I’m not fat — by American standards. I am considered slightly chubby for an Asian in China. I’m 5’1” and about 100 pounds, give or take five pounds depending on whether it’s New York Fashion Week or final exams week at Columbia. Everyone assumes I’m naturally petite because of my Asian genetics, but the truth is, I count my calories like Ebenezer Scrooge counts his gold coins and run and do yoga like Lululemon is paying me. The moment I “let myself go,” the weight bounces back.
I try not to talk about it, though, because the moment I do, someone always says, “Shut up, you’re Asian. You have genetics on your side.”
That’s the problem — Asian girls are suffering from body image issues and eating disorders because they try to hold themselves up to the expectation that Asian girls are naturally slim. In fact, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Diane von Furstenberg said, “It is great to design for Chinese women, because they have great bodies. They are slim and have tiny waists, so it’s nice.”
Elizabeth Harker recently wrote the most amazing piece about being a fat foreign girl in China, in which she discovered the difference betweenpang, which means fat in an almost affectionate way, and fei, which is the adjective my mother uses to describe fatty pork dishes. Asians are open to talking about weight — they’ll force-feed you when they think you’re too thin and they’ll shame you when they think you’re too fat.
When I came back from my first year of college in New York, my mother whispered to me, “You’re a little fat now.” When I fell on my butt during cheerleading practice, my dad said to me in the car, “I wonder if it’s because you’re fat for an Asian.”
The first time I realized I was “fat” for an Asian girl was when I was 10 years old, on a trip back to China to visit relatives. A distant cousin whom I had never met before grabbed my arm and said, “Hao fei,” which, roughly translated, means, “So porky.” Since that day, I stopped wearing short sleeves whenever possible because I was afraid others would notice my “porky” arms.
In Chinese culture, eating is seen as a form of affection and commitment to the family, so I always ate every meal, every single kernel of rice in my bowl. But I also felt fat and unfit to be the “perfect” Asian girl, as I compared my body to those of my fellow Asian American girl friends. When we would go out to eat and drink — a group of petite Asian girls — I knew I had to work out more and eat less the next day to make up for the amount I ingested with my friends. I’ve spent countless Friday nights in college, feeling completely inadequate because every single Asian girl I met was thin and beautiful with porcelain smooth skin, like Asian girls are supposed to be. I started to wonder if I was the only Asian girl who felt this way.
My metabolism just can’t keep up, but no one believes me.
“Asian girls eat like football players but they just don’t get fat — it’s great,” remarked a guy friend, as I picked at my spinach salad.
This past summer, over cocktails (400 calories, I counted), a fellow Asian girl confided in me, “When I was at my lowest weight, 98 pounds, I ate only two yogurts a day. I was so miserable, but I had to — how can you be Asian and not be thin?” For many Asian girls, being thin is imperative; being a fat Asian — or even an Asian of “normal” weight — basically implies you’re a glutton who managed to out eat your own superfast metabolism. To be an attractive Asian girl, being thin is supposed to be a given.
All Asian girls are supposed to look like Korean pop stars, right?! P.S. These are the Wonder Girls and I really like them.
I spent much of my life hating my body because it felt imperfect for both Asian standards and Western standards. I wasn’t skinny or tall enough to look like a fashion model or busty enough to be a swimsuit model, and I wasn’t petite and cute enough to look like a Korean pop star. As a little girl growing up in an immigrant Chinese household in America, I never thought I was pretty. I wasn’t considered beautiful in either of the two cultures I considered part of my identity. I spent the first half of my life wishing I were a beautiful white girl, and the second half of my life wishing I were a beautiful Asian girl.
My friend Elaine Low wrote an article for Mochi (an online magazine for Asian American girls) called “Diagnosing the Asian American Disorder,”which explains: “‘It’s meaningful that a white woman can turn on a TV and find a broad range of characters, but Asian Americans are portrayed the same way over and over again,’ said Dr. Teresa Mok, a clinical psychologist who treats a lot of college students. ‘For someone struggling with self-esteem issues, this reinforces the feeling of invisibility.’”
