“Body-shamed” in Singapore

by | Mar 23, 2024 | My Life, Travel, Turned-On Living | 5 comments

No make-up, fresh off the overnight plane. Marc happened to take this picture so you can see the dress.

A good foot massage is one of my favorite things.

The day after I landed in Singapore, my friend Marc and I went hunting for a foot massage place as part of our walking tour. I needed some TLC after a rough overnight trip from Istanbul, a small excursion that wouldn’t take too much out of me since I had barely slept. When someone massages my feet, especially when they push certain pressure points, my entire body relaxes, often putting me to sleep.

We both agreed it was a good plan.

We walked through a small mall filled with tailors, maid service agencies matching Singaporean clients with domestic workers from Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Phillippines, and lots of foot massage places, not unlike the kind you find in California where the client sits in a chair with his or her feet up.

We finally settled on one that could accommodate both of us. Marc likes to pick places that are highly rated online. My method is to choose randomly. Risk-taking: roll the dice. Usually, my approach works. Well, this day it didn’t.

My male therapist gestured for me to sit down in the chair, and asked, “Are you pregnant? I need to know for massage.”

What? Flummoxed, I didn’t respond. The shock on my face must have been his answer. Did this guy not get the memo? Don’t ask a woman if she is pregnant ever! This is not a good question. The last person who asked me if I was pregnant was a seven-year-old girl who lived in my apartment building in Buenos Aires. I never forgot that moment in the elevator. Marc joked later that you should only ask a woman if she is pregnant if the baby is already crowning (coming out).

It got worse, if you can believe it. A red, blue, and yellow foot sign flashed near the door. I asked him to turn it off midway because the lights agitated me. I wasn’t resting during the massage, as I hoped I would. When the hour was over, he asked my age.

“You are doing good.” He told me I looked five years younger than I am. “Eat well, sleep well, little back pain, you can tell everything from the feet.”

Two-thirds of those things are true. I eat well and occasionally suffer from lower back pain, and I sleep okay. I feel ambivalent when people tell me I look younger than I am. Like most people, I enjoy compliments but what’s wrong with looking one’s age? Little did I know that it was remarkable for this man to pay me a compliment at all.

“You have a spare tire,” he said.

“What?” I asked. My jaw must have actually dropped.

“Fat.”

“What!” He called me fat! Or told me I “have fat.” I was speechless, but I couldn’t stop asking, “What?”

Marc said later that he wished I would stop asking questions so the conversation would end, but I couldn’t. This foot massage had turned into a car crash.

He continued, “Exercise. You have to take care of it,” pointing to my waist and then his own, “Exercise is the only way.”

Yeah, dude, I know about exercise.

Marc paid for both of us, thank goddess; I didn’t want to pay a Singaporean cent for his mediocre massage, which put far more tension into my body than it relaxed!

When we got outside, we obviously had to dissect the horror of what had just happened.

“Do you think I should go back and tell him off?” I asked. “If I speak up, maybe I will feel better.”

“You could, but I don’t think it would matter. He hears and says that kind of thing a hundred times a day. It’s the culture in Singapore. It’s the water they swim in. This is how people talk to each other.” In essence, Marc was saying that in Singapore, people think they are doing each other a favor by pointing out each other’s flaws.

“Do I look fat?”

“Your body is fine. Come on.”

My mind was still reeling. Did he actually call me fat? Did that just happen?

Marc has lived and worked in Singapore for seven years. “I have a friend who works with a personal trainer,” he told me. “She had to sit down with him over a drink and tell him that she wasn’t coming to him for comments about her body. That’s not what she wanted out of personal training. He stopped but only after she had to have a separate meeting with him to get him to understand.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s probably not worth it to confront him because I don’t have an ongoing relationship with him.”

Singapore is a multi-ethnic society, and people of Chinese ancestry make up about three-quarters of the population. I started connecting the dots between what had just happened to me and stories I have heard from Chinese-American friends and clients who have shared with me about their parents relentlessly criticizing them, as if pointing out flaws is how you express love. Now I had felt the sting of it myself. What I experienced was miniscule compared to what they have gone through, but it was a taste. Ouch.

“They actually seem to think they are helping by criticizing,” I said. Of course, people in the U.S. also criticize each other’s bodies, but we are more likely to do it silently inside our own minds. It’s a very common thought error in the U.S. to believe that we are going to improve when we call out our own “flaws.” As a life coach, some of the most important work I do with my clients is to help people replace (or partially replace) their inner critic voice with a more compassionate, gentle, supportive one. Change takes root when we are kind to ourselves because we get stronger rather than weaker.

Marc pointed out that it could be valuable for me to have had this experience because it would help me to empathize with Chinese-American friends and clients. That’s true.

He urged me to not give his comments any power. Anyone can say anything to us, but only we can decide whether to remember their words or give those comments weight (pun intended).

Of course, Marc was right but I couldn’t let go of the doubts immediately. I’m human. I’m dealing with my own aging body over here, just like everyone else. For the rest of the afternoon, I kept looking in mirrors as we passed glassy buildings and mirrors in shops to check out how the dress, a piece of clothing that I actually adore, looks on my middle. It’s the perfect travel dress because it’s lightweight, easy to pack, and never wrinkles. I also consider it a sexy dress. Did it accentuate my belly? Should I still wear it at all? Had I gained weight? I hadn’t stepped on a scale in two weeks because I was traveling.

I’m proud to say that I let all these questions go by the next day, and I’m no longer giving that man any real estate in my mind.

