“The further you drift from home, the closer the outlines of home become.”
– from the musical Cole
When I moved to Tokyo in 1998 I didn’t realize all I’d be leaving behind.
Certainly I was going to miss friends and family, the wide-open spaces and fresh air, the ease of travel and of course the food-the familiar, comforting Canadian food. All of these things I had anticipated, though. But there was one thing about Japanese culture that I had not anticipated: the total lack of gym culture.
The obsession I believed thrived the world over, the fixation I was certain was so pervasive it could never be escaped, the bane of my gay existence, didn’t seem to exist at all in Japan.
Try to even imagine it. Really. Take a second and try to imagine a society where there are no TV ads with shirtless, sweat-drenched gods drinking Gatorade and flaunting their rock-hard six packs.
No billboards showing some Adonis with chiselled pecs peering at his own stunning reflection while shaving his flawless face. No steroid-pumped, buzz cut sporting, V-shaped hulks wearing sprayed on T-shirts strutting through the streets and nightclubs.
None. Anywhere. I was suddenly immersed in a society whose ideal male was waifish, androgynous and Japanese. None of which I could even fake.
I was out of the game.
And I had never felt so free in my entire life.
It was like an enormous weight had been lifted. Or had stopped being lifted, as the case may be. Suddenly I wasn’t being reminded at every turn that my shoulders weren’t big enough or that my calves needed work. Or that I was too thin/fat/tall/short/pale/tanned, etc.
The Japanese male may have been subject to some serious image pressure but I, as a non-Japanese, was exempt.
For once in my life the merciless pressure to go to the gym was gone. Completely. Hell, I couldn’t even find a gym in my first six months there.
Add to that the freedom from all other societal pressures thanks to my foreigner status and you have got one stress-free individual.
I loved not working out. I was a skinny kid growing up, very insecure about my body, and I had always felt it was unfair that I was so hounded to pack on pounds that just wouldn’t pack on.
But now all those long, frustrating hours once spent in the gym were allocated to doing things that made me grow in different ways — spending more time with my partner and friends, writing music, studying Japanese, music directing for children’s theatre and acting for the English language theatre groups.
My busy schedule and significant change in diet — smaller portions with lots of fish and rice — kept me fit. I eventually found a community centre close to our house where I’d drop in once in a while and give the sparse selection of weights and cardio machines a go. But now I was going to the gym not because I felt pressured but because I cared about my health and I wanted to stay in shape.
After six years of living in Tokyo I was healthy, confident and I had completely forgotten what it was like to feel judged and insecure about my body.
Then the time came to return to Canada.
I had a vague recollection that North American culture overvalued physical appearance but I would never have guessed how extreme it had become while I was away. The volume on body fascism had been turned to 11.
Steroid use had skyrocketed. Liposuction had become as common as nose jobs. Ads for cosmetic surgery were on bus shelters for god’s sake. Physical appearance had become everything.
The final straw came when I saw an ad in a magazine showing a close-up of a very attractive man with slight crow’s feet around his eyes. The tagline read something like: “You think lines show maturity, she just sees age.”
What the fuck? We’re not allowed to age now?
It’s one thing to feel pressure to have a rock-hard body, but to feel you’re not allowed to age is psychotic. Now we’re being told we’re failing because we have lines on our face. Or we have a belly or thinning hair. Or anything that naturally happens to every one of us.
Rationally you think you should just be able to tune out all these negative messages. Don’t pick up that magazine. Cancel your cable subscription if you have to. Just ignore it.
But the thing is, you can’t ignore it. Because it’s everywhere. It’s on the TV screen in that restaurant. It’s screaming at you from the cover of a tabloid at the supermarket. It’s inside the elevator in your building. Or hanging above the urinal in the men’s room while you’re trying to take a fucking piss.
You cannot escape the message: You are not good enough.
Was I just hypersensitive to the media’s assault because I had been out of its firing range for so long? I don’t know, but the more I was hammered with images of unattainable male perfection and pressured to conform, the more it weakened my self-confidence.
I began to feel inadequate for the first time in years and suddenly I was mulling over the idea of taking steroids and getting the small bump chiseled off the side of my nose. I was even considering getting my little poochie sucked out.
The thing is, everyone knows on an intellectual level that most advertising really only exists to keep us distracted and in a permanent state of dissatisfaction so we keep spending. We also know that our society depends on our crazed spending to keep the engines running.
But isn’t there a better way to feed the country’s economy than by subconsciously wounding and manipulating its citizens?
Most of us aren’t even remotely aware of how manipulated we are. I know I wasn’t. And the only way I became aware of it was to be completely removed from the source of manipulation.
I was very fortunate to have experienced complete media detox my first few years in Japan. As a result, I actually became rewired to be happy with who I was and how I looked.
Sure, not everyone has this opportunity, I know. And perhaps my experience in Japan was extraordinary. But having become accustomed to being valued for who I was and for what I brought to the table, it was extremely difficult to return home and be told at every turn that as long as there is product to move, I will not be allowed to be happy with who I am.
Feeling good about oneself is a serious battle and one does not have many allies these days. After all, self-esteem is capitalism’s deadliest enemy and for that it is constantly under attack. However, as a once weight-obsessed Korean woman named Margaret Cho recently said: “To have self-esteem is truly an act of revolution, and our revolution is long overdue.”
Amen, sister. Let the revolution begin.