Lunar New Year is upon us — a holiday celebrated by over 1.5 billion people worldwide. For my Chinese American family, our table will be laden with mountains of steaming homemade dumplings and shiny garlicky greens for wealth, a whole fish for abundance, sweet sticky rice cakes for togetherness, and so much more. Festive gold and red envelopes filled with lucky money will be gifted to the excited kids, who will be donning their new clothes. My parents’ house will smell like ginger and simmering rich broth infused with the smoke of incense burning at various alters for our ancestors watching over us.
Recent films like Raya and the Last Dragon, The Farewell, and Crazy Rich Asians all highlighted the significance of food in various Asian cultures, because for so many of us, food is love. Showing love through food is so universal, yet so specific, that articles and videos about Asian parents presenting their kids with cut fruit instead of showing affection verbally or physically have gone viral.
“Have you eaten?” is a common greeting all over Asia. Urgings of “Eat more, eat more!” echo throughout meals. Elder family members aggressively push delectable morsels onto guests’ plates. Any refusals will be laughed off and ignored. Memories of countless bustling meals past warm my heart and belly as a smile spreads across my face – this is tradition.
My smile freezes into a grimace, however, when I’m reminded of the consistent comments about my weight — gained or lost —at every family encounter. Unfortunately, I’m not alone. In an informal poll on the Facebook Group Modern Asian Moms, 83% (70 of the 84 participants) answered affirmative to the question, “Does your family comment about your weight at Lunar New Year celebrations and other gatherings?”
One expectant mom commented, “Would it be an Asian family gathering if someone doesn’t make a weight comment?”
Jeanne Chang, a mother of two from California who blogs on teaching kids Mandarin and Chinese culture, shared, “My dad says, ‘you’ve gained weight’ instead of hello. I have a complex now and I’m trying not to pass this onto my kids.”
According to ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), a 2021 study found that “Asian American college students report higher rates of restriction compared with their white peers and higher rates of purging, muscle building, and cognitive restraint than their white or non-Asian, BIPOC peers,” and that “Asian American college students report higher levels of body dissatisfaction and negative attitudes toward obesity than their non-Asian, BIPOC peers.”
As someone who’s been struggling with my weight my entire life and put on diets since I was seven years old, I also embody Jeanne’s concerns. When my child asked recently “Why do grown-ups hate their bodies?” it stopped me in my tracks. I desperately want to nurture a healthy body image in my child, but how do I do this when I have a negative body image myself? What mistakes am I making that I’m not even aware of?
To learn more about breaking this cycle, I interviewed Dr. Cin Cin Tan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toledo whose research examines the development of children’s eating patterns and the role of parents in shaping children’s behaviors. She’s also a mom.
“Our families want us to eat, but they also have no problem making comments about body size. This contradiction is challenging. It’s a clash of generations and times,” explained Dr. Tan, who is of Malaysian Chinese descent.
“There’s always the message to eat more and not waste food, but then if you gain any weight, it’s always called out,” said Celita Lee, a data strategy director from Seattle, Washington, who is both ethnic Chinese and Korean. “This is a constant struggle with my dad. He recently called my daughter skinny (she’s four) and told me to feed her more, right in front of her.”
Our parents’ blunt observations about weight are not malicious; it’s the opposite. Though their intent may be to show concern by pointing out the slightest changes in our bodies, the result is no less hurtful. We live in a time of abundance and strong media influence where extremely thin body types are celebrated, especially with mega Asian pop icons like BTS and BLACKPINK.
Conformity to look a certain way may be a survival tactic considering the trauma my parents’ generation, who were born in communities decimated by war where food was scarce. I was born in a Chinatown in South Korea in the early 1980s. Back then, any fat person was automatically referred to deferentially as “boss” because only the wealthy could afford extra food to be fat. The exponential economic growth in a short amount of time experienced by many countries across Asia may have contributed to conflicting ideas on food and body image.
“It’s really hard getting my dad to adjust the way he talks about body image,” added Celita. “I see how damaging he was to my sister and myself, and I don’t want that to continue with my daughter.”
I deeply relate, as I went to extreme lengths to stop my parents from commenting about my weight. It took drawing boundaries and upholding them over and over for the message to sink in. As much as it pained me and my parents, I made it clear that our relationship was at stake. Though fear of regression exists, I’ve forged a peace so that we can have a more sustainable bond with more all-around joyful family reunions.
But older generations aside, how can we do better by our children? How can we continue to show love with food, which is integral to our culture, and nurture a positive body image?
Avoid negative body talk
According to Dr. Tan, it is important that parents avoid negative body talk or fat talk—the type of conversations that adults may be modeling inadvertently. “Children pick up on our insecurity. We can teach children to appreciate their bodies by emphasizing what our bodies can do and the strength of our bodies. We should emphasize skills beyond looks.”
Model good eating habits
For many parents, the need to model good eating habits for our kids is both a no-brainer and easier said than done. Some non-intimidating ways to get started include eating meals together without distractions like screens, talking about foods you enjoy and encouraging children to try them, and avoiding making negative comments about foods.
Food as a reward doesn’t work
“The ‘eat your broccoli, then you get dessert’ idea doesn’t work. Your child will only learn to dislike broccoli more,” said Dr. Tan. “The best method of getting children to eat specific foods is repeated exposure—it takes kids 10 to 15 times of trying a food before they will like it, before they will accept them.”
Avoid emotional eating habits with planned snacks before meltdowns
Dr. Tan adds that research shows parents who are emotional eaters are more likely to use food to calm emotions in their children. She recommends offering snacks at scheduled intervals as a prevention before meltdowns occur. And for meltdowns-in-progress, Dr. Tan suggests using breathing exercises or other coping methods first, if possible, and wait until after the child has calmed down before offering a snack.
Encourage intuitive eating
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to leave food on my plate or grains of rice uneaten in my bowl. With my child, I encourage him to listen to his body as much as I can. I’ve noticed that some days he eats a lot and others he doesn’t eat much at all. I’ve tried not to worry too much about this. Dr. Tan validated this philosophy as being in line with her research in children’s ability to self-regulate food intake based on internal cues of hunger and satiety.
Recognize that parenting is not easy
“My daughter wanted to eat Cheerios and oat milk for three meals a day, and she has two professors of psychology on children’s eating habits as parents,” shared Dr. Tan, laughing, who understands the challenges of how difficult theories can be to apply in practice. “My perspective has changed a lot since becoming a parent myself.”
She also stresses the importance of identifying what is typical development versus a valid concern. Parents can ask themselves, “Is this something that’s happening once in a while or is it more serious or debilitating?” By taking a step back, parents can better identify when a behavior is typical for this age versus something needing intervention. Providing a loving environment with positive, intentional parenting is the best any of us can strive to do.
This Lunar New Year celebration, I’m excited to watch my kiddo eat his weight in his LaoLao’s homemade dumplings — because he wants to, not because anyone else is pressuring him. I will try my best, with the help of my brother and my husband, to protect my child from body talk, as my parents will inevitably want to comment on his thinness. My job will be to reinforce healthy boundaries for our family so that we can all enjoy the wonderful Lunar New Year festivities and amazing meals together for years to come.