described japanese interaction with their food. It definitely seems to be a healthier approach to eating. However, do you really think that the skinny toned, calorie low diet/goal is really a healthier lifestyle? Because many would argue that the muscularity trend really isn’t that much of a bad thing, granted over muscularity can be just as harmful an none at all, but striving for that healthy muscular body might not actually be that bad of a goal. Just food for thought…

    • Alex Havlick says:

      I don’t think Jamie was saying that most Japanese are healthy. rather the Japanese idea for bodily perfection revolves around a healthy body.

  2. Taylor McGrath says:

    This essay gave me a new perspective on how body image differs so greatly between cultures. I like how you interpreted this idea by starting with your own life and opinions/thoughts. The two theories you used to interpret this subject fit nicely, however I think the practice theory would have also been beneficial in explaining how Japanese structures produce certain types of people and the idea of conforming to a norm. Other than that, I enjoyed reading your essay and the first sentence of the last paragraph really caught my attention. It is very though provoking and probably something that most people don’t think about very often. Good job!

  3. Meryl Balusek says:

    I love the focus on Japan, as the Japanese culture is made up of people with such different attitudes and beliefs than ours. Jamie’s look at the symbolic/interpretive theory I found very accurate and eye-opening. The way your body looks, or the way you want it to look, can portray what you strive for in your life in some way. To the Japanese, toned and skinny bodies shows hard work and resilience. What ideals are portrayed in the United States with a skinny, toned body? It may show hard work, as Jamie stated “all of the attractive girls” like more muscular men. But I feel like there is a large aspect of sex and sexuality with a fit body in the United States that may or may not be present in the eyes of the Japanese. The Japanese respect skinny healthy people. As Americans do we respect skinny, toned people in the same way?

  4. BethanyA says:

    This was really well written, and definitely something I noticed when I was in Japan! I think it would be good to focus a bit more on the distinctions between men and women’s “ideal bodies” and maybe touch on what other physical characteristics are valued, such as skin tone. But there isn’t much room to add those topics so I understand needing to keep it general.

  5. Ben Medalie says:

    This essay thoroughly portrayed the cultural differences between Western and Eastern bodily norms. I find it fascinating how body image can completely differ across different countries and cultures. Your usage of historical particularism fits into the essay well when describing Japan’s varying diet and values towards food and body attraction. In America being muscular may be more attractive to many females, but do you think that with the increase in internet usage and the spread of Western popular culture throughout the world, the Japanese will change their values and stances on bodily attraction?

  6. Madison Arata says:

    I love that you used Japanese as an example because it shows that body image is not only a problem in the United States. I found your metaphor between body image and symbols extremely interesting and also relatable. Relatable because most people who thrive to be skinny and attractive are not doing it for their own health, but rather to show off to to the world. They post pictures on social media as a symbol to their friends or followers that they meet the standards of a society. I thought you are article served purpose.

  7. Bianca Prioletti says:

    I’d be interested to hear a feminist anthropological perspective on this topic! It’s cool that your post is accompanied by Skyler’s “The Art of ‘Thin Shaming.'” I wonder how common it is, since the norm there is thinness, for people in Japan to look at muscular or “big” people and immediately label them as obese the way naturally thin American women are sometimes criticized and accused of being anorexic.

  8. Izzy Reynolds says:

    The introduction to your essay caught my attention immediately. I enjoyed your sarcasm surrounding the topic of getting big in the first paragraph. I find it so interesting that Japanese people interpret their bodies through their work. In America, people are stereotypically after the “American Dream” which implies the same amount of hard work and dedication as the Japanese men and women would like to have. Yet the stereotypes surrounding the body types in each nation couldn’t be more opposite.

  9. Anna Bockhaus says:

    I liked how you connected what you were doing when you thought of an essay topic to a past experience you had in Japan. You really showed your ability to think anthropologically, even outside of the classroom. Your essay was very well written and you connected the theories we’ve been learning in class to things that make sense in the world. Nicely done!

