Being the Wrong Size in a Foreign Land


photo by James Emery

photo of American woman by James Emery

The average height for an American woman is 5’3.8”, which makes me at 5’4” pretty darn close to average. Before we moved to the Philippines, I was used to looking straight across at most women and up a bit at most men.

Binibining Pilipinas 2008

Binibining Pilipinas 2008

In the Philippines, where the average woman is 4’11.8” and the average man is 5’4.4”, I looked straight across at most men and down at most women. It’s a different feeling. I was used to being an average-size woman. Now I was big.

Chinese silk for the Year End Party

Chinese silk for the Year End Party



In a practical sense, being 4.2” taller than the average Filipino woman was no problem. During the time we lived in the Philippines, women, both local and foreign, had most of their clothes made by a dressmaker. All I had to do was bring fabric and a sketch, come back for a fitting, and a few days later pick up the dress. Since I grew up drawing my own paper dolls and designing their clothes, the sketch was no problem. The fabric wasn’t either. My husband often provided it. Being an avid shopper, he would return from his business trips with exotic fabrics stuffed in his suitcase—Thai silks, Indonesian batiks and modern Chinese silks from Hong Kong and Singapore.

A simple design for batik. The dressmaker also made children's clothes.

A simple design for batik. The dressmaker also made children’s clothes.

If visiting the dressmaker was easy and fun, finding shoes was a different story. I’d browse the shoe display and point out one I liked. Then, invariably, the clerk would shake her head, “Sorry, ma’am, that doesn’t come in big sizes.” Big sizes? I wear an 8—back then, sometimes a 7½. The average size now for women in the United States is 9. (Strangely, Americans’ foot size has increased faster than our height.)

For six or seven years I wore old shoes or shoes bought on home leave. Eventually one of the large department stores (Was it Rustans or Shoe Mart?) opened a section for large sizes, and finally I could drive to town and buy a pair of shoes.

(Maybe Imelda Marcos also had large feet. Her midnight shoe-shopping trips to Hong Kong were legendary.)

On a trip to Kyoto, Japan, I learned that my feet weren’t the only thing about me that was the “wrong size” in Asia. My arms were too long. I was still living in the Philippines, where it was too hot to wear long sleeves—or jeans or jackets for that matter. But I decided I wanted a long-sleeved white blouse as protection from the sun, and I thought Japan would be a good place to find one.

Sure enough, the shops in Kyoto had lots of long-sleeved white blouses. The trouble was, they were all “one size fits all,” and the “all” they were talking about didn’t include me. Some of the blouses were too tight in the chest; others were loose enough. The sleeves, however, were a different story. Every single blouse had sleeves that were about four inches too short. Or rather, in Japan, my arms were too long.

ballet 001My three daughters weren’t the wrong size until I signed them up for a Saturday morning ballet class. At the Manila International School where they studied, children came in all sizes. But in the Saturday ballet class, all the other students were petite, wispy-thin Filipino girls. Next to them, my heretofore regular-sized daughters looked tall and chubby, and the Filipino girls let them know it.

I doubt that my girls were destined to become ballet dancers, but being the wrong size in that ballet class may have cut the experiment short.

My simple experiences while living abroad helped me appreciate the way size can affect how we are perceived by others, and, especially, how we feel about ourselves.

my signatureP.S. If you’re interested in reading my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, this would be a good time to get a copy. The Kindle, NOOK, and Apple iBooks are on sale for $1.99.

my cover, 5-27-14

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
Culture, Philippines , , , , , , ,


  1. Oh Nicki! What an experience! I’m around your height, so I feel your pain.
    When I taught English in China, I also was the wrong size. I was um a little heavier than others. Sometimes my students would ask me, “Are other Americans so fat?” As for buying clothes that fit–forget about it! I couldn’t find anything!

    • I didn’t want to bring up the issue of weight. It’s such a big, fraught subject. I didn’t think I’d have room for it in one blog post. But, yes, we Americans are definitely heavier than most Chinese. I remember once at lunchtime in Guangzhou watching an elevator door open and a bunch of typically thin Chinese women get off holding plates piled high with food. I just doesn’t seem fair. On the other hand, they don’t eat much dessert.

