I walk downstairs to the kitchen where my mother and our family friend are chatting. I’m looking for a snack when Auntie Jessica notices me. “Angel!” she exclaims excitedly, as I plaster a smile on my face and greet her with the same enthusiasm. Before she asks how I’m doing or even how my grades are, she scans me up and down.
“Look at you! You’ve gotten so thin! Remember when you had all those fat rolls and couldn’t stop eating?”
She pinches my belly lightly as she gives me a hug, but I don’t even feel it. I’m not paying attention because suddenly, I’m not 16 anymore. I’m 9, and my family friends are laughing at the sight of me in a bathing suit. I’m 10, and my dance costume won’t fit. I’m 11, and my aunt is telling me I need to stop eating because I’m making our family look bad. I’m 12, and a boy is telling me he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore because I’m so damn fat.
My stomach flips and my head spins. I’m not so hungry for that snack anymore.
I've always been shocked by how easily all my relatives and family friends make snippy comments about others’ weight. They measure kids against one another (literally and figuratively) and tear them down. Growing up, I was told I was too ugly and too fat — and I was raised to think that blatantly telling someone that was OK.
I asked my mother once why she thought it was acceptable to make such rude, personal comments. She simply shrugged and told me that was our culture. Being Chinese meant we were supposed to be more open, more overt, to say these incredibly personal things just like we were talking about the weather. When she told me that, it was the first time I resented the color of my skin.
I lost weight when I was 12. I was struggling to balance dancing competitively with my academics and extracurriculars, so I didn’t have time to eat. Sometimes I was too tired; other times I just forgot. Out of all the dieting tips people had given me throughout my life, the one I accidentally picked up worked best.
I was 13, at a chess tournament. I grabbed some pizza after an especially grueling match that ended in a draw. I needed two more wins from the next three rounds. Auntie Joyce, a chess mom I knew well, came up to me.
“It’s so good to see you,” she said. “What diet have you been on? It’s definitely working. Look, you have legs now! Just lose some more weight and you’ll be beautiful.”
She told me this happily, with a big smile on her face. I smiled back, but I was shaking. I turned around and tossed out the slice of pizza in my hands. I lost those next three matches. I couldn’t think about what move to make next, couldn’t think about my pieces. The only thought that occupied my mind was that I needed to lose more weight.
To me, food was more than sustenance and more than enjoyment. Food was a tempting enemy, one I couldn’t quite escape — and one to which I always regretted going back. It was comfort and then demise. Ana and Mia (anorexia and bulimia) were friends I made to fight this enemy, but then they also became foes from whom I couldn’t escape.
My aunt once told me she was shocked that I could possibly be so large. She accused me of being “Westernized,” saying that Asian girls were small and petite. My genes must have hated me, I thought. How was it that the rest of the women of my ethnicity were a perfect size 2, but I wore a size 6 at age 10?
“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is a popular idiom among those with eating disorders, but I never felt skinny while I suffered from an eating disorder. I was never any happier at size 2 than I was at size 6, nor did I ever feel more beautiful. Even when I knew I was conventionally skinny, I still felt heavy because I was weighed down by my thoughts. I didn’t feel skinny — but I did feel burning acid coming back up my throat, the pang in my stomach from being constantly empty, and the dizziness in my head from lack of energy.
I collapsed one day when I was 14, and my doctor told me I had shockingly low levels of micro- and macronutrients. I spent all of age 15 tracking the different types of supplements and medications I’d been told to take. Slowly, my systems began to function again.
One day at the beach, I saw a girl jumping around, laughing. She wasn’t any skinnier than I was and had the same stretch marks and “fat” that I had. But unlike me, she was joyful and confident. She glowed. She looked genuinely beautiful. After that day, I tried smiling instead of berating myself when I got on the scale every day (a habit that’s still hard to shake). For the first time, I disclosed my behavior and feelings to someone who wasn’t a part of a pro-ana website — someone I had previously pushed away. She burst into tears and told me she had gone through the exact same thing because of the exact same cultural pressures.
I’m 16 now. I still wish I could see an apple as something more than 60 calories or 15 minutes of jogging. Eating ice cream still reminds me that it was once the perfect purging food. Even my favorite beverage, coffee, got swept into my bulimia. I still cry in front of the mirror on bad days.
But now, I also fight the urge to lie about skipped meals. I fight the urge to skip them in the first place. I took down the pictures of Candice Swanepoel and the other Victoria’s Secret Angels I had hanging in my room. I know I don’t need to have their body type to be beautiful, and I don’t need the destructive means I used to try to get it.
I have also truly realized that my genetics don’t hate me. I had just been raised to feel too scared to talk about my experience with body image. I grew up with both Western pop culture — with its endless magazine spreads about flash diets — and my heritage’s uniquely unapologetic critique of women’s bodies. I believe my aunt and mum pressured me to conform to a thin body type because they grew up in a different world, one that forced that standard on them. But now, when my aunt tells me that I need to eat less, I wince — but respond that I’m still growing. When family friends comment on my weight, I simply brush the topic aside, because it’s really none of their business. I strive to grow stronger and more secure with every challenge presented to me because I know the truth: No number on the scale, on the label of a dress, or on the packaging of a cookie can change my worth. And no number should.
If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, visit the National Eating Disorders Association for information and resources.
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