On Growing Up As an Unskinny Asian

Originally published on XoJane.com

Growing up as an Asian American, I knew I would never have the long legs or double lidded blue eyes of the models that graced the TV screens and magazines I saw. Hell, I might not even have the tan skin if my melanin continued to refuse to cooperate. I recognized it would be biologically impossible for me to achieve the majority of Western beauty standards, and I was okay with that.

Instead, I contented myself with believing I could do fairly well by Asian standards. My nose was upright, my hair was sleek and straight. Surrounded by petite Asian adults, I also assumed that I would grow up to be the same way. Effortlessly, easily, thin.

Then puberty arrived.

No, “arrived” is too passive of a word. Puberty blistered across my body, ravaging my hormones, skin, bones, and self esteem all in one shot. I put on pound after pound. I worked harder than ever at swim practice thinking it would help keep my weight in check, but instead my thighs thickened and my shoulders bulked up. I slowly, and painfully, realized I wasn’t blessed with the fast metabolism and bird like bone structure I thought was a given.

I’m lucky in that my westernized parents never forced any sort of “girls should be docile and fragile” ideal on me, but that didn’t protect me from family and friends who still thought I ought to look the part. Aunts who clucked their tongues at my round thighs. Family friends who would take my mother aside and mutter in low concerned tones about how wide I was getting. And I’m sure almost all of you can relate, it is a terrible, terrible thing to have people openly dissect the changes in your body that you feel powerless to stop. I lived with two standards of beauty, neither of which told me any part of my body was worth loving.

I continued to struggle with my weight all throughout middle school and high school, oscillating between hating how I looked and hating how I felt about how I looked. I knew I had body image issues, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to obtain my distorted ideals of beauty anyway. By age sixteen, I had tried fasting, juice diets, cutting out rice, calorie counting, lettuce diets, kickboxing, and more. Some methods, like exercise classes and eliminating soda, certainly made me healthier, but I never got my weight down to the number I wanted. Other methods, like starving myself, only added to the colossally fucked up web of low self-esteem, perfectionism, model minority mayhem, impostor syndrome, and distorted body image that was my mind.

This past year, I would come home, do my homework, guzzle a giant can of green tea with a yogurt, and then go running. I lost weight, but I was also absolutely miserable. Then I would snap, binge-eat everything I could get my hands on in the fridge, and then restart the cycle. I ate when I wasn’t hungry, then restricted myself when I was. Food stopped being nourishment to me. It wasn’t even a reward or punishment, but a lens through which I viewed every aspect of my life.

I hit rock bottom sometime in March. I had skipped lunch that day in favor of studying for my biology and English tests. By the time I got home after speech practice, I was absolutely ravenous. One moment of indulgence led to another, and by the end of it I had eaten four bowls of pesto pasta, two red bean cakes, and an entire pint of mango ice cream.

I ended up rubbing the back of my throat bloody that night, trying to make myself to throw up with the back of a tooth brush. When nothing would come up, I curled up on the bathroom floor and cried for two hours.

I told no one. Not my mom, not my boyfriend, not my closest friends. I don’t know what I felt more ashamed of at the time, the incredibly dangerous methods I was trying to lose weight with, or the fact that they weren’t working. Maybe both.

Slenderness is part of the beauty standard for most cultures. But part of the reason the pressure to be thin in East Asian culture is so suffocating is because its assumed to be a given. Terms like “Asian-metabolism” and “Asian skinny genes” point toward the expectation that being slender comes effortlessly (and biologically) for people of Chinese, Taiwan, Japanese, Korean descent.

To some extent, there probably is a higher percentage of East Asian women who are naturally thin. But the usage of this potential correlation as a blanket standard for all Asians led me to believe that my inability to be effortlessly thin meant that something was wrong with me. I was defective, and any measures I took to try and disguise this fact had to be kept secret. Beyond the ritualistic self-body-shaming sharing that most teenage girls discussed, I hid my struggle.

I silently resented my little brother, who was underweight and had to drink chocolate milkshakes after dinner to bring the scale up. I saw red after I got onto the subway in Taiwan and saw a beanpole skinny college student toting a giant bag of fried chicken. I looked away in anger when we went out to dinner and my thinner friends would order burgers and joke about pigging out while I picked at my salad.

My name is Juliana. I am a seventeen-year-old Taiwanese American. There are many people of my descent who are naturally thin, and who are absolutely beautiful that way. I am not one of them.

But I am strong, and smart, and spunky. I can do 15 pushups in a row. I can make my dad laugh. I can rap. And one day, I’ll be able to separate my idea of beauty from my culture’s demands for thin. Having to buy non-S sized clothing will stop ruining my day. I will eat a goddamn cupcake and not hate myself if it shows up on the scale the next morning. I will continue to be careful with my food, but it will be because I care about my health not my weight.