  2. I am a small size and I live in a community that has a high rate of obesity. Most stores don’t routinely stock sizes below an 8. If they do, they have one and that one other small person gets there first. On a trip to Hawaii many years ago where there are a lot of oriental (is that an ok word?) women, the clothing selection was fabulous. I bought a bunch of clothes unfortunately they were all summer clothes. Nowadays it’s much easier because I can order on-line and there are some specialty stores that do carry more than one in my size. As for shoes, that’s another story. I still have small feet by standards (6-1/2) but I can usually find those. My big problem is that my feet are narrow so it takes inserts and strappy shoes to make it all work. I never could wear Crocs. I believe those are make for Big Foot. It looks like the fabrics your husband bought were fabulous!

    • Wow! Kate. I haven’t been below an 8 since I was ten years old. Of course sizes were different in those days. When I weighed 115 pounds, I wore a size 12, if I remember right. Now that I’m back to being average size (by the statistics), that puts me between petite and regular. Petite pants are usually too short; regular are always too long unless they have short regular. Anyway, now it’s almost summer. I can wear shorts and cropped pants. Life is always a challenge, but isn’t the hunt fun!

  3. Maureen Rogers

    Great article Nicki! Loved the photos of you and the girls too.

  4. I totally understand what you mean and have experienced a reversal of my usual situation. I’m average height which put me taller than my parent’s generation. But, now I’m looking shorter. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a local high school and stand in the hallway as the students moved between classes. Talk about feeling dwarfed! Most of the young women are my height or taller; the shorter guys match my height. Just wait. Your time for being taller and such will end very soon!

    • I think it’s already ended, Paddy. One grandson and a granddaughter already tower over me. I still have the six-year-old grandson to look down on, though. Because it’s graduation time, I’ve been looking at pictures on Facebook recently of friends posing beside much taller children and grandchildren.

  5. Those fabrics from your husband sound so luxurious. So does having a dress custom-made for you!

    Ah, shoes. Kate’s right, bigger sizes have gotten more common, but finding an 11 isn’t that easy. I would have been SOL, for sure.

    Yeah, I dwarf everyone at Asian weddings. (Also at entertainment wrap parties with lots of actors. Most actors are short!) Luckily for me, the Chinese-American guy is a giant among his people, too. So I can get away with short heels and not dwarf him, also.

  6. For many Western people it can be a challenge to find clothes in Asia. Thus far I haven’t found anything which really fit me. Through some luck I found a pair of running shoes (their biggest size in the store which they couldnt sell at all for one year so I got big discount) and a shirt labeled XXXL where I usually buy in Europe size M or maximum L!

    • My idea for this post came from your story about your crazy Chinese photo shoot. I could just imagine the Chinese photographers digging through their boxes of stock clothing and coming up with very little that would fit you. I admit, the challenge for me was much less than it is for you. But it gave me some idea about size being relative.

      • It surely wasn’t easy for the staff to find clothes for me/ get oversized clothing adapted to me. There are so many great clothes in China I would love to buy but it simply doesn’t work, th thing is not even that I have really weight issues but my body structure changed rather much due to my swimming years and makes it even in Europe hard to find certain clothing such as suits

  7. “My simple experiences while living abroad helped me appreciate the way size can affect how we are perceived by others, and, especially, how we feel about ourselves.”

    At fifty I really started gaining weight and it wrecked my body image…even my attitude and personality. I recently had a makeover and cut off my long blonde hair. It was weighing me down and just didn’t suit my Florida lifestyle. I’ve really embraced the silver that was underneath the gold and have a whole new attitude. I’ve come to accept the me that I am. I’m making improvements where I can. I’m making healthier choices. Stopped smoking. Increased exercise. Gave up diet sodas for sparkling water. Feeling 100% better already. Accepting yourself is paramount to truly being happy.

    • Congratulations, Susan, on all the healthy changes you’re making, including accepting yourself for who you are. It’s a lifelong struggle for many of us, especially for women. The expectations are so unrealistic. I always seem to be a little overweight.

      For most of my life I’ve had curly hair, artificially curly. In fact, my mom gave me a Toni Permanent Wave when I was still pretty young. Finally about ten years ago, I decided to own the straight hair I was born with. Fooling around with fashion is fine, but it’s definitely easier to let nature decide.

  8. This is so true that we can feel physically a little displaced when we leave our homeland. I love what you write about your daughters’ experiences. It must have been bittersweet.
    My husband who is tall for a French man is average here and it was a surprise to him when he had to look up when he met much taller American men. Here I’ve been called petite, because I’m very slender. In France I’m tall but average in terms of weight. So it’s true that perceptions vary according of places. Great post, Nicki.

