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 between pang, 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.
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.