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How Japan's ‘Small Face’ Obsession Helped Me Confront My Body Issues

What impossible beauty standards abroad taught me about impossible beauty standards at home.

Nothing has given me an understanding of the phrase "It's a small world after all" quite like moving to Japan. I don't just mean that in the figurative "Foreign cultures—they're just like us!" sense. I'm talking about actual size. Japan is a small country, and Japanese stuff tends to be sized accordingly. A year and a half ago, when I relocated from Portland, Oregon to rural Kyushu (Japan's southern island) to be an English teacher, I experienced all the expected crests and troughs of culture shock: lows like no peanut butter, highs like everyone being incredibly nice. But surprisingly enough, the aspect of my early days in Japan that was the most affecting emotionally was not the language barrier or the homesickness—it was the shrinky-dink effect.


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When you consider that Japan is tasked with trying to fit half of America's population into a country the size of Montana, it makes sense that Japanese culture has embraced tininess as a lifestyle. A lot of the time, I found the fun-sized choices charming—teensy capsule hotels! weensy sake cups!—but mostly, the sudden smallness of my surroundings made me feel physically gigantic. My feet stuck out of the one-size-fits-all toilet slippers at public bathrooms, and my topknot brushed the door frames in my apartment. When I needed gym clothes for my new school's sports festival, I found myself in the changing room struggling with a snug pair of Japanese men's XL athletic shorts...and wondering if I'd be better off shopping at the sumo store.

Like too many American women and girls, I've gone through periods when I've been absolutely obsessed with my size.

I felt oversized compared with the women around me, and I wasn't just being dysmorphic: Japanese women are 2 inches shorter on average that American women, and Japan is one of the leanest industrialized nations in the world. While it seems like we're always hearing about how rest of the world is facing an obesity epidemic, government data shows that in the last 30 years, Japanese women of all ages have actually gotten thinner, and the percentage of overweight women has gone down.

Obviously, saying that all Japanese women are tiny is as fallible a stereotype as saying that all Brazilian women are Victoria's Secret angels. Like anywhere in the world, there are beautiful people of all shapes and sizes in Japan—the nationwide big n' tall outfitters (humorously named Grand Back) and the popular plus-sized (or "marshmallow girls") fashion magazine La Farfa are proof of that. But with my out-of-proportion mindset, all I saw were skinny Minnies flaunting their cellulite-free thighs in super-short skirts, and all I felt was hulking and undesirable.

It seemed like every woman I met was unfailingly slim and petite, my co-workers' birdlike figures somehow unaffected by the bento boxes stuffed full of white rice that I watched them put away at lunchtime. Before I left, everyone had told me, "OMG, you're gonna lose so much weight in Japan, all they eat is vegetables and fish!" But I found that, probably due to a combo of adjustment stress and the deliciousness of Japanese fried pork cutlets (for the record, they don't eat just vegetables and fish here), I had actually gained a little weight. Not a lot, but enough to start to rouse some dragons that I thought I'd put to sleep.

I should explain that though I'm moderately tall, I'm not overweight by American standards. But like too many American women and girls, I've gone through periods when I've been absolutely obsessed with my size. Despite my good health, I can't remember a time when I've really been comfortable with my body—in fact, I've always had a long wish list of things I want to change about it. (See my diary entries circa 16 years old: "I vow to only eat tomatoes until next Saturday's Homecoming Dance!!!!") I'm a constant sufferer of the "Am I fat?" compulsion (and yes, I have actually Googled that question).

Against what I saw as a background of Japanese beauties, I became convinced that I was Hagrid, Dumbo-dropped into the land of the Minpins.

The true magnitude of my chronic body insecurity hit me once, soon after graduation. I was looking at pictures of myself from when I was still in college, thinking "I looked so much better then. If I could just get that body back, I would be happy." And then I remembered being in college and looking at pictures of myself from high school, and having the exact same thought. And being in high school and looking at pictures from middle school, and so on and so on. If I'm honest with myself, I've probably been dissatisfied with my body since I was forced into a leotard for my first grade tap recital.

It really wasn't until very recently, when I'd become committed to a nurturing yoga practice and a supportive relationship, that I'd allowed myself to even start to find some respect for my body, as-is.

So while for many foreigners in Japan, suddenly being larger-than-life is just another cultural difference, for me it was a dangerous head-trip back to high school (and not just because I was teaching in one.) The pie chart sections of my brain normally allotted for productive pursuits were quickly being edged out by my old familiar calculation: a running tally of calories consumed, calories expended, guilty pleasures and potential pitfalls. And against what I saw as a background of flawless, slender Japanese beauties, I became convinced that I was Hagrid, Dumbo-dropped into the land of the Minpins.

Which is why I was taken aback when I started getting comments on my "small face." In fact, it was one of the first things that Japanese people would notice about my foreign physical appearance, after insisting that I must be lying about not wearing color contacts (my eyes are blue) and not having a perm (my hair is naturally wavy).

