Last week I talked about stereotypes; specifically the image of foreign men in China as lecherous creeps there to defile local women. Well, two can play that game; and by “game” I mean stereotyping, not defiling of women, although that would also be accurate.
One of the most prominent Chinese stereotypes in the popular western imagination is that everyone is small, both vertically and horizontally. In fact, this is a falsehood maintained by many Chinese people themselves. While I was in China I repeatedly heard things like, “Foreigners all eat burgers and pizza, which is why they’re all fat, but we Chinese are very health.” After a while I got so sick of hearing this that I put myself on “Fat Watch”, which basically entailed taking photos of fat Chinese people from my bedroom window. Realising that I was just gathering material that could potentially be used against me either in court or on a psychiatrist’s couch, I desisted after about a week. However, I would like to point out that during that time I did successfully acquire enough empirical evidence to cast serious doubt over the validity of the stereotype. But for anyone who still holds the view that Chinese people are itty bitty, let me introduce Dan Dan:
The condition of this 18 month old child has baffled her parents, who say they have no idea how she got so big. Maybe she has glandular problems; maybe she’s overfed; who knows. The point is that while Dan Dan is unusual in making the news, she is just one of millions of other Chinese children who are part of a growing obesity epidemic.
In 2006 China’s Third National Childhood Obesity Survey showed that the rate of obesity among 0-6 year old children was 7.2%. In 1986 the figure was only 0.9% and in 1996, 2%. Between 1985 and 2005, the total percentage of obese and overweight 7-18 year-olds increased from 1.6% and 1.8% to 32.5% and 17.6%, for males and females respectively. These figures show that the obesity prevalence in some urban Chinese populations is on a par with that of developed countries.
Research has shown that one of the causes of this phenomenon is a change in diet to one that is high in fat and low in fibre. Increased obesity levels have also been linked with higher incomes and lower levels of physical activity. Perhaps the most revealing trend, however, is the discrepancy between boys and girls. Boys are almost twice as likely to be overweight or obese than their female counterparts; a pattern that runs contrary to that found in most developed countries.
Ok, this is the part where I draw uninformed conclusions based on scant evidence, so if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing I suggest you stop reading now.
Still here? Good, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. I think that the epidemic of childhood obesity in China is a direct consequence of the One Child Policy, a growing middle class, and the traditional bias in favour of boys. Parents have more money than they did in the past and, in most cases, just one child to spend it on. These children are spoiled rotten, not just by their parents, but by two sets of grandparents as well, many of whom seek to make up for what was lacking in their own youth by showering their grandchildren with affection and sweet, fatty foods. The phrase 虎头虎脑 in Chinese associates chubbiness with cuteness and vitality, and so many parents and grandparents view their younger relations’ expanding waistlines as a sign that they’re doing something right.
And why are boys fatter than girls? Quite simply, boys are still favoured by most parents and are therefore more likely to get spoiled. Also, while chubbiness is seen as a sign of health and prosperity in males, in females it is a one way ticket to spinsterhood.
As we have seen, childhood obesity illuminates much about modern China, but it also begs some serious questions about its future. Will the healthcare system be able to cope? What role will education have to play? Will agriculture be able to keep up with demand? How will people squeeze onto already crowded buses and trains? I suppose only time will tell…
Cheng Yeji and Tsung O. Cheng, Prevalence Cheng Yeji and Tsung O. Cheng and geographic distribution of childhood obesity in China in 2005 (2006)
Shiyun Hu, ’Childhood obesity and overweight in China: beyond a changing diet’ (2011)