All of that begins with me acknowledging what has happened. The shame, the anger, the hatred. It begins with girls like me speaking up about the ordeals we suffered in silence and the problematic cultural expectations that led to those ordeals.

So here I am, writing to the Internet about the most personal battle I’ve ever fought. That I am fighting. If you can relate, please just know you’re not alone.

231 thoughts on “On Growing Up As an Unskinny Asian”

  1. Thank you for gracing us all with your courage and morality; I am fully ethnically Chinese and have more recently undergone a relatively significant body mass change (to lose weight, largely due to the comments of some not-so-subtle family members back at home). Nonetheless, I am happy with my own physical and psychological state now, concentrating on schoolwork (as with the Asian expectation, o’ course) and wish you a healthy and rewarding life, just as everyone deserves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have heard of the pressures put on Asian women! It’s great you are trying to get past it, I acknowledge your pledge. My culture is opposite. In the Latin culture it’s almost an anomaly for girls to be fit and thin! I am not, closer to double ur size. But, with age I have come to see, I enjoy feeling stronger. So I workout. My body feels better for it. I am still well over 200 pounds but I’m okay with it. Good luck to you and I look forward to hearing about ur adventures!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t relate as far as the weight goes but the way you put it is the same for me in other aspects of who I am. This really spoke to me…mostly because it’s such a nice piece of writing and makes me feel like an amateur. Well,I am an amateur but you get the point… Awesome work🙌

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved this post. It’s so amazing to see that no matter where we are from and what our background is, we have this struggle. A struggle to be perfect in a world, that even though it says it is, isn’t perfect. It is the hardest thing to admit, to show how much being skinny and looking the part affect us, and you did it. You should be really proud. You offered comfort to us who felt like this but most of all, by doing this, you figured out that you’re one hell of a woman. And for that you’re beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In my view, beauty is being good at heart and being good at works you do. Beauty is bringing change to the society and in the life of people around us. Thank you for speaking up your mind. Change starts from with in us, and you did it. You are brave by your brain.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am there with you too. I was never skinny, but I was average (69 kg.), and then I went to university and had a horrible experience, and gained weight. It’s been almost 9 years, and I am still struggling with dropping it. However, with time I started to feel that there is more to me than my dress size, I try my best to be physically healthy, but I also don’t allow my physical struggles to affect my psychological state 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is fantastically written!! Though I can’t relate exactly, I have had and do have my own personal image struggles and self acceptance issues. I really enjoyed this!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I just want you to know that no matter what people say you are beautiful and that every girl is different, so its ok to stand out and be different from everybody else.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Bravo that you can accept what and who you are!!! It’s about time we started thinking about who we are rather than who we wish we were!! I am Indian and have struggled through the very same issues all my life… A few years older than you are, but believe me when I say you are at a much more happier place! I refuse to gain Weight even when I was pregnant and that is the kind of mental trauma one gets into when obsessed with weight. Look up and be brave. It’s all ok!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Bless you for taking the time and courage to lay out the truth of the near-life-ruining experience of a woman’s “awkward” stage. We all need this ! God Bless you and don’t stop pen pushing!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I love this so much, as an Asian, we’re pressured to looking like the Western standards of beauty, and well as the Asian standards of beauty, both of which are very hard to reach. You re beautiful!!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post! Can I just say…you’re beautiful dammit! I have the mantra of Gabourey Sidibe (the lead actress in the movie Precious). “One day I decided I was beautiful and so I carried out my life as if I was a beautiful girl. I wear colours that I really like, I wear makeup that makes me feel pretty. It doesn’t have anything to do with how the world perceives you. What matters is what you see”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. To say that I can relate from an admittedly non-Asian perspective is the world’s biggest understatement. I honestly almost cried as I was reading this because when I went through something so very similar as a teenager, there was no internet, no way to reach out to random strangers for some kind of solace. I grew up in a Caucasian family where everyone was prim and proper – and skinny. Or at least svelte, to use a more PC term perhaps. I went through every pubescent indignity possible – ridiculous breakouts, yo-yo diets and weight gain that made me feel exactly the way you put it so perfectly: “hating how I looked and hating how I felt about how I looked”. I wrote diaries from an early age and recently found myself completely aghast when I realized that, thanks to my own family and their equally idealized perception of “beauty”, I’d been forcibly put on diets and food restrictions since I was 11. And this was at a time when I was maybe a little chunky but nothing like today’s seriously obese children in immediate danger of diabetic shock etc. So…thank you. Thank you for your courage, your honesty, for putting yourself out there because so many of us have been in the same or at least very similar boat.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for sharing your story and writing about this common issue of body image. I too have suffered from an eating disorder and I am so proud to say I have mostly recovered. I don’t own a scale anymore and I try to judge myself based on my many talents instead of some impossible beauty standard pushed by society. I may not be an Asian American but I empathize with your story none the less. I love you for your strength and bravery. Thank you so much! -Dominique

