The Weigh You Are: Body Image in Asian Communities

Trigger warning: mention of weight, dieting


Dear Asian Youth,


It’s the fourth Thursday of November. As the sun gradually sinks below the horizon, a lone car traverses a residential road. You’re in the back seat, your elbow propped against finger-smudged glass. Vibrations rush up your arm, the tingles signifying a world constantly in motion, but you’ve never wished more fervently for the ability to stop time in its tracks. Staring out the window, you see, but don’t quite comprehend, the outside world. While multi-colored leaves adorn tree after tree to paint a picturesque scene of autumnal beauty, you’ve long been dreading this day. Years of tortuous Thanksgiving dinners with your family have left you with deep, emotional scars.


The car pulls up to a driveway—a driveway that extends to a porch, that leads to a front door, that opens to a house with only painful memories. As you step out onto solid concrete, you pull your coat tighter to your chest, but the crisp autumn air has nothing to do with the shiver that passes through your body, nor the nerves that have accumulated in your gut.


The doorbell rings. Immediately, the door swings open, revealing aunts and uncles, first and second cousins, and grandmothers and grandfathers. You’re swept up into a whirlwind of greeting people you only know by association, many of whom you only see once or twice a year. A gathering should be a joyous event, but you know better. As the greetings start, so do the comments.


“You should start watching what you eat.”


“How much do you weigh now?”


“Are you on a diet?”


Remarks such as these are forgotten by the relatives who utter them, but any semblance of an appetite you had mere hours ago has immediately dissipated. All you can do is smile, ignoring the burning hot shame pooling in your stomach, resisting the urge to hunch over and make yourself as small as humanly possible. After all, this is your family.


While not a universal experience among all Asian youth, such unsolicited, objectifying remarks—often under a veil of helpful “advice”—are remarkably common. Within the Asian household, food is a way to bond over one’s heritage, but having leftovers on your plate is seen as offensive, even if your stomach is filled far past the point of satiety, even if you’re on your fourth or fifth serving of vegetables only because your aunt keeps forcefully loading your plate with broccoli. “Oh, no thank you,” you might say, the heaping pile of food before you making your stomach churn in protest. But it’s all for naught. You’re stuck—the very people who tell you to eat more simultaneously shame you for not being skinnier.


There was a time when excess rolls were seen as baby fat, when chubbiness was deemed cute. Over the years, remarks proclaiming your “adorableness” have petered out in both frequency and sincerity. Comments have transitioned from Wow, you’re getting so big! to Oh… you’re getting big—the same words, but entirely different sentiments. Food-centric gatherings such as Thanksgiving meals, Christmas dinners, and family reunions are often wrought with unsolicited remarks targeted towards Asian youth—and towards teenage girls, in particular.


While we have made vast strides to promote body positivity in the Western sphere, the Asian community still has a long way to go. The message is clear: fast metabolisms, tiny frames, and naturally narrow waists reign supreme. As a whole, Asian culture both praises the ability to stay thin while eating vast amounts of—often unhealthy—cuisine, and belittles all those who inevitably fall short.


The rise of the internet has exacerbated physical insecurities to new levels, and the typical modern teenager has a much more complex relationship with their body than in times past. With increasing accessibility to social media platforms such as Youtube, Instagram, and most concerningly, TikTok., the age of exposure to potentially triggering content has been steadily decreasing. Because the content on such applications goes largely unmonitored, it is all too easy to unintentionally promote terribly unhealthy lifestyle habits and disordered behavior, such as chronic undereating and excessive exercise. Content geared towards the fitspo and thinspo ideologies and videos with titles like “What I Eat in a Day” indirectly promote an unhealthy relationship with one’s body. Young teenagers find themselves viewing conventionally attractive people their age on screen and comparing themselves to oftentimes unsustainable lifestyles.


To a larger extent, globalization within the modern context has perpetuated the popularization of Eastern media within the Western sphere, such examples being K-pop and K-dramas. While it’s true that many Asian males have noted that seeing more Asian men in the media has actually boosted their confidence, a number of their female counterparts declare otherwise. In Korea, the ideal height for women is 162 cm (5’4’’) and the ideal weight is 42 kg (93 lbs.), which is on the verge of being dangerously unhealthy. Yes, representation is important. Yes, many Asian women naturally have petite frames and slim waists, and these features hold inherent charm and appeal. However, it’s important to note that within the glorified world of K-pop, the relationships that female artists have with their bodies is anything but healthy. For instance, Grazy Grace, a notable artist in the industry, was contractually obligated to weekly weight checks and was forbidden from gaining even a quarter of a pound. Many young girls who idolize these artists fail to realize what goes on behind these closed doors. There is nothing glorious in purposeful starvation.