  10. Casey Wilson says:

    I think the beginning of this essay shows exactly what’s ‘wrong’ with the media in America. We show movies and TV shows about men with big, strong muscles getting “attractive” girls, rather than the actual successful people. This is because our natural desires are greater than everything else. So perhaps the media should be creating more movies about famous people that have ‘normal’ bodies (normal in the sense that they aren’t extremely skinny or unrealistically large like the cartoon characters), for example the majority of presidents, Bill Gates, the majority of Olympians/athletes (with the exception of athletes like weightlifters, heavyweights, etc), and everyone else along these lines, because it will lead to healthier citizens. Not only this, but there IS a large range (such as lightweight to heavyweight) in every aspect of life, so there shouldn’t be ONE ‘good way to look’. I really enjoyed this essay and wanted to ask you this question: I know that one major difference between the perceptions of Japanese and Americans is that they focus on the beauty and taste of their food, however do you think there are other factors, such as price of the food (typically in America, fancy food is put in small proportions, however it’s far more expensive) or the healthiness of the food (in America, getting a broad range of fruit/veg/protein/fats/etc, vs in Japan there may be more fish/rice/seafood [although I don’t know a great deal about Japanese cuisine]) that affect what we buy? Perhaps Americans would have smaller/healthier proportions, but maybe that’s more commonly expensive, whereas it’s easier to go buy a huge amount (it’s usually easier to combine foods with a drink/side because it’s CHEAPER?!) of unhealthy food (i.e. most fast food corporations). Do you think this difference between expensive/healthy/small food and cheap/unhealthy/large food is a contributor to the fact that Americans have such a different diet than other cultures? Finally, do you think this perception of food in America will ever change? And how would that affect America overall (our culture, human health/looks, etc.)?

  11. Natalie Bowes says:

    I really like how you used your personal experience to exemplify the difference in what is perceived as attractive cross-cultures. Because what our society sees as an ideal body type is so unconsciously learned it can be shocking to realize that this phenomena is not universal. I thought the most interesting part of this essay is how historical particularism influences societies view of what is attractive in Japanese culture. In contrast to the Japanese whose ideal body type is a result of culturally relevant food and tradition, I feel our view of attractiveness in the U.S. and quest for this ideological muscular physique is often more of an obsession that results in discontent due to unhealthy practices. Regardless, since the perception of attractiveness is not static it’s interesting to think what may be considered attractive in our society as well as Japans’ in the centuries to come!

  12. Hayley Bibbiani says:

    This essay was very thought provoking. It reminded me of a fact, that we often forget, that “perfect” body image varies all around the world. It is interesting to see how widely body image varies from culture to culture. You thought very anthropologically by pulling in Japanese diets and the characteristics Japanese cultures pride on in order to show how and why their body type was this way instead of another. I also think that you connected the theories to your topic seamlessly. Well done.

  13. Tyler Nielsen says:

    I agree that this essay was thought provoking. It’s interesting to think about mass perceptions in different cultures and what led to the most prominent beliefs. I wonder how a functionalism anthropologist would view this culture. Maybe it benefits universal human needs by making everyone feel comfortable? Or maybe by consuming less, they provide more for the needy?

  14. Emma Schilling says:

    It’s interesting how you got to personally experience this and see it through your own eyes. It’s also crazy that it does seem like a completely different world in the way we see each other and even food, compared to those in Japan. I definitely don’t take the time to really look and savor the food I’m about to eat and I think most Americans can agree with me. This essay really made me think about why we in America, have this idea of a “perfect body image” thats completely different from those in Japan and almost every other culture. You did a great job of tying in the theories and I really enjoyed reading this.

  15. Martha Wheeler says:

    I thought it was incredibly interesting the the Japanese “eat with their eyes”. Their physique might also contribute to the fact that by savoring their food, they also eat slower than most Westerners who tend to gobble up their food. It takes twenty minutes for the body to tell the brain that it’s hungry, so people who tend to eat slower have more time for their stomach to tell them that it is satisfied. Westerners also have trouble listening to bodily cues and even we were full, we continue to eat whatever is left on our plate. It is interesting to see how the culture of eating changes across cultures as seen in Japanese societies.

