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 jeans—and at last! They went up, with plenty of room to spare. I pulled back the curtain, ran out to the mirror—and 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 Chinese women's 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 me—and my friends agree—and 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."
In terms of clothing, what can and can't you find in Chengdu?
"I have managed to get things at this one lady's shop, and I hit up those shops that have sweatpants and sweaters that are supposed to be sold in foreign countries but just did not make the cut."
"I have found clothes that fit here—tops and dresses—but I have never even dared to try looking for trousers or shoes."
"The chain stores or supermarkets all have clothes that go to my size, but not always my style. Coats are a problem because of the shoulders."
"Basically if I want dresses, fitted pieces or pants I can wear out anywhere other than the gym, I need to leave Chengdu."
"I have small feet so shoes are easy. Underwear and bras are usually not a problem. Pants and skirts can be difficult."
"I can just squeeze into the biggest sizes at some shops, but the arms and legs are always too short, even if the garment is otherwise too big. And oftentimes the cuts are not flattering on me."
"I got some jumpers at the men's section in a small shop, size 43, and I bought two dresses that I used as a tunic over jeans. I got socks (no problem)—except a knee-high sock was more a regular sock on me."
"I haven't found shoes, though I admit I gave up fast. Haven't been brave enough yet to try to buy pants."
"Wearing sneakers with a dress is acceptable only if you're 12."
"I find the products that are of a better quality and will last more than one season are often too expensive for me."
"I think pants that fit well are impossible here. They have big sizes but the cuts are scary (high-waisted, large waist, but no thigh room)."
"'You are too big!' OK, thank you, I know. My face probably showed I was pissed off." // "It makes it frustrating that if things were different then I could get my size easy." // "I've told people I didn't ask for their opinion ... that they're rude, they're stupid because they're losing a chance to sell something, that it's none of their business what I look at." // "A male salesperson said, 'Tai xiaole!' to me, and I said, 'Ni tai xiaole!' to him and walked out." // "I have started saying, 'Actually I was shopping for a gift, but maybe I won't buy it here after all' in the hopes that they'll get the hint that they have offended!" // "Who gives a damn what they think? I thought as sensible grown-up women we were past the point where we care about some offhand comments from a random stranger, and that we'd learnt that beauty is on the inside." // "I knew it might be hard to find clothes in my size before I came, although perhaps not to this extent, so I saw it as an opportunity to save money. However, I did think I would be allowed to browse clothes stores without hassle if I wanted to—that was the big surprise."
This isn't meant to be a trite whine about the fact that our closets aren't bursting forth with the latest fashions. None of us are freezing for lack of clothes. Many of us own more than enough garments to be well-covered in all four seasons. But for many women, it's shocking to realize that on a global scale, it's true: We are relatively large—and it can be distressing to digest, and apply to ourselves, all of the negative connotations that many societies have attached to that label.
What painful opinions have been delivered while you're shopping?
"'It won't fit!' or 'Geez, you're fat!' But to be honest, it's more hurtful when they pull out the biggest, most shapeless, ugliest piece of shit they can find and look at me expectantly like I'm supposed to be pleased."
"'Don't bother coming in, nothing will fit you.' Coming from a country where we don't (openly) tell people they are fat, being told that you are every time you want to buy something can be a bummer."
"As soon as I look at something or touch something, the first thing out their mouths is "It won't fit.' Which is annoying. But almost as hurtful is when they try to get me to try on things knowing it won't fit. I just hate that they giggle sometimes."
"Sometimes people say they are surprised I'm not fatter because I'm foreign. Sometimes they will give me some pants or a skirt to try, and I'll say, 'Oh you know, I have a big foreign bum so this will be a bit small," which usually results in some nods of pity, and "Oh yes, you do' comments."
"Lots of stuff along the lines of 'Don't try that on, it will be too small' when I have just started looking at something on the rack or sniggering and saying, 'Oh, is it too small?' when I reject something after trying it on."
"It's just clothes. We've chosen to live in China for God's sake, and not in the most international city. We sacrificed some things to live here. Clothes is perhaps one of them. If we're talking about what we can't get in China, let's talk about the Internet or a decent doctor, etc. ... not clothes."
Keeping Your Pants On: Shared Tips for Staying Decently Dressed
"Grow a thick skin, and hunt, hunt, hunt. You really never know what you'll find."
"Maintain a good relationship with your mom."
"Get them sent over from home by friends or family, get clothes tailored or make your own adjustments, or go on a big shopping trip when you go back home for visits. And enjoy the time not spent shopping! Oh, or don't bother being well-dressed at all—and standards are a little different for laowai anyway."
"You always have to be on the lookout. I love to dig in bargain bins and see if I can find anything cool, and I have. There are places that I know sometimes have big sizes. Don't knock Carrefour, Auchuan and Wal-Mart. They sometimes have things in big sizes. And the biggest thing for me is Taobao — a dream come true, and with the Google translator you can do it on your own without nagging your Chinese friends to get that pair of size 12 Old Navy jeans for 60 RMB."
"Most people don't know how cheap it can be to get tailor-made items. Fabric starts at around 10 yuan a meter, and a qipao costs about 50 yuan to have tailored. Shirts and pants start at 15 yuan. Tailors will copy pieces or work from pictures. Or go on a shopping holiday to Beijing where they cater to all sizes."
"Clothes really do last a while—it's only the fashion industry that demands the seasonal turnovers. You can always swap with friends or cut them up and turn them into other things."
"Learn your measurements and make use of the measuring tape that every clothing shop has before bothering to try things on."
"Hibive is good for tall people as they tailor the trousers on you in store."
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 30 ("little chengdu"). Illustration by Daishu Ma. Thanks to all the women who shared their thoughts for this article.