Eating Disorders in Asian America

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Eating Disorders in Asian America

288 Walnut Street Suite 130, Newton, MA 617-558-1881 @recoverwithMEDA

HELLO THERE! Dear reader, This zine originated as a personal project for my internship at MEDA, doubling as a reflection on my own recovery from an eating disorder. It centers on the experiences of Asian American women, whose voices are often excluded from the dominant narrative represented in the media. From reading stories of hope and recovery shared by brave Asian American women, it has become clear that there are obstacles unique to our experience that can make the path to recovery more convoluted than usual. I have compiled a collection of resources ranging from blogs and instagram accounts to articles written by Asian American women, with the hopes that they will give comfort and strength to those who do not feel heard or validated in their struggle with or recovery from an eating disorder. Despite the plethora of resources that I have come across related to the subject of eating disorders, I had difficulty finding resources that cater specifically to the Asian American community. Therefore, I want to clarify that this zine does not claim to encompass the nuanced body image struggles that all Asian women in the United States face. What I have attempted to do is to share some resources that I identify with and bring light to one of the most heavily stigmatized issues in our community. For years, I struggled with my eating disorder on my own, too ashamed and afraid to vocalize my pain to others. I decided to write about my experiences here because I’m no longer ashamed of what I went through and no longer comfortable with my silence. My recovery story is an indispensable piece of the person I have become, and I couldn’t be prouder to share it. Whether you know somebody with an eating disorder, are in recovery, or still feel stuck in that tunnel that never seems to end, I hope that my story helps you feel a little less alone and a little more understood. An incredibly rewarding process to make, this zine is dedicated to the MEDA staff and my fellow 2018 summer interns. Thank you for taking me in and providing an amazing learning opportunity that I will never take for granted. Thanks for reading, Lauren

Table of Contents My Recovery Story De ining Terms



Instagrams+Blogs to Follow


Navigating Stereotypes in Asian America Recommended Reading



Eating Disorders in the Asian American Community Self-Care Tips


A Conversation with my Sister About my ED Notes to Self




my recovery story My weight has been tethered


to my identity for as long as I can remember. Even now, at 21, I can remember exactly how much I weighed at age 5. Most people probably couldn’t tell you how much they weighed that early on in their lives, but for me, few things mattered more to me as a kid than the number on the scale. Of course, like most children, I didn’t grow up knowing what those numbers meant. All I knew was that the numbers were always too high, that my clothes were always too tight, and that I was supposed to feel embarrassed about it. I learned this from the uncles who feigned grunts whenever they tried to pick me up, from the grandparents who loved pinching my cheeks whenever they came to visit, and from my mother who

seemed to bring up to anyone and everyone she knew how concerned she was that I wore the same size clothes as my sister, who was two years older than me. For this reason, I experienced my childhood through a different lens than most kids my age. I didn’t get to fully enjoy that period of youthful innocence granted to kids before they learn that the world values some people over others based on appearance. My intimate awareness of my overweightness was like a bully, pulling me back and reminding me of my deepest insecurities whenever I seemed to be enjoying myself too much. This made it next to impossible for me to make friends. I was so

petrified of getting my feelings hurt that I closed myself off from other kids first, always assuming there was no way I could possibly have anything in common with them. Anxiety became a defining attribute of who I was – so much so that it remained nearly impossible to pry my fingers from my mother’s legs well into my middleaschoolayears. Now, as an adult, I frequently look back at my childhood, searching for that fork in the road, trying to figure out when, exactly, I started convincing myself that the world saw me as less than because of my size. I wouldn’t say that 18 years-worth of internalized self-hatred can be neatly accounted for by a singular event, but there is one memory

that remains deeply entrenched in my mind. This incident happened at sleepaway camp when I was nine years old, as many formative childhood experiences do, and it confirmed every fear that I ever had as a kid about being fat. As you might expect from an anxiety-ridden tween, I was less than excited when my mother casually informed me one day that she had registered me for a week-long sleepaway camp in upstate New York with my local Korean church. Even though a bulk of our time would be spent reading the Bible and singing prayer songs, my mother promised that it would be just as fun as any other sleepaway summer camp with outdoorsy bonding activities and campfire sing-alongs. As appealing as that all was, I was terrified and truly could not think up a more horrifying thought than having to change clothes in front of a cabin full of tiny Asian girls. I plead to my mother, promising to be good if she allowed me to stay at home, but she couldn’t be swayed. She packed my bag with a couple sets of day clothes and pajamas, a toothbrush, and a pillowcase, and sent me on my way, assuming that all my anxiety stemmed from having to sleep away from home for the first time.

Her theory was far from the truth. In reality, I couldn’t wait to sleep in a bunk bed and was thrilled to make s’mores for the first time. It was the thought of knowing no one and having to make friends that struck panic within me.

So it goes without saying that I was not the most popular kid at camp. By the middle of the week, I had only exchanged a few awkward smiles with the other shy girl in my bunk. Instead of sitting in the big cafeteria with the other campers, I ate my lunch alone on the picnic table outside, wondering why it was so difficult for me to make friends. What was it about me that drove other people away? Was I weird? Did I wear the wrong clothes? It’s because I’m fat, I finally reasoned to myself. Almost immediately, I lost my appetite and tossed my half-eaten PB&J in the trash.

