Chinese Lunar New Year is just around the corner. What this usually means for me is another one of those potlucks at church, where there’s way too much food prepared by way too many aunties, or a yis as I fondly call them. Like most people, I can’t wait for the hot pots and steamed fish, but as a person who has struggled with my body image, the huge feast brings up complications. In order for me to get my hands on the delicious dishes that they’ve prepared, I have to brace myself for the string of, “Lisa! You’re back! You ______ (insert either lost/gained in blank) weight!”
These days, I’m always told that I look “skinnier,” even if I did gain weight. I suppose I’ve reached the age where being told that is what’s expected on such a joyous occasion. I usually laugh delicately, wave my hands in the air and say, “No! It’s just my face shape lying to you,” and say the exact same thing back to them. Looks like I’ve at least mastered something from my mother.
In any case, these events always make me nervous because I wonder when they’ll tell me that I’ve “fattened up” since they last saw me (which they are not shy to do), and make me recall the days when people weren’t so polite. Back then, my body wasn’t mine, but everyone else’s.
As a child, my parents had never fretted about my weight — they cared only that I stayed well and active. But by age eight, I was quite aware that I was bigger than most kids on the playground. And I have memories from seventh grade of wondering why it was a struggle to pull my knee-high socks over my oversized calves while my friends’ socks fell loosely about their ankles. I remember a cute boy I liked calling me “thunder thighs” during a dodgeball game.
Over the years, I became tired of not fitting into jeans the way most of my peers did. In fact, for a long time I didn’t wear jeans — it was too painful to confront the fact that I was a size ten, not a size six like the small and dainty girls I thought I should look like. Those fragile, submissive-looking girls manifested themselves in the books and television that I read and watched. They were always vulnerable, and waiting to be protected. For a girl who was constantly told that I was “too loud for an Asian,” I practiced my best “weak” expressions and postures in my interactions with the opposite sex because I thought that was what I needed to do to be desirable.
Author Lisa Lee, in Taiwan, 1998
My Body Image Journey
When I was 18, I decided that I should live up to the expectations set for me. Together with my mom, we signed ourselves up to lose weight at a “specialty” spa in Taiwan.
“No solids after 6 p.m.”
”No liquids after 7 p.m.”
“No rice or noodles.”
“No fried foods.”
Apparently, “no” is a key theme at the weight loss spa my mother and I frequent. At 6 a.m., half-awake, I hobble to the kitchen to scarf down my breakfast: a tiny bowl of granola and leftover fruit. For lunch, I wolf down half a ham sandwich, in which a bit of meat is dwarfed by a forest of leafy greens. No mayo; no mustard; no dressing. I chase it down with a shot of orange juice. Dinner is whatever I can squeeze in before 6. Usually, I get sautéed vegetables that have been drenched in boiling water so as to strip them of all sauce, grease and goodness. At age 18, when my primary goal was to become as beautiful as I could be, I followed this regimen for 90 days. Going far beyond food, the regimen also included cleansing, meditation and pep talks about how a new svelte body would match my beautiful face.
The weight-loss spa in Taipei, Taiwan, was a world where I could “fix” myself, namely by transforming my appearance to match my inner beauty. Once my body is perfect, improving the rest of me will be cake, I thought, optimistically shelving my old fear that I’d never be a size six.
I remember the moment when the wonder started, when my mother and I sat in the office of a mama-san type who described the treatments that would change my life. My mother, who had been a size zero as a young adult, listened intently. She was thrilled by the notion that her oldest daughter, who had inherited her wit and her ethics, might look more like the women on Chinese variety shows and hence build a stronger sense of self-worth.
For three months, she’d sacrifice her credit card to this cause. And I’d follow along, if only because I no longer wanted to look “big-boned,” as my mother described me (or “healthy,” as my aunts and uncles politely framed it).
Moments later, I am lying on a table in a dark room. Strange male hands press my stomach, massaging the flesh as if it were dough. I grind my jaw together as more force is exerted, but I endure the pain. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as my parents have always said. Silently, I wonder if I’m kidding myself. No diet has worked before; why should it work this time? Still, I retain an inkling of hope.
