**** Today is one of the happiest day of my life. Someone I care about accepted Christ, and if I didn’t have a mountain of work to do, I would be calling my friends to pop champagne and celebrate. That will have to wait, because tomorrow I’m taking a friend out for her first alcoholic drink because she turned 21 today.
This weekend’s ED series is a bit different in that it’s kind of a backtrack, and a rehashing of my last two ED posts. It’s more like an interlude than a regular ED post. I’ve been musing about it for some time, but it’s not the kind of topic I want to talk about in my regular food posts.
If you can, please share your thoughts, because I’m really interested in other opinions or experiences, especially for this post. ****
One of the common questions I receive when I reveal my eating disordered past is: “How did you develop an eating disorder?”
It’s a question I don’t really know how to answer, even though I occasionally ask it myself to other eating disordered individuals.
I understand and appreciate the reason for that question though. Especially for people who don’t really understand what eating disorders mean, they want to know exactly what produces such a crazy disorder. Why would anyone want to starve themselves? Everyone understands why someone would want to go on a diet. But how could someone let himself or herself go so far to the point of death and illness?
It’s not an easy disorder to understand, and it’s not an easy disorder to explain either.
I’m currently working on a freelancing piece for the L.A. Times on Asian American women and eating disorders. The piece was inspired by fellow blogger Lynn from The Actors Diet, who co-started Thick Dumpling Skin, a public platform for all Asian Americans to speak out about their body image issues.
We’ve chatted many times about this issue of how Asian Americans have a bigger risk of developing disordered eating issues due to huge acculturation stress. Asian women are routinely stereotyped as petite and skinny with a super-fast metabolism, and that image is enforced into their mindsets by both their Asian and American sides. Not only do they feel pressured to live up to that “skinny Asian” image, they get constant negative weight comments by their Asian family and relatives.
I’ve interviewed about eight Asian American women, and they all basically told me the same thing: their eating disorders were instigated by a combination of weight comments from Asian mothers and aunts and an unrealistic image Americans have towards Asian women’s figures.
Since then I’ve interviewed four other people who are professionals in the psychology field, and they all attest to the fact that serious body image issues are prevalent among Asian Americans. Unfortunately, there is just little resources for them, nor do many Asian Americans want to speak out about this issue.
Okay, I’m a stereotypical Asian. My parents were both rail-thin until they hit their 40s. I have their high-speed metabolism genes. I’ve been underweight my whole life. But having been raised in Singapore, I also remember feeling big and unwieldy compared to my tiny South-east Asian friends, especially because I was always the tallest. My head stuck out above my petite friends, and I purposely slouched so that I would look shorter.
I remember when I was about 14 years old, my entire P.E. class was weighed individually (and publicly) during one of our P.E. sessions. When I got on the scale, a guy (whom I liked) gasped, “What? How can you be so heavy?” And then a friend hushed him saying, “Maybe she’s big-boned lah.”
I was 5’5 tall and 45 kg (99 lbs). I was hardly heavy.
But at the time I didn’t have the logical sense to figure out that compared to my under 5-feet-tall friends, of course I was going to weigh more than their 39 kgs. That incident bothered the hell out of me, and it stayed in my consciousness for a long time. It was also the first time I wondered if maybe I was too heavy.
Just half a year later I moved to America, where I routinely got told that I was lucky I was so skinny because I was Asian, blah blah blah.
I was one of the few Asians in my school at the time. I was already feeling super self-conscious as an Asian FOB with a strong Singaporean accent. But then I also suddenly developed some skin problems at the time because of the sudden climate change; my lips were permanently chapped and my arms had some kind of painful rash, which led me to be even more self-conscious about my appearance.
I felt ugly, I felt weird, I just felt like I was a slant-eyed, yellow-skinned outsider who didn’t belong in this world of beautiful, big-eyed, fair-skinned people. I thought the only thing I had going for me was that I apparently had the super Asian “eat all you want and not gain weight” genes. So gradually, it became very important for me to preserve that image.
As a typical female teenager, I was surrounded by friends who talked about weight constantly.
“Oh my God, look at that girl’s arms. She’s SO skinny!”
“Urgh, I wish my thighs were two inches narrower.”
“How can you eat that? So many calories.”
“Gargh, I ate so much! I can’t eat dinner now.”
From a person who didn’t even know what a calorie was, I soaked up all the habits and knowledge of diet and weight comparisons. I learned how to read nutrition facts, I learned (incorrectly) that dietary fat makes you fat, and I learned that the first thing you must do when you see another girl is to assess her figure.
That’s the kind of society we live in. We’re consciously and unconsciously trained to obsess about weight and appearances. I was a late boomer in the weight-obsessing culture. I’m saddened by the fact that I hear the same weight-conscious speech from girls as young as 9 years old.
Of course, there are so many complex and intersecting reasons leading to my eating disorder. It’s not just limited to society and acculturation, and I’m not as active in the Asian American community as Lynn is. But I agree with her and my interviewees that our culture does play a huge part in our identity, and when we cannot come in terms with that, there’s going to be a big problem.
And that doesn’t only have to do with culture. Any kind of odds and discomfort with our self identity is going to negatively affect our entire being.
We live in a society that puts way too much importance and priority on appearances. Perhaps because our appearance is the first thing we see, it’s all too easy to judge ourselves (and others) by the appearance first.
One of the biggest things that I gained back in my recovery was my true identity. I’m not just a Korean raised in Singapore now living in America. I am more than my skin tone and my weight. Of course I knew that all along in a logical sense, but it never really penetrated deep into my psyche.
It’s really ironic but it took my eating disorder stripping everything I thought I had going for me—my intelligence, my looks, my social life, my ambitions, my decency—to finally force me to get that.
In that way, my ED did a huge service for me by bringing me down to rock bottom and letting me realize that despite having lost everything, I am still an individual worthy of love with an ability to help and care for others.
I’m not just a material being who needs material things. An eating disorder might seem like a disorder with corporeal things like food and weight, but it has stems deeper and more devastating than that.
I think it’s caused by a spiritual blindness, an inability to see ourselves as spiritual beings as well, thus the preoccupation with the physical. That’s why treatment centers that just basically force-feed you calories and give you anti-anxiety pills don’t work. That’s why it can take so long to overcome this disorder…yet when you are hit with a genuine realization that you are more than this physical body, recovery can be surprisingly swift.
It took years of “recovery” for me to gain back my identity, but when I did, I made huge steps of progress that I never dreamed was possible.
In kind of a full circle, the turning point of my recovery was when I returned to Singapore and stayed there for 5 months. It was the place where the change in me was most prominent, but the series of events leading up to Singapore were what gave me the solid push forward to consequential recovery.
Questions to Ponder:
1) Since I started the post with that question, how do you think you developed your eating disorder? There’s probably many many reasons, so you don’t need to name all of them. But I also wonder: is it even important to know what developed our eating disorder? How does it help to dig up our history and background?
2) Obviously not all my readers are Asian Americans…but did you ever struggle with your culture? How has that affected you?
3) What are your thoughts on a weight-obsessed society? How much blame belongs to society’s superficiality?