Later that day, we were taken outside to play team sports. I remember the objective of the game clearly: we all had to separate into teams and each team was given a jar of cheese balls and a can of shaving cream. One member from each team would have to cover their face with shaving cream and stand on a marked line while their team members tried to throw cheese puffs onto their face. Whichever team stuck the most cheese puffs onto their team member’s face would win and be exempt from chores that night. Luckily teams were chosen for us this time, so I didn’t have to suffer the familiar humiliation of being chosen last. As my team members discussed who should have to slather shaving cream on their face, a girl on my team pointed at me and blurted out She should be the target because she has the biggest face! My stomach dropped and my cheeks burned with heat. I felt everyone’s eyes on me and I knew there was no way I could hide my embarrassment. Surrounded by all these Korean kids – people that I thought looked like me – I felt ugly, undesirable, other. They were telling me you’re not one of us because you don’t actually look like us. 5

I had never felt so exposed and yet, still so invisible at the same time. Instantly starting to well up with tears, I ran to the nearest porta potty and locked myself in it. Crouched on the floor, I cried to myself and wished my weight away.

I never spoke of this event to anyone – not to my parents or siblings, not to my friends – no one. I tried to force it from my memory, but it always crept up into my consciousness whenever I caught my reflection in the mirror or went shopping for new clothes. The way I saw it, my body had betrayed me over and over again, and it was not my friend.


and exercising every day. I would follow fitness accounts on Tumblr, record everything I ate, and save pictures of girls who had the body I wanted on my phone so that I could look at them whenever I wanted. But inevitably, I would lose motivation because I was losing weight in such an uninformed and unsustainable way. Then, the weight would quickly spring back onto my body and I would be angry and disappointed in myself for failing once again.

This mentality followed me through the awkward puberty years and into high school. As a teenager, I started to notice other peoples’ bodies more, and was always trying one fad diet or another to get the body I saw on TV and in my favorite magazines. But even though I was desperate to lose weight, I dieted in that inconsistent, non-committal way that many teenage girls do when they want to be thin, but don’t know where to start.

It definitely didn’t help that I was raised in a culture that tends to equate “skinny” with “beautiful”. As the daughter of Korean immigrants, I received parental pressure to succeed academically, which I did, but that wasn’t enough. My straight A’s meant nothing because I still wasn’t thin according to Korean standards. My parents would hassle me day after day to go outside and exercise, but what was so aggravating to me was that they always sent me mixed messages, telling me I needed to lose weight while dishing seconds onto my plate. While I know that my parents shouldn’t be blamed because parents do not “cause” eating disorders, I also know that my toxic relationship with food and exercise was heavily informed by my upbringing and my parents’ implicit and explicit disapproval of my appearance.

I would go through periods where I’d be intensely committed to “eating clean”

I should clarify that my parents do love me – I was raised knowing that my parents would

do anything for me and that my future was secure because of their hard work and sacrifice. But instead of making me feel safe and supported, this only increased my anxieties. I felt like it was my familial duty to be the daughter they wanted me to be. And with sky high expectations, my parents were harder than most to impress. There was always an overbearing pressure to not just do well, but to be better than the rest, and this mentality applied to appearance as well. As the middle child in my family, I was constantly being measured up against my older sister and younger brother, both of whom had inherited my parents’ slender frames. It seemed to me that they could eat whatever they wanted without ever having to worry if their unbalanced diets would expand their waistlines. I saw it as a cruel irony that I was the chubby one in my family, when I was the only one who made an effort to eat a well-balanced diet. It was impossible not to feel like a burden to my family, especially when everyone in my extended family would comment on my weight, drawing attention to my greatest insecurity at every family gathering. There was always something that I could fix. It was times like these that I resented being Korean. Don’t get me wrong, I love the food, I’m intrigued by the pop culture, and I’m proud of our history. But the fact that South

Korea is known as the world’s plastic surgery capital says a lot about what its people value. It has produced a toxic culture in which a person’s worth is determined by their appearance above any other factor – a culture in which it is not taboo to bully others about their appearance, but it is to discuss mental health concerns. As the only Asian girl in my friend group, I had no outlet to express my negative emotions and no one to validate my confusion. For me, puberty meant having to deal with the same body changes and mood swings as all my friends did, with the added frustrations that came with having to navigate my complicated, contradictory culture on my own. Having both eastern and western standards of beauty imposed on me was an unfortunate, but unavoidable part of my existence.

So when the time came for me to leave home for my freshman year at Tufts University, I was anxious but so eager to be free from the intrusive comments made by my family and finally in control of my own diet. On campus, I would have easy access to a gym and a there would be a salad bar in every dining hall. There’s no way I could gain weight here, I told myself. My freshman fall was an exciting, yet overwhelming and disorienting experience that required that I be on all the time. For an introvert like me, it required all my energy to constantly have to introduce myself and keep up with appearances day after day. With socializing taking up so much of my day, I started moving around a lot more, and eating a lot less than I was used to doing at home. My shorts suddenly felt looser and it felt

amazing when I realized that I was losing weight without really even trying to. When my parents visited me on campus for the first time since they moved me in, I was more excited to update them on my weight loss than I was to tell them about my classes and my new friends. But as the weather started getting cooler and I settled into my life at Tufts, I started to gain weight again. By the end of my first semester, I had re-gained everything that I had lost, and then some. But for the first time, I didn’t really care that much. I had a great group of friends, was doing well in school, and was happy. My month-long winter break at home was long and boring, and I couldn’t wait to be back at Tufts. But things had changed on campus since the fall. My relationship with my roommate


