To better understand what the Body Positivity movement is and how it is developing in Japan, I talked with Antonia Larraín, Chilean communicator, activist and model, and Mariana, Japanese plus size model from the agency Glapocha.
Antonia started being an activist at a very young age. She was a militant before even realizing it. She has always been interested in diversity and she started out taking part in marches and parades by the side of the LGBTQ community. “I am first of all a communicator. Being a model is one of the many ways I have to spread my ideas. I am a Feminist and this is why I am also concerned about Body Positivity: it is not only about how we look, it is about every-body’s rights.”
Antonia visited Japan last year. “I already knew the magazine called La Farfa and its activities on making plus size Japanese models more represented in the country’s fashion industry. But one day I googled ‘plus size models Japan’ and I discovered this agency called Glapocha.” This is how she got in touch with Mariana and the two had the chance to meet up in Tokyo. It is also thanks to Mariana that Antonia met Kazuna and Tadashi from Voice Up Japan.
Mariana is a young plus size Japanese model. She started her career in the modeling industry last year in October. She decided to undertake this journey for two main reasons. “First, I want to spread the concept and make it deeper in Japan. Second, I am in my late twenties and I want to speak to my generation, to those who will be parents very soon. I want to tell them: support and love your children and don’t body shame them; instead, spread the Body Positivity concept with them.” According to the model, one of the main causes of image-related pressure comes from family expectations. “I grew up being considered fat from my family and friends and that affected my self-esteem. I was convinced that I didn’t deserve fashionable clothes or even boyfriends. And I also would blame myself for that, while no one else was there to tell me it was not my fault.”
What is Body Positivity?
Body Positivity is a movement that advocates for body equality: our bodies are not all the same and the beauty lies in the difference. So everyone should learn how to accept themselves, their shapes, their sizes. In particular, the movement aims to make the female body and beauty standard more inclusive. Most of the advertisement for diets, weight loss and fitness programs are targeted to women. And the key to be considered beautiful for a woman is to be thin, slim, skinny – features that would even make her attractive.
The popularity of plus size models advocating for Body Positivity – one famous trailblazer being Ashley Graham – has already changed fashion industry. Social media also played their role in this process. The more plus size models show how confident and empowered they are, the more their followers relate to them and crave for more similar content. The natural consequence is that fashion agencies and brands are following this trend. So, now we have more representation of different types of bodies: if we scroll down the Instagram account of H&M we can see their engagement in inclusion; also, earlier this year, Nike launched its first plus size mannequin. Of course, these campaigns are the result of marketing strategies and are useful to build a brand’s reputation. But as long as they have a positive impact on individual’s self-esteem, it can be considered a good step forward. “It’s a good change” says Antonia “We can finally see more diversity, more difference. The worlds of plus size and non plus size models are still separated, but I hope they will be more connected soon.”
Body Positivity in Japan
Japanese people are often represented as lean, both inside and outside the country. This, of course, affects the perception that people have and also the construction of stereotypes. I asked Antonia what are the physical features that are considered “typical Japanese” for Chileans. She answered that in Chile, Japanese people – especially women – would generally be considered as small, skinny and white. While she was in Japan, she was asked many times by her Instagram followers the Japanese are so skinny. This is a question a lot of Italian and European friends have always asked me too. They expect as an answer that Japanese food is healthy, that they do more sports. But it takes a ride on a local train or an advertisement that you are not able to skip on Youtube to understand that being super skinny in Japan is not something “natural” or effortless. I will give two examples of advertisements that I noticed on a public train. One shows a model at the beach and it says: “Summer is close. Are you getting ready?”. The other one shows a woman with a bit of belly fat standing next to a slimmer version of herself, who looks satisfied because she lost about six kilos in two weeks. The messages of these two advertisements are clear: the first one puts pressure on women to “get ready” for summer because they will have to uncover their bodies at the beach; the second one gives the illusion that happiness is real only when you lose weight – and quickly.
However, the causes of insecurities about body image do not come exclusively from media. Body Positivity is about women mostly because it is a category that often feels this pressure. Why is that? For Mariana, one of the reason is that Japanese society is group oriented, which means that people need to belong to a group and consider its judgment extremely important. For example, when she was at her first job experience at 22, her superior – a woman – told her that she got fat and she’d better use the money from her salary to lose weight and get prettier, because that was what she was paid for. “In that time, I thought what she told me made sense and that I was to blame.” Another reason, for Mariana, is that Japanese society is conservative and men still have more power than women, who are relegated to emotional and inferior positions – and this is enrouted in women’s mind as well. Antonia proves that even a Western country shares the same kind of reasons: she mentions patriarchy and family expectations as main pressures on women; in Chile, women must be attractive to get married and parents teach children that it’s bad to be fat.
So, at what stage the Body Positivity discourse is in Japan? Mariana says that it’s spreading up, especially thanks to the magazine called La Farfa, first issued in 2014 and dedicated to plus size women. Now there are agencies for plus size models in Japan and in terms of fashion, plus size women have definitely more choice and representation. But according to the model, the process is still slow in the country. “What lacks is a discourse on individuality, individual mindset and confidence; empowering messages about accepting who you are and not caring about others. This is because in Japan the movement has just started and it still takes time for a deeper stage.” As mentioned before, one of the goals Mariana wants to achieve is to spread the Body Positivity concept in Japan from a Japanese point of view. In fact, what Japan has heard about it so far was translated from Western fashion magazines or related to Western plus size influencers, never about Asians or Japanese plus size models specifically. “Sometimes users of the hashtag #BodyPositive – written in katakana – don’t get the point because they use it to promote diets. Even inside the plus size industry, most of the models only give fashion advices and tips. Only a few people from La Farfa and Glapocha have already entered a deeper stage where they share their experiences and ideas.” adds the model.
When we talk about plus size Japanese models, the first person that we think of is Naomi Watanabe. However, I have the impression that, since she is the only Japanese plus size model to be famous overseas, it’s like she is the only one doing this. “She is a big name indeed, although she is far away from daily life. But, Naomi Watanabe is being covered by foreign fashion media as well, so she is surely a link between Japan and Western countries. At the same time, she is studying English so that’s also why she can have more connections overseas.” A lot of other Japanese plus size models don’t have that proficiency and they need interpreters. That’s why Mariana would like to be a link for them in case they decide to collaborate with overseas partners.
Antonia also noticed this big limit for plus size models in Japan: language. When she researched about plus size in Japan, most of the sources were in Japanese. “It’s true, the number of people who can communicate about this to the world is still limited. But at the same time, the discourse in Japan is at its very beginning and it has to be processed first inside the country.” explains Mariana.
What are, then, the big resources that Japanese plus size models can use to spread their message? One is of course Instagram. It has influenced the industry and changed the representation of plus size people in the media. Once they were portrayed as comical characters to be picked on, now there is more diversity. Another way to communicate to more and more people is through events. Glapocha organizes two fashion shows a year, in March and October, and collaborates with brands that provide inclusive styles and sizes. It is interesting how not only plus size models, but also non plus size take part, discuss beauty standard and share experiences. It is a good chance to get deeper into the discourse.
In the end, how can women become more confident and embrace the Body Positivity? Antonia gives a good advice: “Find people who inspire you and look like you in shape, size, skin color, etc. It is very important to feel represented and to relate to your models in both image and vision.”
Antonia Larraín: IG https://www.instagram.com/antolarrain_/
Mariana: IG https://www.instagram.com/mariana.lysxo/