When I was a college student in New York City, I’d often make the short trip home to New Jersey for a home-cooked meal prepared by my mom. She’s the best chef I know, having learned to cook from her own mother. She’s also part of a generation that believes no meal is complete without at least one protein, one vegetable, a soup, and enough rice to feed a village. A colorful array of Shanghainese dishes covered the dining table, a showcase of all my childhood favorites — braised pork belly, fried buns, and hairy crab served with the meat already extracted. Every bite healed the soul.
Then, during the fall of my senior year, I found myself unable to eat a thing. I mindlessly moved around the food my mom put into my bowl. I tried to distract my parents by filling the silence with stories of school and friends, but I was sure they could tell something was wrong. Growing up, they always had to tell me to slow down when eating; now I was barely touching my rice.
I was 21 years old when I first started struggling with food. When I was younger, I had always been thin. I could eat whatever I wanted without putting on any weight, a privilege I took full advantage of. I often got comments along the lines of “you’re so lucky you can eat whatever you want and not get fat.” It wasn’t until my final year of college that I felt like a lifetime of careless eating and minimal exercise was finally catching up to me. Clothes that had been baggy suddenly felt tight. Close examinations in front of a mirror revealed a person I didn’t recognize. And perhaps most devastating of all: I was no longer the skinniest girl in the room.
Lisa Lee, publisher of Hyphen magazine, recounted her own struggle with body image to National Public Radio back in 2011. “I’ve always been big compared to people in my family and my extended family,” she said. I’m probably the biggest out of all my cousins. And compared to my mom, when she was my age, she used to brag about how she was a size zero. And I don’t think it’s really so much that I’m a size 10, but compared to everybody else, that’s where things really matter.”
Like Lee, what mattered most to me was not actually the weight I had gained, but how I no longer had the body that Asians are expected to have. That expectation may be a stereotype, but it was one I could not help but to strive for.
As India Roby put it, more often than not, Asian women are portrayed in mass media and pop culture as “incompetent and fragile foreigners, exotic femme fatales, and subservient ‘mail-order wives.’” They are delicate, weak, and always thin.
These stereotypes are reinforced by depictions of Asian men. In an op-ed for Variety, Grace Kao and Peter Shinkoda wrote, “If Asians are viewed as quiet and submissive, then Asian American women are treated as ultra-feminine while Asian American men are stripped of their masculinity.”
The emasculation of Asian men further distorts the image of Asian women, both to others and to themselves. When the former are portrayed as effeminate, the latter are pressured to become even skinnier in order to feel womanly. This mentality, when set against the food-centric cultures of many Asian countries, can lead to unhealthy habits. As Rachel Rosenthal put it, “This hyper-attentiveness to appearances comes alongside a cultural love affair with food. Such competing social messages would be difficult to balance in the best of times… It’s little wonder that eating disorders are a rising concern.”
Indeed, while eating disorders are commonly associated with Western cultures — and specifically young, wealthy, and educated white women — research has shown that an obsession with dieting tends to accompany industrialization and urbanization. As Asian countries have become more affluent, their populations have seen an increased level of dieting. In Japan, the rate of anorexia increased by four times from the 1990s to 2010. As of 2014, the prevalence of eating disorders among university students on the Chinese mainland was almost on par with Western countries. And a 2009 study in Taiwan revealed that binge eating and the use of laxatives to lose weight were becoming more common among college-aged women, 43% of whom were at risk of an eating disorder.
Yet, eating disorders — and mental health in general — remain taboo in many Asian communities. The refusal to openly discuss the dangers of eating disorders helps normalize a mental illness that kills tens of thousands of people each year.
It has taken me years to repair my relationship with food. Even now, I occasionally find myself triggered by an impulse to restrict my diet, despite understanding that doing so would likely cause harm to my health. But it has helped to unpack the root cause of my triggers and come to terms with the fact that so much of it is related to external influences that I can choose to reject.
Now, when a pair of jeans feel snug, I try not to panic. To live the life that I want to live, I need only be kind to my body and give it the fuel it needs. And when it comes to comparing myself to others, I find comfort in remembering that my body is mine alone. It doesn’t need to be anything it’s not meant to be.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Shijue Select/VCG)