had gradually deteriorated due to our conflicting lifestyles and sleep patterns, and I returned to school in January to a dorm room that I no longer felt comfortable in. The freshman excitement and jitters had worn off by then, and neither of us made much of an effort to be friends anymore, which I was okay with. What I was not okay with was having to live in a room, that half belonged to me, on someone else’s terms. I hated that I had to leave my friends every night and return to a room filled with tension and silence. In April, when a classmate in my Japanese class suddenly died in an accident, the grief hit me like a truck. It was the first time I had encountered the death of somebody so young with so much more life to live, and I didn’t know how to cope. My already unhealthy relationship with food, coupled with some of the most emotionally exhausting months of my life, caused me to turn to food anytime I felt pretty much anything. By the time my freshman year came to an end, I had gained the inevitable freshman fifteen without even knowing it. But when a close friend of mine carelessly commented one day that I looked so different from what I looked like at the beginning of the year, it completely destroyed my sense of self-worth. At that point in my life, I had become a very closed-off person so it didn’t feel natural 8

to vocalize my misery to other people, let alone even to myself. I figured that I would start to feel better once I started to like what I saw in the mirror, so I made a promise to myself to finally lose the weight. That summer, I waged a full-fledged war on my body. I got a fitness tracker, followed

Instagram accounts and blogs about weight loss, and downloaded a number of calorie tracking apps. As the summer went on, I fell deep into a downward spiral of calorie counting and over-exercising, which at first, looked completely harmless to my parents. I relished in updating my parents on every big milestone – any significant weight loss, my first long run, finally slipping into the jeans that had always been a bit too tight for comfort. Ironically, it seemed to me that losing weight meant more visibility. It didn’t matter that I had to sacrifice time spent with family and friends. I finally felt seen the way I wanted to. As the quintessential middle child, I had always felt like I had to try a little harder than my older sister and younger

brother to get noticed. So once the weight finally started to come off and the compliments and nods of approval started coming in, I couldn’t get enough. They were validating my pain and suffering – the hurt I was inflicting on my body, encouraging it even. But at the point, I had not yet realized how dangerous it was that I was beginning to equate deprivation with success. So I kept going. Meanwhile, I became more and more preoccupied with food. I’d use my lunch breaks at my internship to go to the nearest bodega where I’d look at all the things I would not allow myself to eat. I spent hours watching the Food Network and scrolling through foodie accounts on Instagram. Whenever the occasion arose, I offered to bake for my family and friends because baking allowed me to be so close to the food itself, without actually having to eat it. I was eating vicariously through them so that I didn’t have to.

My weight loss wasn’t easy – the weight didn’t slip off my body the way it seemed to for some people who decide to start eating less. It involved precise calculations, over-exertion, and extreme self-restriction. There was not a single part of it that was not micro-managed.

Once I was back at school for my sophomore year, I could eat as little and exercise as much as I wanted to. I had upgraded to a single dorm room that year so there was no one watching me and nothing to hide. It was the perfect environment for my ED to grow. My toxic relationship with food and exercise soon made my life insufferable and utterly unmanageable. It turned into a game with a complicated a set of rules and penalties that came along with failing to comply. The most dangerous part was that only I knew what I was doing to myself. Not wanting to expose my friends and family to my low mood, I drew further and further into myself. I shared the bare minimum of my daily life with my parents when I talked to them on the phone, stopped making plans with friends, and followed the same path from my dorm, to class, to the gym, and back, every day. Now looking back on that time in my life, it is so clear that my body was sending me all the signals that I was not okay. I had abnormal heart palpitations. I lost clumps of hair every time I ran a brush through it. I hadn’t had my period in over half a year. I would wake up groaning with pain in the middle of the night, because my calf muscles would seize up and lock into place from over-exertion and rapid muscle loss. I collapsed in the shower one day and had to skip

class. But at the time, I didn’t recognize that I was the one causing harm to my own body. Or I did, but I didn’t want to believe it. My ED was a bully, whispering cruelties into my ear, hellbent on convincing me that I was nothing if I wasn’t thin. After a whole semester spent dodging friends on campus and hiding out in my room alone, my malnourished brain had begun feeding me lies that I believed to be true. It left me with a distorted sense of reality that I didn’t know how to break through. I was scared because I didn’t know how to stop. But I knew that I needed to. After all this – all the isolation and suffering I had imposed on myself– I still was not happy with my body. When I finally reached the goal weight that I had set for myself at the beginning of the summer, I felt nothing. No sense of triumph or satisfaction – just emptiness. It struck me that I wasn’t living my life at all, I was simply surviving. I missed the person that I had been before my ED took over. I was tired of all the secrecy that it required to maintain my lifestyle and I didn’t want to be defined by my ED anymore. So slowly, but surely, I started to open up. First to my parents and then to my friends. When I told my mom on the phone that I had lost control over my diet and exercise, she didn’t understand. Just eat, she repeated over and over again. It

doesn’t matter how you look. You don’t have to be perfect, just control your portions and eat balanced meals. I burst into tears. That’s not how it works, it’s not that easy! I yelled into the phone. It felt like she was saying all the wrong things – like she was oversimplifying a complex illness that had brutally torn my life apart. I struggled to communicate to her how I didn’t know how to eat “normally” anymore, how I had lost so much hair that I had bald patches on my head, and how betrayed I felt that she was now saying these things when she had raised me to feel so insecure about my body. It was unfair and selfish of me to say these things to my mother. After all, she didn’t know any better. She had just raised me to live up to the same standards that she had been expected to meet as an Asian woman. But because talking about eating disorders and mental health is so stigmatized in our family and community, my mother didn't know how to respond. I could tell from the way that she spoke that she was concerned, but caught off guard. She urged me to get a physical examination at Health Services on campus and suggested that I speak to a therapist before hanging up. Though the conversation didn’t leave me feeling reassured or comforted, I felt somewhat better now that my suffering was known. 9

