In a country where many of the coolest clothing stores won't sell anything larger than a Medium, comedian and Instagram star Naomi Watanabe dares to be bigger — and proud. The 29-year-old boasts 6 million followers on Instagram, her own clothing line, and 220 pounds, which means she weighs two times more than the average Japanese woman.
Japan has long upheld certain ideas about what the female body should look like, Watanabe told the Washington Post. Obesity levels are low (only 3 percent of Japanese women are obese, compared to 34.9 percent in the United States), but the spread of sometimes unrealistic cultural ideals means there are also many Japanese women who are unhealthily — and, in some cases, dangerously — skinny. According to government health data, 22 percent of Japanese women are underweight or malnourished.
It's this lack of plus-size representation that pushes Watanabe to use her platform to spread body positivity in Japan. But she doesn't care much for trying to change other people's opinion of her — instead, she simply wants to show the bigger-than-average women in her country that they're just as strong and valuable as the smaller women who surround them.
"Japan is not like the U.S. You don't see many plus-sized women around here," she told the Post. "But rather than trying to change other people's minds, I would like to help change the minds of bigger women, to help them feel good about themselves."
And that's exactly what she does. Since 2013, the comedian has acted as a regular cover girl for a plus-size magazine that hopes to de-stigmatize "pochari," or "marshmallow girls." She talks openly about her size on Instagram, and was named one of Vogue Japan's Women of the Year in 2016. Perhaps her biggest claim to big-girl fame, though, is her clothing line, which she started in 2014. It's called Punyus (a play on the Japanese word for "squishy" or "bouncy"), and it offers fashionable options to larger girls across the country.
Now a social media sensation in Japan, Watanabe tells the Post that women will comment on her Instagram photos or even approach her in the streets to thank her for being a voice for plus-size women and for providing them with clothing that truly makes them feel cool. It's these women — women who not only reject the traditional Japanese idea that women are meant to be seen and not heard, but who are also confident in their curves — who inspire Watanabe to keep being the role model that she's become.
"Japanese women are changing, and there are loads more women who can express themselves and many fewer women who just say yes to everything like before," she told the Post. "I see more women becoming super-strong and confident, and it helps me grow, too."
[h/t Washington Post]