I’m aware that body image isn’t an issue specific to Asian women — but the interesting thing I’ve discovered is that being Asian — or any minority — makes you harshly critical about your own image. You don’t get to see yourself much on TV or in magazines, and when you do, you get frustrated if you don’t fit into that perfect airbrushed image.
I’ve done my best to be the perfect Asian daughter — getting straight As in high school and attending an Ivy League university, for example. I, and many of the Asian girls I’ve talked to, have expressed the pressure to be “perfect” in every single way — whether it’s because society expects you to be as the “model minority” or your parents expect you to be as the “precious daughter.” I never let myself be happy with the way I looked; after all, if I could work for perfect grades, why couldn’t I work for a perfect body?
I told a white classmate about how casual it is for Asian parents to make comments about their children’s’ weight. She frowned and said, “That would not be okay in my household. That would not go over well.” It’s a cultural disconnect I’m still trying to grapple and understand.
I don’t think I’ll ever be thin enough to satisfy my family. I don’t think I’ll ever be thin enough to satisfy society. And unless things start changing from the inside, I don’t think I’ll ever be thin enough to satisfy myself. As of right now, I’m still spending hours every week, working off the calories at the gym and measuring my portions on the kitchen scale. I’m still trying to be the perfect student, daughter, and human specimen — as futile as that may be, I feel that it is expected of me. I know all experiences — and body types — are unique and I’m not speaking on behalf of all Asian women, but I know I’m not the only one.
I wanted to reblog this because it came up in the comments of my last ED post, somebody saying that they felt a lot of pressure to be thin because they were Asian. It’s something I completely understand, though I never had to deal with that specifically since even before my ED I was what people would consider to be thin.
But the “oh you’re lucky, you’re Asian, you’re naturally thin!” thing I’ve heard a lot. Along with “oh, you’re lucky, you’re Asian, it’ll be so easy for you to transition and be beautiful!” or the more transphobic version: “Asian men make the best women” (as an ex boyfriend told me right before I dumped him.) Or etc etc… because our media has this idea that all Asian women are thin, and feminine, and Asian trans women are cis-passing, beautiful and thin.
Even in the comments of this blog, somebody wrote that manga art was an accurate version of how Asian women look like because we all have baby faces. A Japanese pop star was offered as proof. And that’s generally, what people remember, because Asian people aren’t individuals in white western society, and we’re represented by only a select few aesthetics. So if people only see East Asian pop stars with child like faces and thin bodies, well that’s what East Asian people should look like!
Much like women, in general, in our pop media are represented by only a few body types. And it’s an extra pressure that women of colour, and specifically, in this case, East Asian women face. And all the assumptions and non-support we get because “oh you’re Asian, you don’t need to worry about that!” or how “lucky” we are to be Asian women (cis and trans) because of the exotification and stereotypes surrounding us.
While I don’t struggle with the pressure to fit this idea that all Asian women should be skinny, I do struggle with my fear of aging and my face looking old. I realized the other day my internalized racism, where I could see many kinds of beauty, young and old in white women’s faces, but in Asian faces, I could only see “old and wrinkly” or “young, puffy and child like”, and even though I know that’s not true, it’s just so embedded in how the society I live in views East Asian women.
And it’s obviously not just me, since as I said, I’ve had people say that, and people even comment on this blog arguing that this is the norm for East Asian women. And when you stereotype a “race” as being “naturally” like XYZ, no matter how positive XYZ is supposed to be, you’re also telling (consciously or not) every individual of that group that they need to measure up to that standard, since after all it’s how we should be “naturally.”
It also ends up creating an environment where any of the issues we face relating to the “positive” stereotype, gets erased and dismissed. For example, the woman in the above piece had her body image issues ignored because of the idea that Asian women have hyper metabolisms and we’re always super thin. And when I was early in my transition, I faced a lot of dismissal of my fears, body issues and dysphoria by white trans and cis women because of the idea that all Asian trans women are just super beautiful and cis passing.
Nobody’s “lucky” to be trapped in a box where we can’t be individuals.