One day, while having a long conversation at a café in Harvard Square with my friend, Karen, I was suddenly overcome with emotion and broke down. Through tears, I told her that I was struggling with an eating disorder and that it had consumed my life. It was the most honest and vulnerable I had allowed myself to be with another person since my eating disorder had taken over. And the whole time, Karen just took it all in. She didn’t try to pretend that she knew what I was going through or try to offer any unsolicited advice. She just listened without judgment and convinced me that I was deserving of help. It was a powerful thing to know that I had someone in my corner. It made me finally want to recover. Soon after, I started to see a therapist at Mental Health Services on campus. At first, it felt like a waste of my time. My therapist would suggest that I try to “reframe my thinking” or “practice mindfulness”, which sounded like a lot of B.S. to the distrustful cynic that my ED had turned me into. I would show up to my weekly appointments and feign enthusiasm or lie about making progress towards recovery, when in reality, I was still stuck in a vicious cycle of depression and disordered eating. I continued to lie to my friends and my parents, because now I felt like there were too many people counting on me to get better. 10

But there was one person who didn’t fall for my act and that was Karen. Karen was vigilant against my ED and wasn’t afraid to call me out when she suspected that I was lying about my habits. When I went to the bathroom immediately following a meal and returned with chipmunk cheeks and watery eyes, she would gently ask me if I had just done what she thought I had. And shamefully, I would have to admit that I had. As much as I regretted telling her about my ED at times, I needed her to hold me accountable. And because she believed in me to get better, I started to believe in myself too. After several months of hopping around from therapist to therapist, I finally found somebody who I took seriously, who took me seriously as well. She talked to me like somebody who didn’t need to be fixed, but just needed to be heard. Our weekly visits were sometimes encouraging, sometimes not, but always cathartic, and I started to realize that I needed to want recovery for myself and not for anyone else. With my therapist’s encouragement, I decided to seek the help of a nutritionist. At this point, I was determined to be healthy not only in mind but in body as well. I just didn’t know quite where to start. I had attached moral value to foods and counted calories for so long that I didn’t know how to just listen to my body and give it the nourishment it

needed. But working closely with my nutritionist, I was gradually able to let go of the numbers and learned that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food because every food serves a purpose. During our appointments, she made sure that I looked away or closed my eyes every time I stepped on the scale. We measured my progress not in calories or pounds, but in my shifting attitude towards food and exercise. At first, I was terrified by the lack of regulation. Following months of recording everything that went into my body, it was unsettling to have no idea how many calories were going in and out. I’d frequently get urges to over-exercise or purge to “compensate” for my eating. But then my recovery voice would remind me that I was finally treating my body the way it should be treated. And then the urges became few and far between. Every day of my recovery brought a new set of challenges and rewards. When I started to eat again, I achieved a better balance in my mental health, but also started to gain weight. Recovery felt like a seesaw that could not be balanced – I just wasn’t allowed to have both. But that didn’t matter anymore. My body, but also the identity attached to it, had radically changed. I no longer felt shame about my body and what I believed it said about me. Instead, I felt intense appreciation and gratitude for what it had endured and

survived. It had been damaged, but it was resilient, capable, and so forgiving. Though it required incredible patience, I emerged from my ED a more whole person than I had ever been before. A person who is willing to understand and embrace the parts that she used to want to change. A person who denies her culture’s prescriptions of beauty. A person who is beautiful because she says she is. The two things that lie at the heart of my recovery are forgiveness and acceptance. Not only forgiving and accepting myself, but my family as well. Asian culture is one that promotes silent suffering and the repression of emotion at all costs. Until my experience with my ED, the only thing that I knew about mental illness was that it shouldn’t be talked about, especially if it was your own. And because of this pervasive mentality, my parents reacted to my ED with panic, concern, and even anger when I went to them for help. They didn’t take me seriously when I called them on the phone crying or told them I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t until I came home and they saw the physical effects of my ED that they started to worry about my health. But I know, and they know now, that my ED started ravaging my mental health long before I physically started to show it. If there’s one thing that my family and I have learned

from my experience, it is that your mental well-being is just as important to your overall health as your physical well-being. I could not and would not have gained my physical health or my life back if I remained mentally trapped by my ED.


Finding the words to adequately tell a story so full of personal pain and heartache has been incredibly challenging, and I don’t know if I’ve done myself justice in doing so. It’s required that I remember moments in my life that I’d rather forget and come to terms with the years of damage that I’ve done to myself. But it has also been incredibly rewarding in that it has given me a better sense of how far I’ve come in my recovery – which is hard to do when you’re just tackling life day-by-day. In all honesty, my recovery has not followed a linear path. I still feel pangs of guilt when I realize I’ve eaten a sleeve of cookies in one sitting and sometimes I get anxious when my friends want to spend a day at the beach because I’m still not 100% comfortable exposing my body in public. And it’s possible that I never will be. I wanted, and still want a body that I do not have. What I wish I had learned sooner is that it is normal and in fact, perfectly