The truth is I have spent the last fifteen years engaged in a journey of learning how to see myself as beautiful after a mild case of body dysmorphia (a mental health label for fixating on perceived flaws in your own appearance). No one gave me that diagnosis, but I would say body dysmorphia is cultural in the U.S. too because we are taught to see our bodies as projects to fix.

After a few days, I came back to my own hard-won baseline, feeling good about myself as a luscious, unskinny woman who has a sweet little belly. My philosophy as a life coach is that our relationship with our bodies is one of the most valuable things that we have. We live inside our bodies; they are our homes. When we get in touch with our body’s sensations, we can be more in touch with what we want and make better decisions for our lives. What happens when we shame or criticize our own bodies? We become self-conscious. We lose that innate connection. We lose our power. And we might not even want to leave our own homes to allow ourselves to be seen.

The next day I called my Chinese-American friend and told her the story. She shrieked, “How is that any of his business? He body-shamed you. I won’t get a foot massage in Singapore.”

My friend’s comment was funny, and that’s why I am including it.

Is the moral of the story, “Don’t get a foot massage in Singapore?” Maybe. Ha. I’m not sure that the language “body-shaming” applies in Singapore since it’s a U.S. construct.

If you are in Singapore en route to Bali, I would say, Wait, and get your feet  massaged in Bali. Since I arrived three weeks ago, I have gotten a handful. Foot massages in Bali cost a fifth of the Singaporean price, and they are far, far, far more blissful.  No massage therapist in Bali ever made a comment about my body, negative or positive.  All they care about is helping me relax. And that’s the point of a good foot massage, is it not?

Developing a more self-compassionate relationship with yourself, and a more affirming relationship with your body and your sensuality are two things we focus on in Turned-On Living my yearlong group coaching program for a small group of intrepid women who are drawn to my work.

A new cohort starts in June. A self-marriage (or soul commitment) ceremony is part of the experience. Does that scare you? Perfect. Transformative things by their very nature push us outside of our comfort zones.

Curious about Turned-On Living? The next group will begin together in September–back to school energy, out of the slog and into turned-on living. Read more on this page, and fill out the form telling me about you. I talk to each person to create a magical group of sensitive, caring women.

I am going to do a live community Zoom from Bali this April to tell you about what I’m learning in this culture from Balinese people, and how those lessons intersect with the yearlong adventure we go on together in Turned-On Living. Make sure you are signed up on the newsletter to get the invite!

And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to send a message.

5 Comments

  1. Jen

    This is so interesting from a cross-cultural standpoint. I come from a Syrian background and I felt the same way when my cousins in Damascus would look me up and down and say “you’re so pretty, if you lost 5 kilos you’d be perfect!” I was in my early 20’s then and spent my childhood being fat-shamed by my parents so it was pretty crushing at the time and basically confirmed every insecurity I harbored about my appearance.
    Here’s the thing, the more time I spent in the Middle East the more I realized that they don’t attach as much negativity to weight as we do. It was more about making conversation than it was about a serious suggestion. My cousin made that comment in the same way she would offer a makeup idea or fashion suggestion. I think in an American context, extra weight or being unattractive feels like failure, whereas in other cultures it just… is. Maybe the foot massage guy thought he would start a conversation about workout tips which would add value to the service? Maybe for him it felt like advice similar to iPhone versus android or something equally inoffensive?
    Regardless, all cultures put way way too much value on women’s appearances and don’t consider that in doing so, we force women into the position of feeling like any negative comment about our looks eclipses everything else that we are.

    Reply
    • Sasha Cagen

      Thanks for your comment Jen! To be honest, I don’t think that being a massage therapist is really this man’s calling. There were a lot of details in his service (or let’s say a lack of attention to detail) that made it less than a relaxing experience. So the way he spoke to me was just not therapeutic or helpful, though I’m sure being helpful was his intention. And I’m hearing back from so many people who have had similar experiences in Singapore and around that part of the world. They have posted their comments on various social media platforms where I shared this story, and I’m hoping they will put their comments here too so the conversation is all in one place. I’m glad you were able to leave a comment. Some others have said they could not. I wonder if you were on phone or computer when you left yours?
      Thanks again for sharing your response!!

      Reply
  2. Misha

    Excellent piece Sasha! It brought up something for me about another option of removing yourself from the situation. There have been a few times in my life where in hindsight I questioned myself for not getting up and leaving and removing myself completely. One of those times was when I was working in a movie theatre in college, and it was during a rush where we were filling drink and popcorn orders and my manager berated me in front of everyone in line for not moving faster and following her directions. How I wish I would have just taken off my apron and walked out leaving her to deal with all the customers.

    Reply
    • Sasha Cagen

      Thanks for sharing your response Misha! I think it’s so valuable that we talk about what we do when we are confronted in these situations. This conversation can help us all reflect on how we want to respond. There’s the shock factor that can make it hard to be thoughtful in the situation. Your idea of just leaving the premises is quite interesting to consider!

      Reply
  3. Alejo

    Hi sasha.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! I’m Sasha

Executive and Life Coach on a mission to help women connect with their bodies to pursue their truest desires in the bedroom and the world.

Author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics (HarperCollins) + To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us (Simon & Schuster).

At work on a memoir called Wet, about adventures in healing through sensuality.

Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter (my primary way of staying in connection with readers and clients).

Follow me on Instagram where I share snapshots of my own turned-on life with advice on how to live your own.