Reflections · Writing

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.

There was a point in this past year where I was eating about 800 calories a day. 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.

211 thoughts on “On Growing Up As an Unskinny Asian

  1. What beautiful honesty from a beautiful mind. Thank you for being brave and sharing you with the Internet. The Internet’s better off for it. Compassion and understanding is the only thing that kicks shame in the backside. From a girl who managed to succeed with the vomiting I’m glad that toothbrush trick didn’t work for you. Hopefully some stories on http://www.fuckingawesomebulimicsiknow.com might make you feel less alone too – all from people have battled with their weight and not felt right in their skin and took it too far. Please don’t try that trick again, it can take over your life. And please, on the days when you don’t like your body, find something you do like – your smile, your neck, your toes. Kindness with your body is the best thing for weight management. Peace.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. This is probably one of the most amazing eating disorder/body image posts I’ve ever seen. I mean the amount of comments and likes you’ve got tells it all. I hope you realise how brave and beautiful you are!! I pray you overcome your eating disorder one day for good but until then just know you’re perfect just the way you are and all the struggles you go through, although hard, make you unique. Much love from another unskinny Asian 👩🏽

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wouldn’t care if you were unskinny. As long as you’re a great person on the inside, that is good enough for anyone. Anyone that calls someone ‘fat’ or ‘obese’ is an idiot and probably dislike themselves. We all are beautiful in some way physically or not!😌

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Kristee Liu + Makeup Artist and commented:
    I love this post so much I have to share with you. Growing up as the non-typical Asian I can relate to this story completely. I am always the “bigger and taller” Asian among my Asian friends, sometimes even guys! I am not fat but definitely not the traditional or ideal Asian skinny. I have hips, which most Asian women don’t, and I was made fun of since the day they started to grow sideways! It was tough growing up knowing the “expectations” and knowing that I could never achieve what’s unnatural for my body type. I’ve learned to stop caring what others think of me and to love my body the way it is. I hope you love this as much as I do and have the courage to share your story too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, I love the cultural exploration in this. I didn’t know about the skinny standards of where you’re from, or just because you’re Asian. (Not to sound racist.) In Canada we don’t really care about the way people look. We don’t have a specific body type, everyone kinda just does their own thing. If you’re a stick then fine, if you have some flab that’s okay. But this truly is an amazing story.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Juliana, I hail all the way from South Africa. Im 1/8th asian being my great grandma was filipino. My weight fluctuates all the time at this stage im medium. I know lots of chinese people and one of my best friends was chinese. She too struggled with the pressure that comes with being asian and having to go to extreme measures to be thin “shou”.

    I think that it’s very unfair and wrong to say the least to have these images of super skinny being made out as beautiful…I may have not struggled with my weight emotionally but have had other emotional qualms that I’ve battled with for many years. But with all the insecurities and things we may face in life, they make us stronger and better people.

    Juliana you’re beautiful just the way you are and you will grow and become all the wiser and look back in hindsight at what you’ve gone through. You are and will be an encouragement to someone else, because you’ve walked that road before.

    Xie xie ni for sharing your story.🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I wasn’t even aware of these Asian-American standards until I read this. You seem like such a strong person for being able to overcome that! Based off your other posts, you seem so successful so congrats!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It really is frustrating to not fit in the box in which society places us in. I also experience such displacement for my looks and the way I dress. I wonder if society will ever be able to progress to a place where this isn’t a problem…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Your entry is great! I love that you’re going to work towards breaking the “Asian” stereotypes! I’m Japanese myself, and I know I don’t fit in with my Japanese culture most of the times… It becomes a struggle but it’s also good in a challenging way to work towards over coming it!🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I am amazed by how amazing and authentic your blog is, it often seems, sadly, that the amount of honestly, like on this blog, is hard to find. I am so amazed by the amount of authenticity and realness and beauty this holds. Followed immediately. -Nicole

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Wow! I applaud your ability to get in touch with your feelings and present them so well. It’s hard. I can relate, I definitely don’t look the way society thinks I should either. Making the decision to consciously work through it in the most positive way possible and showing others that strength is pretty amazing and a great gift to others. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you for the post! I have been struggling with my weight most if not all my life. Body image ideals hurt the most. Thank you for speaking out. I hope that you do well to stay healthy by your own terms. Not what others think you should do. You are strong young woman to post this. Thank you!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Juliana, as another Asian woman who similarly hit adulthood with a few extra pounds, I truly know what it is like. From having relatives pinch my arm or muffin top, admonishing “ooh you put on a few pounds” or “you are so pretty but need to loose weight lah” to the nightmare of shopping around Asia where clothes in size L is the equivalent to a US size 2. I hope that you shall grow to love yourself more and accept yourself as you are. It took time for me and now that I am in my forties, I basically don’t give a s**t anymore. There is so much in life to experience and to enjoy. Please do not ever let any weight or body image issues get you down, hold you back or distract you from living a full happy life! Big hugs to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I love this very much. It’s so very relatable. I am also one like you and I really hate being called fat. Sometimes I feel as if I am cursed with this stupid thing as everyone else is lean and slender in my family. But wow u have really given me a broad vision. I think u r right, it’s totally fine with what u have and what u can do is work on it to make it better and regretting over it is not going to bore any fruit. I will make sure that I’m not going to cry over the same thing again.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I can relate to this, having a sister who is effortlessly thin(she got my mother’s looks) and having my Mom constantly give me veggies because apparently I can go back to that time when I was thin. And ten years old,not that it matters or anything…