okay to feel this way. Recovery doesn’t mean that you somehow become immune to all of the desires and motivations that make us all human. Having bad days and experiencing low self-esteem doesn’t instantly negate all the progress that I have made towards loving myself wholly and unconditionally. It means something to me that I am able to move through the world untethered from the weight of calories and measurements and rules. For the first time since I started dieting in high school, I honestly believe that you don’t have to be thin to be happy. Recovering from my ED has meant that I have had to learn to put myself first. To practice patience and compassion with myself. Now with this in mind, I can live spontaneously without fear of losing control. I’ve stopped buying clothes for the size that I want to be, and started buying clothes for the size that I am. As ordinary as that might sound, that’s huge for me and it’s been incredibly liberating. It’s a reminder that I am now living in the present, accepting and loving the person that I am and have always been. I’m not going to pretend that the pressure to lose weight was all self-imposed and that all of the shame placed on my body was imaginary, because it wasn’t. I’d be lying if I said that this newfound inner strength cured my ED. Truth is, there is a lot of suffering that comes with living in a fatphobic


society that’s not ready to welcome all body shapes and sizes. But, I’ve learned that words that used to tear me apart lose their potency when I take the power away from those who say them. What my recovery has given me is the confidence to define beauty on my own terms and the strength to disrupt body shaming when I see it.


Every day, I am learning that it is never too late to have a happy childhood. By forging a friendship with myself for the first time, I am also caring for the inner child within me who internalized so much self-hatred that it drove her to abuse her body. I feel a tenderness towards that little girl and I so desperately wish that I could go back and teach her how to love herself. But slowly, and with a lot of work, we are both healing from the inside out.

In many ways, my process of recovery isn’t over yet. It’s been a continual work in progress – sometimes it’s meant moving two steps forward and one step back. It’s a life-long journey that demands bravery, brutal honesty with myself, and most of all, unyielding persistence. But I am doing my best, and right now, that is enough. And finally, I am enough for myself.

“If you’re searching for that one person that will change your life, take a look in the mirror.”


Anorexia Nervosa Anorexia Nervosa is a disorder in which preoccupation with restricting food intake and thinness leads to excessive weight loss. The individual typically has an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted body image, and weighs less than the 85% of ideal body weight. 14

Bulimia Nervosa Bulimia Nervosa involves frequent episodes of binge eating, almost always followed by purging and intense feelings of guilt or shame. The individual feels out of control and may recognize that the behavior is not normal. 15

Binge Eating Disorder Those struggling with BED experience uncontrollable eating where they eat large amounts of food when not physically hungry, or eat until they are uncomfortably full. The individual has feelings of disgust, depression, and guilt about binge eating, and sometimes eats in secret. Body size is not indicative of an eating disorder. 16

Other Specified Eating And Feeding Disorder OSFED is a feeding or eating disorder that causes significant distress or impairment, but does not meet the criteria for another feeding or eating disorder. 17


take care of your body. it’s the only place you have to live. 19








#bodypositive ASIAN AMERICAN MODELS @missmiakang












“Thick Dumpling Skin”: Increasing Visibility for Asian Americans Founded in 2011, Thick Dumpling Skin is a blog run by actress/blogger Lynn Chen and “self-proclaimed diversity advocate” Lisa Lee. Having both suffered from eating disorders as teenagers and young adults, Chen and Lee are committed to sharing their unique experiences and challenging the common misconception that eating disorders are a “white women’s problem”. Their mission is to provide a platform for Asian Americans to discuss their relationships with their bodies and the way that Asian culture has shaped these relationships. Speaking about the need for Asian American-specific resources, Chen has stated: “Our struggles with food & body image are not merely about will power – they’re social, cultural, and familial.” As evidenced by the plethora of submitted stories that are featured on the blog, the issue is not that Asian Americans aren’t suffering from eating disorders – it’s that they just aren’t being heard.

Lynn Chen

Lisa Lee

Judging by the ever-persistent stigma around mental health issues in the Asian American community, it’s clear that resources like Thick Dumpling Skin are as necessary now as ever. Luckily, with Chen and Lee leading the way, Asian Americans are finally helping to re-frame the national discussion on eating disorders. Catch Chen and Lee as co-hosts of the Thick Dumpling Skin Podcast or on Twitter @rrrlisarrr and @mslynnchen.




NAVIGATING STEREOTYPES IN ASIAN AMERICA According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, Asian Americans who appear heavier were seen as more”American” – and may even experience less prejudice related to their perceived “foreignness” than their thinner counterparts. 26


the stereotypes go, Asians are thin and Americans are heavy. But if you’re Asian American, which stereotypes are applied to you? Both? Neither? According to a series of studies conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, being overweight may ironically reduce perceptions of Asian Americans as foreigners in the United States. With the U.S. population being recognized as one of the heaviest in the world, it appears that being overweight has become a defining feature of the national identity. In the study, researchers showed photographs of men and women of different ethnicities to nearly 1,300 participants. The photos were altered to create heavier or thinner looking versions of each subject. Participants were then asked to answer questions regarding the perceived national identity and documentation status of the people in the photos. For example, the questionnaires asked how likely the person

was to speak English fluently or to be in the U.S. illegally. Interestingly, weight did not affect perceptions of how much individuals of other racial groups (i.e., White, Black, and Latino individuals) were seen as being American. This finding seems to suggest that weight may affect perceptions of American identity when the individual is assumed to be from a country where the general population is not associated with being overweight. The innacurate assumptions made about Asian Americans depicted in the photos demonstrate the potential harm that can be done to the Asian American community when they are not given adequate representation in the media. The study outlines an important point: “These findings begin to highlight how people marginalized as less American often face suboptimal choices: remain the ‘perpetual foreigner’ or potentially jeopardize health to appear more American”.