"Your face is so small," old ladies would tell me at the bathhouse, slapping their own wrinkled cheeks. How can a face be small? I wondered, unsure if I should be flattered or if they were calling me a pinhead. "Small face!" a chorus of my high school students would coo after me in the hall, and I thought for sure that something must have been getting lost in translation. But when an English speaking friend finally explained it to me, I discovered that they really were talking about the size of my face. A narrow, oval facial shape with a jawline that tapers into a V is called kogao (which literally means "small face")—and in Japan it's considered a must for those who want to look pretty, delicate, and feminine. "All Japanese young women want kogao," my friend told me.

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Image via Getty

This phenomenon isn't limited to looks-obsessed teenage girls, though. An older man explained the Japanese principle of hattoushin, the ideal 1:8 ratio of head to body. "We think the face should be one, the body should be three, and the legs should be four." He paused to revise this statement for modern standards. "Well, recently, we think the legs should be five." This explained the smiling assessment that a middle-aged woman had made of me the week before: "Your body is so big, but your face is so small!"

Kogao is the Japanese equivalent of a thigh gap or a Kardashian ass: an on-trend standard of beauty that can really only be God-given, but that society is doing its damnedest to make women believe they need to achieve in order to feel attractive. To me, though, caring about the shape of your face seemed almost ridiculous. There's literally nothing you can do to change your bone structure, right? Wrong.

Kogao is the Japanese equivalent of a thigh gap or a Kardashian ass.

"If we have some money, we can get plastic surgery," a friend explained. Bone-shaving maxillofacial surgery, also known as V-line or jaw reduction surgery, may not be as popular in Japan as it is for their plastic-perfect neighbors in South Korea, but Japanese marketers have come up a whole host of face-shrinking products: contouring creams, muzzle-like facial bras, massaging rollers, and sauna masks.

Almost all of my female high school students sport the hairstyle known as shokkaku ("antennae hair"), a cut with long bangs and two exaggerated, chin-length strands modeled on the kawaii ‘dos of idols like AKB48. The face-framing pieces are designed to create the illusion of kogao. According to Japanese beauty blogs, the thicker the ‘antennae', the smaller the face. And you know that double peace sign that you always see Harajuku girls doing in photos? Some say it's a trick, along with the popular mushiba pozu ("cavity pose", where girls place one or two hands on the side of their faces like they've got a really cute toothache) to partially cover the jawline—instant kogao.

The more people fussed over my kogao, the more inexplicable the whole concept seemed to me as someone who had never given a second thought to the actual shape or size or my face. Sure, magazine articles like "Find the Right Sunglasses for Your Face Shape" have as much draw for American women as anyone, but Western culture doesn't seem to idealize any one facial shape or size in particular. When my high school girls would sigh "kogao..." and press their hands wistfully against their cheeks, all I could do was protest awkwardly. I wished for a way of convincing them that they were already adorable, enviable, without kogao—that their fixation with face size was silly.

And that's when the parallelism became obvious: If I thought kogao-worship was pointless, then what about my own 24/7 body fantasies?

But it didn't matter what I said; it seemed to me like young Japanese women were fated to lie awake at night praying for a V-shaped visage. After all, I'd spent pretty much my entire post-pubescent life bargaining with the gods to wake up with a model body. And that's when the parallelism became obvious: If I thought kogao-worship was pointless, then what about my own 24/7 body fantasies? Here I was, born with this quality which, unbeknownst to me, is considered an ideal of beauty by a whole region of the world—a region of the world, mind you, that I had personally confirmed to be exclusively populated by willowy beauties poised to steal the affections of my man at any minute if I didn't follow through with my new intermittent fasting diet.

The Japanese women around me were literally worrying their faces off to achieve a kogao, and yet, despite the fact that I've got one, I wasn't inherently more beautiful—and definitely not more satisfied with myself. What seemed to me like a senseless obsession with face size pointed right back at the futility of my own insecurity; we suffered from different flavors of the same mania.

For me, this was a eureka moment: Beauty ideals, regardless of culture, are arbitrary. OK, so this isn't groundbreaking stuff. It's right there in the name—they're called "ideals," not requirements or even realities. And I feel grateful to be a millennial, raised with self-empowering Dove campaigns and TLC songs reinforcing the message that all women are beautiful, whether or not they possess whatever features their culture glamorizes.

Obviously, though, for a lot of us there's a wide gap between that message and how we actually feel. Otherwise I wouldn't be wasting so much time and energy on self-judgment. Sometimes it feels like a life without body anxiety is itself another unattainable ideal, a goal constantly undermined by an industry depending upon the insecurity of women for its survival and a landscape conspicuously lacking in diverse representations of beauty. For me, it took coming face-to-face with kogao (sorrynotsorry about that pun) to see that meeting some semi-random beauty standard won't actually fulfill me—and to believe with any kind of conviction that I don't have to be ideal to be satisfied with myself.

My experience doesn't mean that now I'm constantly twirling in a circle with Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé's "Feeling Myself" playing as my personal soundtrack. Living in Japan, I still have plenty of opportunities to feel like a super-sized American—and I still wish it were easier to buy pants. But this awareness that standards of beauty are inventions of culture, and not self-evident truths, has helped me question the authority of my most self-denigrating thoughts. If I can just keep that in mind when I look in the mirror at my ‘small face', then I can choose not to hate the body beneath it.

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