Can’t Stop Buying

Most people come to China because they want to change something. Some of us just want to change our clothes.

My first shopping trip in China was an eye-opening experience. When my roommate had invited me to join her for a Friday-after-work shopping trip, I’m pretty sure she had no clue what was to follow: While she successfully tried on piece after piece, deciding which she wanted to buy, nothing in any of the shops came close to fitting me. Finally, at one shop, the shopkeeper handed me a pair of jeansand at last! They went up, with plenty of room to spare. I pulled back the curtain, ran out to the mirrorand realized I was wearing a pair of men’s jeans. Bad timing: I had grown out of wearing boys’ pants by the time I was 17, and when I said as such, the shopkeeper’s response was an indignant “They’re unisex!”

The realization that I was too big for taobao men clothes felt like a mix of disappointment and astonishment and added another layer of complication to the already-messed-up pile of “body-image issues” that many women seem to have. When I tried entering shoe shops, the sales people’s eyes would widen in astonishment at the size of my feet before gesturing that they didn’t have anything my size. It was all rather traumatic, considering that I’d never been anywhere near the high end of the size range at home, to learn that I was so off the scale that the stock didn’t even need to be checked.

“I think this is a big deal because women are just sensitive about this kind of stuff and because for foreigners it is strange to go from being considered as a normal size to being considered as perpetuating the stereotype of the fat foreigner.”

I had a hunch that if I asked a few clothing-related questions to a handful of female friends from Western countries, who live or have lived in Chengdu, and whose bodies seem to be larger than the ideal body indicated by the size of most of the clothing that’s available in Chengdu, that I’d receive plenty of feedback. I wasn’t wrong.

“I keep hearing that other cities have things that would fit me. It would be sad to move to Guangzhou just so I could have a better wardrobe.” // “It was amazing to realize that it is really honestly difficult to get something. Chinese sizes are totally not made for me. The proportions are way out of place.” // “I hate that most shops have the mirror outside the changing room so you are forced to parade yourself around in front of other shoppers and smug assistants. Sometimes I actually think something fits meand my friends agreeand then the assistant will offer me some other, totally different, baggy item and suggest I try it instead. They seem to believe in covering up curves rather than showing them off!” // “I knew before getting here that I might not be able to get any and everything, but I was shocked when I could get almost nothing. It made me sad and frustrated, and, well, I made sure I went home every year just so I could stock up.”

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