Recommended Reading Books: 1. Hunger, Roxane Gay 2. Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life, Kelsey Miller 3. Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders, Aimee Liu 4. Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, Portia de Rossi Articles: 1. “When Bullying Follows You Home: Growing Up Chubby and Filipino”, Nina Penalosa for Wear Your Voice Mag 2. “The Only Asian in the Therapy Room”, Judy Tsuei for Hyphen Magazine 3. “Are There Fat Asians? Yes. I’m One of Them.”, Jennifer Chen for The Bold Italic 4. “Being a Fat Brown Girl”, Rithaa Majeed for Burnt Roti 5. “Anorexia For An Asian-American: A Recovery Story”, Jason Deng for NEDA 6. “People in China Thought It Was Okay To Call Me Fat to My Face”, Arianna James for Tonic, VICE 7. “Seeking the Perfect Body”, Lisa Lee for Hyphen Magazine 8. “‘Fat for an Asian’: The Pressure to be Naturally Perfect”, Noel Duan for xoJane 9. “The Joys and Sorrows of Being a Fat Foreign Girl in China”, Elisabeth Harker for xoJane 10. “What It’s Like to Be an Asian-American with Depression”, Katherine Xie for The Mighty 11. “Diagnosing the Asian American Eating Disorder”, Elaine Low for MochiMag 12. “Are You There, God? It’s Me, A Fat Asian-American”, Fiona Kang for DismantleMag 13. “Not East Nor West: On Asian-American Body Image”, Judy Lee for Huffington Post 14. “Yale University Thinks I Have an Eating Disorder”, Frances Chen for Huffington Post



Eating Disorders in the Asian American Community A Call For Cultural Consciousness

you’re Asian American, you know that there is nothing good about hunger. Many of our parents, whether they came to the country as immigrants or refugees, know real hunger. They make sure that we never leave the house without full bellies and greet us when we return with heaps of warm homemade food. Food is our love language – the one thing that transcends the language barriers, the cultural differences, the generation gaps, and all the other things that keep us from saying “I love you” out loud. But by twisted logic, food is also the enemy. If you’re Asian American, you also know that being fat in an Asian family is tantamount to falling short of making the honor roll. It is understood as an indication of personal weakness – a lack of discipline, laziness, failure. When you’re “fat” by Asian standards, it can be hard not to feel like a burden to your family because you’re told, either implicitly or explicitly, that the shame is not only carried by you, but by your family as well. And so, the burden of shame begins to feel even heavier. What makes things exponentially more complicated is this idea of familial duty. Because so many Asian Americans are commonly raised on the rhetoric of hard work and sacrifice, we are 30

ingrained with a deep desire to express our gratitude to our parents by fulfilling their hopes and dreams for us. For some, that might mean becoming a doctor or a lawyer. But for others, it could mean losing weight to get closer to the ideal Asian body – small, pale, and willowy thin. One thing that sets Asian culture apart from others is the level of brutal honesty with which people speak. Time and time again, I’ve noticed that there is a general willingness to make comments, especially on other people’s appearances, that can be so abrasive that they sometimes err on the side of cruelty. When you are taught that being thin is a virtue, and that being heavy and being happy cannot be feasibly reconciled in one body, “fat” becomes the worst thing you can be called. So whether we want to or not, Asian Americans cannot help but internalize our culture’s guidelines on what a desirable body looks like, and by default, what its converse looks like.


up, I resented the unreasonable expectations placed on me by my family and my culture and I looked to every family gathering with anxiety and dread. Being around extended family always meant one thing: that I’d

have to bear hours of being force-fed excessive amounts of food by the same people who would tell me to my face that I had gained weight since the last time they saw me. And through it all, I would force a tight-lipped smile and try to maintain my composure. If I was ever so bold as to politely refuse the food that was offered, I’d be urged by my mother to “just be polite” and eat. And if I did accept the food and finished it, more would immediately be piled onto my plate, pressuring me to eat way past the point of fullness. As my fellow Asian Americans know all too well, there is no winning when you grow up in this contradictory culture. The only thing that never seems to change is our culture’s steadfast commitment to a singular definition of beauty. In a world that has begun to promote loving yourself and finding beauty in your flaws, Asian culture has not managed to keep up. There’s an overbearing pressure to be perfect naturally, or to constantly be improving yourself if you’re not. This mentality helps to make sense of why plastic surgery is so prevalent and even normalized in Asian countries. Why love your flaws, when you can remove them, right? It’s easy to see how these dangerous messages can encourage body dissatisfaction in the Asian American community and eventually manifest as an eating disorder. According to a statistic cited on the National Eating Disorders Association’s website, Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Caucasian youth have all reported attempting to lose weight at similar rates [1].

But there’s no way that you would know that, judging by what is commonly portrayed in the media. Eating disorders continue to be an issue that is typically attributed to white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied women of high-income backgrounds. Though we are slowly making progress in challenging this narrow-minded view of what someone with an eating disorder looks like, there is far more work to do. The lack of Asian Americans represented in the national discussion on eating disorders seems to indicate that many are still suffering in silence. According to Dr. Szu-Hui Lee, a clinical psychologist and director of training at the McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School, Asian Americans tend to underreport mental health issues. She explains: “There’s a big stigma with seeing a psychologist. [Asian American] parents are more likely to send their kids to an academic counselor than a psychologist.” [2]

In a culture where optics matter so much, it is not hard to see why individuals with eating disorders struggle to speak up and ask for help. The stigma attached to mental illness is so severe in our culture that our parents are likely to respond to our pleas for help with fear, denial, blame, and anger.

