Posted by: isaaph | August 1, 2007

Fat and Thin

I want to share this great article which appeared on today’s Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Fat and thin
By Michael Tan

Back in the 1980s when I was working with a nongovernmental organization, we had a British volunteer who would occasionally come into the office sulking. We’d speculate, often correctly, that someone had again greeted her, “Uy, Rose, ang taba-taba mo ngayon ah.” [“Hey, Rose, you’re become so fat.”]

Sounds brutal, doesn’t it? Rose would always point out that in Britain and in many Western countries, such a remark was rude and offensive.

With time, she did come to accept that such statements, including the converse “Uy, ang payat mo ngayon ah” [“Hey, you’re so thin”] are meant as greetings, said only when you’ve acquired some familiarity with the person. It’s a versatile greeting, with different meanings, depending on who says it and in what context. Sometimes it’s just an expression of endearment, usually said by grandparents when they see their favorite “apo” [grandchild]. Other times the statements can be a form of scolding, as when parents (and in our nosey extended family system, uncles and aunts and grandparents) want a child to put on (or take off) weight.

There will be times, too, when it is said in jest, like tricycle drivers would do to Rose, who was well liked in her community, especially because she was so “Kana” and yet could speak Filipino. The tricycle drivers, Filipino-style, would greet her and then rub it in by asking passengers, “Urong nga” [“Move over”], even if there was enough space.


Language has its social and historical context. In the past, if you told a woman, “Ang payat-payat mo,” she’d feel bad because it had connotations of illness. Her husband would feel slighted, too, by the insinuation that he was not a good provider. Today, telling a woman she’s becoming thin — “Pumapayat ka” — might get her to profusely thank you, maybe even get her to treat you to a sumptuous meal.

I do worry that in this 21st century, the fat-thin greetings have become counter-productive. We live in an age where we are bombarded, through mass media and advertising, with what society thinks is the ideal body size. For women, that’s usually on the thin side, sometimes bordering on emaciation. For men, it tends toward the hunk, with flat abs and pectorals bordering on … can I use the term buxom-y?

Imagine then the impact on women when you say, “Ang taba-taba mo ah” or even “Tumataba ka ah.” Think of a woman going through a midlife crisis with a philandering husband.

The excessive attention to body conformation, reinforced by our traditional greeting, can be disastrous as well for very young girls. In Spain, pediatricians last year were able to convince the fashion industry to stop using excessively underweight models in their shows. The pediatricians’ appeal came about because young Spanish girls watching the televised fashion shows with all the very thin models had become excessively anxious about putting on weight, with many lapsing into anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder where they literally starve themselves.

Anorexia is no joking matter. It can kill, slowly and painfully for both the patient and family members. This eating disorder, together with bulimia (excessive eating), has arrived in the Philippines. I know of middle-aged women who are anorexic and trace it back to a childhood when people were always commenting about their being “taba.”

Paradoxically, the “taba-taba mo” barrage can also drive people to bulimia or excessive eating. In this case, the person feels so frustrated and helpless that she turns to food, and more food, for comfort.

Body image

I’ve always been thin, and on the receiving end of “payat-payat mo ngayon” and “pumapayat ka” greetings. My grandmas and aunts always did that affectionately, forcing me to eat more but not quite succeeding in getting me to gain weight. Metabolism, I’d explain to them when I was older—if I eat more, I just end up becoming more physically active. The only time I gained weight significantly was when I stopped smoking, quickly gaining 15 pounds, and then shedding five and settling in.

I know my weight, and I’m happy with it, these days with a vengeance. I run into long-lost friends who used to go, “Ang payat payat mo” in a “You’re-so-skinny” tone. Now they make the same statement in a “I-hate-you” tone, followed by a green-with-envy question “How do you manage to keep so slim?”

But I did resent it when people used to do that you’re-so-skinny statement because there were many times when it was inappropriate. That was usually when I’d be under great stress from work and so getting a remark like that wasn’t helpful.

Body image ties into self-esteem. If a person is already stressed out, it doesn’t help when your comments make them feel even more downtrodden. Learn to say something else like, “Daming trabaho yata, ano (Lots of work)?” said in a sympathetic tone, rather than “Pumapayat ka,” which comes through as tacky and critical.

I thought about that again recently when an older relative went into a battery of medical tests simply because people kept greeting him, “You’re losing weight.” He had asked me about it and I assured him he was just the right weight. In fact, I felt he could actually lose a few pounds and be healthier. Unfortunately, our society still expects older people to be on the heavy side, a sign of affluence.

Anyway, this older relative went through the expensive and excruciating tests only to find there was nothing wrong with him. But there, that’s where “You’re losing weight” remarks can be thoughtless, even harmful. Be especially careful if the person does have an illness like cancer; commenting on how thin he is would be outright cruel.

It will take time for us to get rid of this nasty tradition of fat-and-thin remarks, but meantime, I’d advise you to watch out with younger and older relatives, making sure they don’t take such statements too seriously. If you’re the one on the receiving end, remember people’s intentions with the greetings are usually benevolent. I’d also do a bit of reconfiguring with the words: when they say “taba,” think of yourself as “voluptuous” and when they say “payat,” think “slim, sensual, sexy.” Smile back and retort (silently, of course), “Eat your heart out.”

Source: PDI Online



  1. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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