[I]n Asian American culture, losing weight and being skinny is tantamount to getting good grades.
Jennifer Chen’s article on The Bold Italic talks about her experiences as a fat Asian girl—but she’s not fat by American standards. She writes about how what we perceive as fat- and body-shaming is really a form of concern in Asian culture.
This is a topic that has been on my mind for years, and I’ve wanted to join in the conversation since reading Rosel Kim’s article on Schema, where she is caught between worlds in more than one physical way: her body.
“She must have been born in America. Look at how big her thighs are,” whispered two girls on the subway, oblivious that I could understand Korean. I wanted to let them know that I understood every single word that they had said, but I couldn’t look them in the eye because I somehow felt ashamed. How is it possible to have one’s body image shift so much? In France, I felt too small to defend myself, while in Korea, I was the (literal) elephant in the room that people couldn’t ignore. However, the real issue at hand was that my body was never just the right size for me to be comfortable in.
I’ll take sticks and stones over words any day.
I remember the first time was when I was six years old. It was summer and I was standing on the edge of the outdoor pool near the deep end, preparing to jump in. I bent my legs, and then: “My goodness, you’re getting so fat now!” called my father.
No, that wasn’t the first time. We had family friends (from Hong Kong, like us) who would come over for dinner every once in a while. I would do as I was told and greet them at the door. “My, you’ve gotten fatter!” How does a little girl respond to this? She sucks in her stomach and cheeks and wonders what they’ll say at the dinner table in a few hours. Other times it would be, “Oh, you’ve gotten thinner!” Sometimes that would be followed with a smile and a nod of approval. Sometimes it would be just the comment—that’s it. You’ve gained weight. Now what do I do with this comment?
That’s what this was—comments on my body. My father assures me that this is the way that people express their concern for you. You’ve gained or lost weight—are you ill? What’s going on? It’s part of the culture; you can’t get people to change that. This is not rude.
But I think it’s more than that. I relate to so many parts of Jennifer Chen’s article: “[B]ut at any family gathering, conversations often revolve around who has gained weight and who has lost weight.” More than once, the first thing a relative has done the moment they walk into our house after having travelled however many hours is to ask for the scale and weigh themselves—and the rest of us—in the middle of the kitchen. It’s uncomfortable and awkward. So the scale reports that I have gained weight since the last time my relatives have seen me. So I’ve gotten taller, and this is cause for the aunts and uncles and family friends to flock around my growing body and tell me that it’s better if my legs were thinner and my waist were narrower because I’ll look better in a dress. So I’ve been growing and I don’t know what to do about all these comments and criticisms, none of which sound particularly constructive.
When I was around fifteen years old I was asked how much I weighed while at the dinner table, where I felt like there was no way I could avoid answering. After some careful consideration I was told, “Good. I don’t want you to ever go past that weight.” To quote an article from CAPitol Goods, “These kinds of statements are made in earnest, and supposedly for our own good: how was I supposed to attract a husband, without being stick-thin and white as a lotus flower?”
It’s more than simply caring about my health because it hurts and something feels wrong, and I don’t think it’s as simple as cultural difference. Although there is a difference in culture and how we express our concern for family or friends, there is a degree of body shaming and a lack of body acceptance. The emphasis is placed on how our bodies look rather than what our bodies can do. We never seem to want to look like ourselves.
I had an aunt, whose daughter (my cousin) is small, make a comment about my legs. She told my mother, implying that it’s much better to be smaller, “Karen’s legs are so big and thick!”(Yes, Aunty, they might be, but please remember that I have a black belt in karate and I can probably kick harder than you.) A couple years later she remarked on how strong I was now, and then proceeded to put down her daughter. So perhaps there was a shift in how she perceived my body size or body type, but there was still a need for comparison. We just can’t be content with accepting ourselves.
Body-shaming in itself is toxic and harmful, and it is not exclusive to Asian or Western culture, but it seems that this kind of shaming leaks into the Asian household, where tactless remarks on physical appearance are forms of normative behaviour. You only need to search for “Asian-American body shaming” to find more stories like Jennifer Chen’s. “‘Fat for an Asian:’ The Pressure to be Naturally Perfect” on xoJane is one of many examples of how the lack of Asian representation in mainstream media only perpetuates the stereotype of Asian women always being thin and fair-skinned, and this is extremely detrimental to one’s mental health and physical well-being. “Diagnosing the Asian American Eating Disorder” on Mochi Magazine continues the discussion around eating disorders, limited Asian representation, and the “pursuit of Western beauty ideals.”
These stories focus almost exclusively on women. Is there a similar situation for boys? I asked a friend of mine and he reports that he has friends going through this situation. “It’s not a gender-exclusive problem, although the stereotypes being perpetuated through this issue are mostly portrayed through the female body.”
All this shows that there is an unhealthy obsession over the (female) body in Asian culture, and this intense examination of the body seems normal.
Despite all this toxicity (what I perceive as toxic) in the closeness of my family and relatives, I do not recall my mother ever shaming my body. Many of these conversations around body-image lead to talk about food and exercise. Food is to be feared, and exercise is utilized to burn away the food that you have not eaten. My mother encourages me and my sister to eat healthy food because it is nourishing. Eat because we need the energy to function. Exercise because it will keep our bodies in working order, and because it can help with stress relief.
Still, body acceptance is difficult, and I wish it were easier to navigate the space of my body between cultures and different places because everybody is different.