As someone who has struggled with and recovered from my own eating disorder, I am familiar with this kind of reaction. When I found that I could no longer keep my suffering at 31

bay, I rehearsed the words I wanted to say before mustering up the courage to tell my parents. Their response was dismissive at first, eventually evolving into frustration and then hopelessness. As much as they wanted me to get better, they didn’t understand why I was doing this to myself, and had no clue where to go for help. And when I tried to learn more about treatment and recovery on my own, I found that my background bore little resemblance to the movies I watched and the stories I read online. For a long time, it seemed like nobody understood quite how I felt.


And to those who are recovered from or currently struggling with an eating disorder, don’t be afraid to talk about it. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable with someone you trust could be the first step to healing. It was for me. Uprooting a stigma that is so deeply entrenched in our culture can’t be done overnight, but we can start to chip away at it by exposing our suffering and finding strength in our shared experiences.

eating disorders certainly span all

cultures, the way they are experienced can differ drastically depending on the culture in which an individual is raised. For me, being Asian felt like an obstacle to my recovery because I had trouble overcoming my shame and locating the resources I needed to get better. It is evident that the Asian American community is in desperate need of greater awareness and more resources catered to our experiences. Hiring people of different backgrounds and making efforts to provide intercultural awareness trainings for clinicians is a good place to start.


“While eating disorders certainly span all cultures, the way they are experienced can differ drastically depending on the culture in which an individual is raised.”

Sources: [1] ople-color-and-eating-disorders [2] sing-the-asian-american-eating-disorder/



Beauty in every shape, color, and size


ive things to do about a bit of weight gain: 1. nothing 2. it doesn’t matter 3. have a lovely day 4. go outside, look at lowers 5. throw panic in the bin


breaking up with my scale

ditching the secrecy and letting people into my life

learning to eat again without guilt

forgiving myself.

my recovery looks like

exercising because i want to, not because i need to


self- care tips 1. call it a day and go to bed early 2. go through your social media and unfollow anyone who brings you down 3. write down any pent-up thoughts 4. get in the habit of asking for help when you need it 5. go on a long walk outside 6. take yourself on a date 7. make something with your hands 8. make a playlist of songs you love 38

9. tidy up your living space

10. splurge on something nice for yourself 11. reflect on the things you love about yourself 12. do something kind for someone else 13. try out a new restaurant with a friend 14. compile a list of compliments you’ve received 15. stretch it out 16. create boundaries and learn to say no 17. throw away or donate anything you don’t need 18. find time to volunteer 19. pick one thing on your to-do list and get it done 20. toss your scale 21. let others know how much they mean to you 39



Q: What did you know about eating disorders before my experience with them? A: I remember learning primarily about anorexia and bulimia in middle school and doing a project on it. Beyond eating disorders as a physical condition – I didn’t think about it as a mental health issue. My thoughts about it changed in college because my roommate, I believe, had cases of both anorexia and bulimia. I knew it was linked to negative experiences she had as a competitive athlete in China. There’s such an emphasis on being thin there and because she was such an athlete who was well-known for her looks, appearance was something that was super important to her. Q: Did you ever talk about her eating disorder(s) with her? A: We never talked directly about it, but I would ask her if she had eaten and she would always give me an excuse and say she had, or that she wasn’t hungry. As a friend who had never had any exposure to someone with an eating disorder, I thought the best thing to do was to just be there for her and talk about it when she wanted to.

Korea, people emphasize appearance over what’s on the inside. There are no campaigns about being comfortable with your own body or loving yourself. If we were ever gaining weight or even of average weight, it manifested during meals when we’d be told to eat less. There were more indirect things that they [our parents] would say that would made us feel like we were always at the wrong body weight. I think that affected you more so than me, because we were always being compared and you were always a little chubbier than me. Q: How would you describe your body image growing up? A: I was never fully comfortable in my own skin. It was always like I was 5-10 pounds heavier than I was supposed to be. I hated going to the doctor’s office for check-ups because I was below average for my height, which I was insecure about, but being told that I was at the 60 percentile for my weight in my age group was always really uncomfortable because I’d always get this look from her [our mother]. I don’t think there was any malicious intent, because she usually just teased me about it, but it still made me feel bad.

Q: How do you think our upbringing shaped our body image and our relationship with food and exercise? A: Growing up Korean, especially because our parents were immigrants and weren’t born here, we were raised with very Korean values. It’s a very superficial, materialistic mentality. In


Q: Do you remember how you felt as a sibling when I called you and told you I had an eating disorder? A: I actually do remember feeling shock, definitely more than I expressed on the phone. I remember trying to seem calm so that you didn’t freak out, or become more distressed than you already were. I was trying to talk you through it, but I didn’t know how to help you. ‘Cause you learn about eating disorders in school, and there is education about what it is, but people don’t prepare you for what you should do if you know someone with an eating disorder. i think i have an eating disorder.

... In your case, I was a lot more concerned than I was about my roommate because we were separated geographically, so I felt a lot more powerless. We could have a conversation and I could make you feel better for 5 minutes, but I didn’t know what you would do when I hung up. Because you’re my sister and you’re somebody who is so close to me, it felt like an impossible problem. It felt like I just couldn’t think rationally.