In twenty-first century Asia, a “homogenous physical aesthetic [still] reigns supreme.” To see the media’s idea of beauty synonymous with being thin is incredibly damaging to those who don’t fit that mold. And yet, those who do fit into the Asian idea of “normative thinness” don’t escape entirely unscathed. Body types unfortunately go in and out of style, and the hourglass figure has made a comeback in American society. With the Asian household generally enforcing that skinniness is synonymous with good looks and the Western realm largely idealizing curvier body types, my body will never be viewed as “perfect.”


Unsurprisingly, these conflicting cultural standpoints are a breeding ground for dissatisfaction with one’s looks, especially for the—often impressionable—demographic of teenage girls. The National Eating Disorders Association reveals that Asian and Caucasian youth allegedly attempt to lose weight at similar rates. However, the American Psychological Association reports that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than their white counterparts due to the mental health stigma in the Asian community. As a consequence, Asian youth end up suffering in silence, and eating disorders and struggles with mental health are overlooked.


I admit that I have the body type that many young Asian girls seek but will never attain. Genetics has blessed me with a tiny frame and a rapid metabolism that offsets my voracious appetite. For me, the more pressing consequence of eating my weight at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant is a debilitating food coma. However, I still remember all-too-well what it was like to be a thirteen-year-old girl, wrought with uncertainty and insecurity. I remember staring at myself in the mirror, scrutinizing every perceived roll or jiggle of fat. I remember how hyper-aware I was of how my thighs would flatten and widen as I sat down at my desk in school, how my calves naturally curved as I walked. One day, I decided to make a drastic change: I would completely cut out all forms of sugar from my diet, except for those naturally-occurring in fruits and vegetables.


Obviously, this radical lifestyle change wasn’t sustainable in the long-term. I said no to cupcakes and candies, survived the withdrawal symptoms, and lasted a whole two months before I realized that I was miserable. While I’d be the first to tell you that the human body does adjust to a diet without sugar, I missed being able to satisfy my sweet tooth by ingesting cookies and chocolate. My weight was the same, because I simply hadn’t needed to lose any in the first place. I was a size zero, yet wanted to be smaller. So why was I torturing myself by refusing sweets in moderation?


Shortly after deciding to once more open up my culinary palette, I entered high school. Many people fail to realize that people come into high school as fourteen-year-olds and leave as fully-fledged adults. Something that is so obvious, yet so many people don’t acknowledge is that weight gain during these formative years is normal. Especially for teenage girls: even if your height doesn’t change, it’s not uncommon to gain a few pounds or develop more curves. Our bodies are still developing and growing, and that’s a sign of being healthy, not being fat or ugly. And now, as I look back on pictures of my younger, insecure self, I realize that it was all in my head.


I know that body confidence isn’t easy. Oftentimes, it’s a long, arduous battle to just reach a stage of acceptance. To the girls desperate to shed some pounds so the remarks from their family will finally stop, my heart goes out to you. To the girls constantly belittled by their peers for their lack of curves, I feel for you. To the girls struggling with unexpected weight gain, it doesn’t take away from your self-worth. Beauty is more than the number on the scale or the size of your jeans. It’s in the crinkles of your eyes and your open-mouthed laugh, extensions of your wholehearted, unabashed joy; it’s in your quick mind and your full heart. Whether it’s been a while since someone’s last told you or you hear these words every day, you are beautiful.


- Justine Torres


Sources:

https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/it-s-not-worth-it-young-women-how-tiktok-has-n1234193

https://www.koreaboo.com/stories/kpop-altered-fan-perception-body-image-unhealthy-way/

https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/celebs/a31088096/k-pop-dark-side-exploitation/

https://wearyourvoicemag.com/body-image-body-positive-movement-southeast-asia-asia-pacific/

https://www.bodybanter.com/soar-with-steph/clothing-sizes

https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/people-color-and-eating-disorders

https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/asian-american/article-mental-health