  16. Dear Jaime,
    I am very interested in this topic. I understand the feeling of wanting to become masculinized in the gym; a want that many people in our country and culture strive for. I never though that this varied by culture though. Now that I think about it, I have not seen any enormously large Asians. Although you feel this is from diet, I believe it is truly a cultural ideal. Japanese people eat hefty amounts of rice but certainly eat a lot of pork and beef as well providing the nutrients, proteins, and macros to certainly become “big”. I very much agree with the next paragraph though. In Japanese culture, being a diligent and virtuous man Is attractive and increases the self confidence of many men. Rather than the need for a large toned body, the work put forward by their mind and efforts In work or school provide the backbone for self worth. Regardless, I loved this piece. I was truly unaware of the bodily differences between cultures around the world.

  17. Juan Guevara says:

    Awesome article I feel like the Japanese aspect made a super basic topic into something a lot more interesting and worthy of an article. The comparison between japan and america was excellent. Here in America, we love everything big. Everything from big trucks, to big meals, to big muscles. In Japan it is all in the contrary, the more efficient something is the better. So it’s neat that you implement that idea in your essay. I have never seen a buff japanese guy in japan, but i have seen a lot in gyms here in the States. So perhaps that has something to do with it. The American Culture does this to people. I feel like in America people feel the need to learn to get “tough”. But yes very good essay. I enjoyed this one the most.

  18. Marissa Marino says:

    Reading about different body standards in different societies is so interesting to me. In western culture, the “bigger the better” notion is completely thrown out in a lot of societies. I want to know more about the Historical particularism view of this topic. What dictates certain cultures to accept certain bodily ideals? I think also in western culture, we tend to think that everyone thinks or has the same views on appearance depending on particular situation.

  19. Abhi Shrestha says:

    This essay has made me question what it means to be attractive. Can there ever be a universal attractive man or woman? If not, then how does Miss. World and Miss. Universe make sense? It does make some sense that your family, friends, and especially the media can influence your perception of what attraction is and what it means to be attractive in that society. I really like the statement you made that attraction is not a static notion but like culture is is ever-changing. However, I didn’t understand what exactly you meant by saying it is unconsciously learned and influenced by one’s upbringing. I didn’t feel like you ended you conclusion, especially your last sentence with a solid ending. But definitely an essay to think about.

  20. Japanese culture is totally fascinating. Parts of it are of course westernized, or, I guess, Americanized. But there are certain solid facts about cultures that remain the same even when they become washed with the values of others. I agree with you that attraction is not a static element in life; it varies from culture to culture and, I would argue, from person to person. There are a lot of body issues that need addressing, especially in America where what is glorified is not always what is healthy. I liked your use of historical particularism, and I think this topic would also be interesting to discuss in terms of the family. How do people’s families raise their children so they grow up desiring a healthy, fit body? Taking a culture and personality standpoint on this issue would be really interesting to see. Great essay!

  21. meghan drummond says:

    A key lesson that anthropology classes has made clear to me is that there is no such thing as right or wrong, only culture. This essay reiterated that foundation point in a genuine and unexpected way. It was refreshing to hear this unique perspective and it also inspired me to think about other cultures and what they must value when it comes to body image. I have been fortunate enough to travel around the world and your essay was completely correlated with what I have witnessed during my experiences abroad. I spent a year of my life in Argentina, where it became apparent to me that people do not have a universal ideal body type. People around the world value extremely different characteristics and I appreciated your specific anthropological exploration of this concept.

  22. Canyon Cain says:

    This is really interesting as how Japan considers something perfect. I think that although this may seem wrong to many cultures that it does not actually make it wrong, but just different. Like we have learned in any anthropology class that you will take. At first it was hard to dictate why they would do that even after reading the article I was kind of baffled. Eventually you can see where they are coming from, people almost strive to be like a doll. It is a far fetched goal that seems quite hard and taxing to be achieved, but if that culture thinks that it is beautiful; then there is meaning behind it and it is right.

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