The next day, the spa’s weight machine reports that I have lost four pounds. I feel watchful eyes scrutinize me and hear congratulatory words. Later in the dressing room, I smile as I stroke my bruised, flabby stomach, tracing my fingers up and down the light indigo marks. The magic has worked. I steel myself for the next treatment.
The truth, as I would realize much later, is that no quick-fix diet could change me, inside or outside. But in that moment, I doggedly pushed forward. I climb into bed exhausted and hungry. My stomach growls. I can only dream about my next meal. In the spa, I wear a beige frock and choke down a green powder that will supposedly cleanse my system and make me thin. I try to wash it down with water, but this only makes the powder lumpy and difficult to swallow. My tired gaze meets that of another young woman. We both look quickly away.
A month into the program, my weight loss has begun to plateau. I am wiped down in ginger essence, embalmed in plastic wrap and thrown into a sauna. My skin burns everywhere. I try to shut out the pain by visualizing extra water expelled from my body.
A day later, I am hooked up to an electric machine designed to shock my muscles into burning calories. I cringe as the dial is turned up and briefly worry about brain damage, but my fear dissipates when I am told that 30 minutes on this machine is like working out for two hours.
For 30 more days, I continued to starve and sweat my body into submission. I wanted to be thin, beautiful — everything that everyone covets. I wanted to make my mother happy.
By the end of summer, I shed 20 pounds. My mother was ecstatic; I was even happier. To maintain my sleek new image (and to shed more pounds), I continued to eat next to nothing, popped diet pills and avoided going out with friends so I wouldn’t have to explain my food choices. When asked why I ate so little, I typically lied and said that I had already eaten. My friends became suspicious, and once they even attempted an intervention. But I laughed and told them they were crazy to think I had issues with food. I was in deep denial.
The Struggle With Body Image Continues
My newly improved self and its corresponding lifestyle didn’t last long. After three months, my diet pills ran out and I began gorging on brownies. I regained the weight I had lost — and more. I began to suffer insomnia. My new look involved wearing a long-sleeved shirt layered beneath another loose T-shirt to hide my bulges.
Only now, years later, am I finally able to come clean with the scariness of it all. I see now that I was chasing a dream that wasn’t mine or even my parents’. When playfully blaming boyfriends for making us women feel this way, they have retorted that no one is forcing us at gunpoint to be skinny. Insensitive, I know, but accurate. I don’t know who to blame for creating this illusion, and naming a scapegoat wouldn’t serve much purpose. All I know is that at one point, this dream became everything I wanted.
I pursued a thin image that was supposed to exude confidence, control and ultimately beauty. For many years, I was ashamed of my inability to embody this image. Now my shame stems from knowing that this desire to be skinny conflicts with the person I want to be — a woman who wants to demonstrate that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty.
And yet, despite knowing this, I look at photos of me from that time and can’t help wishing for a split second, or maybe longer, that I could look like that now — for the compliments, for the envious and admiring glances, and perhaps for the superfluous feeling that I appear to have it all.
Thick Dumpling Skin: An Online Home for Asian Americans Struggling With Their Body Image
This honesty with myself and my desire to explain how I came to feeling this way led me to co-found the Thick Dumpling Skin website with actress Lynn Chen a year ago. We were deeply humbled when we started to hear from so many men and women through the site. The Thick Dumpling Skin community showed us, and each other, that we were not alone in our struggles with body image and eating disorders. The site also confirmed that our struggles are deeply influenced by social and cultural stereotypes. And yes, eating disorders affect Asian Americans despite the belief that people who look like me are genetically petite.
A year later, surrounded by loved ones on Chinese Lunar New Year as my aunties focused much of their attention on my body, I am reminded that we have more work to do both within our own community and outside of our community. In order to do this, however, we all have to take part to not further perpetuate the stereotype that our bodies should look one way or another.
As I feast with those close to me, whether it’s eating traditional dishes like dumplings or switching things up with prime rib, I will take a second to celebrate that my body is mine. And it will exude all the things that I want, if I give it the freedom.
A version of this piece was originally published in Hyphen magazine in December 2010.
More from living