    • The thing that interests me, Evelyne, about height, is that there’s a mostly subconscious but inevitable relationship between our relative height and how we feel about ourselves and how others feel about us. It may be just a passing feeling or something we pay more attention to. The attitude shows up in our common phrases. We “look up to” someone when he or she is taller than we are, but also when we respect the person. We “look down on” someone when he or she is shorter, but also when we despise or disdain the person. And studies show that taller candidates are more likely to get the job. It’s sad.

  9. I am considered tall in Spain (I am 176 cm, sorry, no idea about the American measurements!) so in China I am also taller than most girls. However I have to say finding clothes is not really an issue, nowadays there are a lot of international chains that sell “big” sizes! For shoes I am in the limit, I am a 39 and that is the biggest shoe size for women in China!

    • I think, Marta, you’re almost 5’8″, the same height as two of my daughters.

      China has changed so much in the past few decades. Once, when my husband was there on business in the 1980s, his suitcase was lost. He told his Chinese counterparts that he’d like to buy some extra underwear. One man took him shopping. But in those days, the factories brought in one size at a time. One week, men’s medium would be available; the next week, women’s small. That week, the only thing available in my husband’s size was women’s panties, and they were pink. The Chinese man insisted on buying him a couple pairs. I think he must have worn them. He probably hand-washed his briefs, but they take so long to dry.

  10. I’d never given that thought. Sounds like you found a great dressmaker. My BIL is 6’8″ (and half Japanese, I might add)Here in the states he has a difficult time finding clothing. He has certain items he likes that fit well and buys those exclusively at particular shops. My uncle suffered from elephantiasis (one arm significantly larger than the other) and had a wonderful shirt maker.I also have a friend with one leg shorter than the other and sometimes has shoes made which cost a great deal more than average shoes but provide her physical relief. I guess we seldom give thoughts to these sort of things unless we or someone we know have to have things specially made.

    • Six foot eight. That’s tall! When you’re average size, you take a lot for granted. It’s good there are specialty shops for people whose size or circumstance are unusual, but they must be hard to find and expensive to pay for.

  11. Interesting post, Nicki. How fun that you had a chance to design your own style.

    • It was fun to design my own clothes. My daughters didn’t complain until years later when they started making comments about the clothes they used to wear.

  12. I wrote a similar post called, “Don’t call Thais short” because it’s considered an insult and I’m as tall as you and experienced the same “feeling tall” in Thailand. It’s weird, eh! I love all your old photos and how nice that you got to have clothes tailor made for you!

    • It was nice to have clothes tailor made for me. Come to think of it, I wore lots of tailor made clothes when I was growing up. My mom was an excellent seamstress. I used to chafe at having to stand still and get fitted, but my dresses always fit perfectly. In those days most women sewed. My mom and sister and I liked to spend time at the fabric store going through the pattern books.

  13. Oh Nicki! How I can relate. First of all, I am five foot nine and of good German stock. Not fat but big-boned. There is nothing delicate or bird-like about me. I fit right in on the streets of Munich. In Taipei, I feel like an Amazon woman. Nothing fits me. They’ve given up taking me shopping which is rather frustrating as I absolutely love some of the styles. We are going to a big celebration there next month and I dearly wanted to wear something Chinese but I gave up. I just couldn’t find anything pretty that would even begin to fit. Anyway, I totally understand your frustration.

    • I may have exaggerated, Barbara. It wasn’t a big problem for me. But I did think it was interesting how one’s size in comparison to that of others can make you feel too big or too small and all that implies. After being average, it was a revelation.

      Have a good time in Taipei.

  14. I love this, Nicki! At 5’9″ I would be considered a giant in the Philippines. My cousin’s daughter and her husband spent five years in South Korea. I remember her mentioning their feet hung off the bed.
    I’m glad I saw you over on Kate’s blog today. I didn’t get your post again.

    • My guess is that being an unusual size bothers some people but not others. I think we all notice, at least occasionally, how it makes us feel.

      I checked my email list, Jill, and you’re still on it. Maybe you could try signing up again? I wonder if the notice gets put in your spam box.

  15. So sorry to hear about your struggle shopping for clothes in Asia. It must be frustrating. And those were the days when online shopping did not exist. I’m 148cm and here in Australia when I’m shopping, the sleeves on long-sleeved shirts, jackets and blouses are always too long for me. I have to fold them up so my arms don’t look ridiculous. Also, I’m flat chested and lots of clothes here in shops like Target are designed for those more well endowed. It doesn’t help that tailoring costs quite a fortune here.