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Me too. I am 19 years old and I still struggle with my weight. My sisters are thinner than me, but I am stronger than them. I’d rather be strong than skinny. I’d rather be smart than skinny. I’d rather be spunky than skinny. I cannot relate to this even more than I do now. You are an inspiration. Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. OMG. I have never been able to explain what it’s like to be an unskinny Asian. Thanks for writing this. I remember being called fat (in Tagalog) by one of my mother’s friends when I was about 5 or 6 years old. When I hit puberty at age 11, I grew hips and breasts, something that no one else in my family had. I was put on my first diet when I weighed 130 pounds. I’m 5’5″. Again, thanks for writing this. I could totally relate, and I’m pushing 50 years old.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This is so amazing! The amazing fact you are able to admit your insecurities and finally turn them into what they really are-strength! The strength to be yourself & admit all your emotions. You breaking your bingeing habit inspire me to break my bad habits as well! Easier said than done but reading posts like this really motivates me

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hey, I think you have done such a brave job for sharing this here because as you can see how many out there are able to relate to you. I myself have disregarded the idea of a standard beauty about 3 years ago, since I left abroad and got to explore my own self in an environment where I allowed ( or tried to ) no one to control what I do with myself or how i see myself. I also come from Asian background, and I do mean it when I say I totally understand about Asian beauty standards. And how sometimes you find yourself still hating for how you are born, just because people around you cannot stop whispering those ideas into your head even when you try not to listen. I also used to be chubbier, or maybe the same, I don’t know. But that’s the point, I stopped weighing myself for like 3 years, I have not stepped on the scale once ever since. I don’t keep track anymore how much I weigh. And this is not to say I am just lying around, and doing nothing and just eating. But I haven’t kept track on how much skinnier I am supposed to be. Because I don’t care anymore. I might try eat healthier, try exercising, running and all that, because it makes me feel good and healthy and responsible to be in charge of myself. I refuse to do that since someone told me i should look skinnier. and I am glad you realised that too; that you are much more than just the weights. And I am sure your story will inspire others who have the same problems, to be more confident of who they are. The key is always your confidence, and I, personally, and always, believe as long as you are confident, you are beautiful with this glamour shining out of you.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Reblogged this on The Kat's Mews and commented:
    Not related to writing but this article really spoke to me. In my case, my struggle with my weight came after childbirth. My mother, who came to visit me for a few weeks immediately following the birth of my daughter, would feed me nothing but Korean seaweed soup and brown rice because “it’ll help me get skinny again”. While she was coming at it from a place of love, it hurt me to think that I was no longer acceptable to her due to my size. It messed with my ability to self-identify as a Korean American woman because “I didn’t look the part.”

    And then I remembered that even Margaret Cho had struggled with this issue when back in the early nineties with the launch of her show All American Girl, when she was asked to lose weight to play the part of herself on her own TV show. Margaret Cho even stated that the show received flak for “not being Asian enough” while at the same time being accused of purporting Asian stereotypes.
    I’m so grateful for having found this article because it really is something that I desperately needed to know existed. Because we have to stop doing this to ourselves and we need to stop doing it to each other.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well written. We all are made by god into the people we are today, this includs the way we look, our wieght, and are unique differances. We shouldn’t change to be accepted by society. People who understand will accept the way we are. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  20. You put my thoughts into words so well! Ever since I came to California and have been surrounded by family, I can always tell I’m being judged. All of my cousins and even my parents are naturally skinny, and I’m the odd one out. During my childhood years, I was skinny because I was extremely active, but once puberty hit, my boobs and butt grew, my shoulders jutted out, and my height continued to stay the same for 3 years. I haven’t even started growing. With my short stature and all of the little features that an Asian normally doesn’t have, I feel like I need to prove myself. I’m not only meat and thick bones; I’m an actual human being who has feelings, but I should be glad I’m not like every other Asian out there and love who I am, as you do! Thank you so much for sharing!! ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

  21. This post hit me hard. I can relate to so much of this. If there is anything I can say to you, it’s that you are not alone and I constantly struggle to tell myself I am more than just my weight but believing it is another story.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. I’m happy you shared this. I gained a few pounds when I started University. Now every time someone sees me, they comment on how “thick” or fat I am. Jamaicans can be very vocal and blunt and this is said even in very public settings.
    Thank you for sharing this. It made me feel better 💕

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Thank you for sharing your struggles – and letting others know they are not alone if they have similar feelings about themselves and their bodies. It is such a difficult thing to speak about, but you have done a wonderful job of articulating your thoughts and emotions – you are going to be an inspiration to so many people.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. This post resonated so strongly with me! There is an Asian family in my building, and it breaks my heart watching the father force his slightly (and very slightly) fuller 10 year old daughter run on the treadmill. He controls the settings and everything! I’m all for kids being healthy and living an active lifestyle- but at the same time his skinny son sits on the floor on his iPad, which clearly marks his intentions…

    Liked by 2 people

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