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I’m Filipino. My whole life, I had to deal with being called fat by family and friends, when in fact I really wasn’t. In high school and through college, I was active in sports and in my prime physically. I was still called fat. They may have been serious, or just joking, but emotionally it felt the same. This is coming from a male perspective. I know the standards women are held to are even higher.

    Be strong, strive to be healthy, and know, you are not alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. You wonderful beautiful woman!! You just made my day!! I am going through something very similar and I just can’t tell you how much you have inspired me….tonnes of love and support for you!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. What you talk of ; the tan skin and the long legs and big eyelashes like the western Beauty, i believe to have it all. And yes , I am praised about it many times. This is the Good part.
    But here comes the ugly part! Thin! Yaa thin; but extremely thin. And thats not something taken to be good in an Indian society. Here, the most common taunt you hear on being extra lean by the Aunts is – Hey; Dont you eat anything ?
    But Excuse me , you dont know! I just love food
    But ya ofcourse you can’t speak in front elders. Here lies a Fact Nobody understands rhe stuggle of the extra thin. I reallly hate my over- lean limbs . And yah. I am, here, not blessed with a normal sped metabolism . Mine is extra Fast. I too have spent hours crying in my bathroom never telling anybody about the Sadness. The misery when you see a Dress in the market you had been wanting and even the XS size does not fit you. I overeat so many times, just wishing to put on some chubbiness.
    But then I remind myself , that this age of Fast metabolism will be over. Soon. And then i will come out to be a Nice figured Girl . And that I dont care if I look weak. I have the stamina better than any of my friends . I can Dance hard for 2 hours without getting Tired. I am Healthy and thats what matters.
    I am a 15year old.
    And yes. After reading this post I feel that everybody has a reason to be unhappy, to be un satisfied. It depends on us the way we see ourselves and love ourselves in any way. You are a creation of God. You are special . So Smile and be confident. Wear what you like dont think how your skin looks in it. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  19. This is amazing. I am Japanese Canadian, and I also am not skinny. I have been struggling with my weight issues since around 13 years old, and I still fail to have any confidence in myself. I know exactly how you feel, and it makes me feel a little better to know I’m not alone in this never ending struggle. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. This is so relatable! I have been going through the same, and having all slim friends and sisters hasn’t helped. And this provided a perfect transition of my thoughts and ideals for myself. Beautifully written!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Go girlllll…..i am the opposite of you i am very thin and i cant gain weight easy …..and because i am from meditteranean countries and here the standards are different i had problem at first but when i grow up i said to myself this is my body and thats all …of course when i go to the beach and there are girls with very womanly bodies and i have my insecurities but all woman have even the perfect one so we have to love ourselves and i believe thats you are very strong ….

    Liked by 1 person

  22. You have a wonderful story. Painful but real and that reality being shared with others and helping others see that a stereotype is not fair is part of the beauty. I’m the shortest in my family and definately overweight in an area that heavily prides someone being thin and will socially ridicule someone who doesn’t suddenly drop the weight as if it were just a layer that can be peeled off and left in the bottom of the closet. I’m slowly working on the healthy to improve myself; not looking to be skinny like half of my neighbors but healthier and have the energy that I need to keep up with what my goals are in life. I wish you the best in life young lady, I think you are stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Reblogged this on sweetdelights and commented:
    I feel that everyone can relate to this blog, even if you aren’t asian. We (no matter what body type you have or even if you’re a boy or girl) are all faced with high expectations and beauty standards that can trigger our insecurities. This author’s perspective, Olivia, is one that I can easily relate to, Because I believed that many other people wouldn’t understand my feelings, I always kept these thoughts to myself. In reality, not speaking out about how I saw myself as a person really brought my self-esteem down. The sad thing is that my family is the one that criticized me the most, and I just let their words sink deep into my self-doubt about my own body. To quote my favorite teacher, Mr. Feeny, “Unfortunately we live in a society where they tell us we have to look a certain way, so we’re all under pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations.” The first step in learning to love your body is to take that criticism and turn into something positive. Don’t let what other people’s perception of you and what they say dictate your behavior.

    Liked by 1 person

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