Q: When do you think our parents started to take it seriously? A: I remember feeling angry because I don’t feel like she was concerned for the right reasons. For me, when I figured out that you had an eating disorder, I could see that it was more than just physical – that it was a mental problem. But I think she just saw it as a fad. She didn’t see that it was beyond wanting to lose weight and dieting. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or a generational thing, but I was frustrated because she wasn’t getting it. Everytime you and I would talk on the phone, I just kept that conversation between the two of us. They just weren’t helping the situation. Q: How did my eating disorder affect you? A: Being at school made things more difficult. It wasn’t something I could think about all the time because I had classes and my senior thesis, but I remember having my whole day fill up, and then there would be pockets throughout the day when something would trigger thoughts about you, and that would make me uncomfortable. If there’s something that I’m struggling with, I feel like I can control it to some degree. But because we were separated by so many miles, I felt so helpless and suffocated. I also felt guilt. If I had to tie it back to my subconscious, it’s probably because you had to be compared to me academically and weight-wise growing up. I remember thinking that your eating disorder

wasn’t caused only by what you went through but also by having to be compared to me. asdasdaskljasdkj Q: Did my or your roommate’s eating disorder ever trigger disordered eating or negative thoughts about your body? A: Yeah, that’s one of the really bad things. I think when people have eating disorders, the people around them only see the changes that those people go through physically. I only ever saw certain parts of her [the roommate’s] eating disorder. She would always throw up in our bathroom when I wasn’t there. The only thing I saw was that she was losing weight and that she was eating less when she was around me, so there were times when I thought, maybe if I don’t go as far as she does, I’ll lose weight and then I’ll stop. I thought that I could maybe imitate her behavior without ever having an eating disorder – that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to eat the way she does until I’m at a weight that I’d be comfortable at, which is kind of stupid, because I don’t think I would ever get there. Q: If you can remember what I was like growing up, do you think you could have predicted that I would develop an eating disorder? A: Oh yeah, definitely. I remember in high school, you’d always be trying all of these weird diets and offering to make people food when no one was hungry. Whenever we were in the car and our parents were talking about our weight, I would always get this feeling

in my stomach, like why are they bringing these negative thoughts into our heads? I had a feeling that either you or I would grow up with these issues with food. You can’t be raised like that and constantly be made to feel bad about yourself and end up completely fine. Q: At this point in your life, how do you feel about your body? A: I’m always at a stage where I feel like I should lose some weight, but at the same time, I feel like losing 5-10 pounds wouldn’t substantially change my life. Because we’re all humans, though, there are some days when I do feel bad about myself. For me, fortunately, I’ve never had anyone in my peer group say anything to me, but comments from our parents got to me. I remember that that was the reason why I didn’t like this girl Rachel in high school. They [our parents] would always talk about how pretty she was and the constant comparison made me really dislike her, even if she wasn’t a mean or unlikable person. They would always compare me to any similarly-aged Korean girl and even now, I don’t think I’m fully over it. Whenever I see pictures of certain people, it still gives me negative thoughts. Instagram is definitely one of the worst things for girls in our generation, and guys too. That’s why I deactivate my Facebook and Instagram every now and then for six months at a time. Social media is so appearance-focused and I’m so uncomfortable with the way that I look


so I definitely have an aversion to taking pictures. And one of the bad things about growing up Asian is that mental health is so stigmatized and Asian countries are still very much living in the past. Maybe because of the way our parents talk about it, I still can’t help but see mental illness as a weakness. The stigma is something that’s just so much more pronounced in Asian culture. I don’t know how to talk about my feelings

Q: Do you think there is a possibility that you might develop an eating disorder in the future? A: I would never say that there’s no possibility – but my relationship with food has become very positive in the past few years. Other people see food as an evil thing, but eating and documenting food on my Instagram has become something that brings me joy. I’m definitely one of those people who lives to eat and I have very positive associations with food from all the memories I’ve made eating with friends.





Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask yourself if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future.



notes to self:

1. not everyone is trying to hurt you. 2. be gentle with yourself. you have suffered but you are not beyond repair. 3. set boundaries and enforce them. no one is entitled to a piece of you. 4. allow yourself to feel in the presence of others. vulnerability requires incredible strength. 5. your body is nothing to apologize for 6. do not allow others to comment on your weight out of “concern�. call out body-shaming for what it is. 7. you will not always love the body you have. and that is okay. 8. don’t be afraid to take up space. others will make room for you. 9. be proud of your story, you are stronger for what you have survived. 10. loving yourself when others tell you not to is the truest act of resistance. 49



Works Cited en-and-eating-disorders/ ty/ ure nt-southeast-asia-asia-pacific fer-from-eating-disorders merican/ order/ nyone-to-notice/ -asian e-asian-pop-culture-boom-is-feeding-eating-disorders l?utm_term=.qmZWLBr27#.krZO9BLNw c-san-francisco-c405247ec535 er/


Works Cited (cont.) ht_us_57642cf7e4b015db1bc929a5 nalCode=uedi20 y-story_us_58e47693e4b09deecf0e1bab Featured Instagram Accounts: @coachalyssachang @_kellyu @nurseclara @thishanabee @missmiakang @p.s.kaguya @bishamberdas @lcchan @naomishimada @recipesforselflove


Heal. Educate. Empower.



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