    On the subject of shoes, I have tiny feet and depending on the cutting, I can wear anywhere between a size 3 and 5 women’s adult footwear. The smallest size for women’s shoes is about a 5 in Australia…so when I shop for shoes here it’s a loitering game in the kid’s shoe section with humans of similar height as me 😀

    • It sounds like you have the opposite problems in Australia from those I had in the Philippines. Living abroad has its challenges, but it’s worth it, right?

  16. I do not have any difficulties finding shirts and pants but shoes … oh goodness! It is very hard for me to find shoes in this country! (or should I say continent?)
    Even if I find the ones I can wear, I might not like how they look.

    I wear size 45 – 46 (European). Most Indonesian shoe manufacturers only produce size 36 to 43, meaning I mostly buy imported shoes.

    • As your comment attests, Hari, one can trouble finding the right sizes in clothes or shoes even in your own country. My husband had trouble finding the right fit in shoes because his feet were wider than usual.

  17. “Strangely, Americans’ foot size has increased faster than our height.”

    I think it has to do with weight. The U.S. is (or was—it might be #2 today) the most overweight country on the planet. One quarter of the bones in the human body are in the feet with 33 joints and more than 100 muscles and ligaments.

    That extra weight Americans have packed on over the decades to win the title of the fastest country (? the U.S. might have lost the #1 spot this year) on the planet probably causes those joints, muscles and ligaments to stretch causing the bones to move apart and the feet to grow.

    In fact, I found this that says “Now that your body weighs more, it puts more strain and stress on your feet, which can cause the joints to widen.”

    A new study out in The Lancet by the Global Burden of Disease has revealed the ten countries with the highest rates of obesity. (On this list, the us is #1 with 33% of the adult population obese and 70% are fat or overweight).

    Read more:

    Fast Facts
    Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2009–2010 2, 3
    More than 2 in 3 adults are considered to be overweight or obese.
    More than 1 in 3 adults are considered to be obese.
    More than 1 in 20 adults are considered to have extreme obesity.
    About one-third of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be overweight or obese.
    More than 1 in 6 children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be obese.

    • No one is more distressed by our obesity epidemic than the people who are overweight. It’s a sad situation. At first I was skeptical of your theory about feet because I was thinking about overweight adults, and not enough time has passed for natural selection to kick in. But children are overweight too, and their soft, supple bones can spread under excess weight. Looking back at old school photos, I’ve been struck by how thin my classmates were. By today’s standards, we might say “skinny.” Today, even the children who are not overweight are bigger and just a bit plumper.

      • Its an epidemic with no end in sight as long as the unhealthy foods they are eating that makes them fat feeds profits to the 1%, who never have enough, and creates millions of poverty wage jobs for people who have to struggle and work to survive.

  18. I’m sure you had your challenges in clothes shopping. I didn’t realize Filipino women were that short…how old is that statistical data?

    I’m 5’1″…and in the land of North America, sometimes it is a real effort to find clothes that fits me for my height, petite frame and age. I live in the prairies, where petite sizing is rarer.

    • The statistical data about Filipino women is from 2003. In fact, according to one site, the younger generations of Filipinos are significantly shorter than those born in the 1970s and 1980s. I imagine Filipinos who move to the US or Canada would be taller than average.

      I’m exactly average in height for an American woman, but I was surprised to read that my weight is quite a bit below the current average of 166 lb.

  19. I am 5.85 feet tall, and 9.5 shoe size, which is far above Austrian average, and even more above Asian ones. Needless to say that I am always feeling way too oversized in Asia. Just as you it is impossible to find shoes for me, I would need to buy one for guys in emergency cases, and at least I can buy oversize fashion one size pieces which fit me normally. In the HK tram I hit my head if I stand up straight, and I always hit it at the hand halters in public transports. 🙁

    • Being an average size is a different experience than being taller or shorter than average. I suppose it’s good to have had both experiences. The only problem with being an average size now that I’m back in the United States is that the clothes in my size are the first to be sold.

      • I don’t think that is the case. Although I am far above average size for AUstria too, I am skinny so I fit in average size clothing. Small size clothes are sold out right away, so I can never wait until they are on sale. Or only buy what’s left over.
        So being oversized in Asia is quite refreshing when it comes to shopping. Because I am even more above average, they need size XXS or XS, because S is already too big. So I always get what I want without being stressed. 🙂
        It seems like you can still exerience both, being average and not being average while being not the average size.
        (Although I prefer to think of myself as special… you can never have enough self esteem as a woman in a conservative society dominated by men who feel offended by feminists.)

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