Full disclosure: I’m a fat Asian-American. Not necessarily a fat Asian, but definitely a fat Asian.
I say this with the knowledge that while my BMI (arguably a flawed measurement system, but that’s neither here nor there) has never strayed beyond the realms of what is considered normal, I am undeniably a fat Asian girl. This odd disjunction of statements is something that has plagued me all my life, spurring crash diet after crash diet that all inevitably fail. Oh no, you now cry, not another hackneyed lament on the done-to-death issue of societal expectations and what women should look like. And you’d be right. Body image has been the subject of constant discourse all over the world, fueling a pushback from women in the form of powerful body-positive movements. The resulting response has also been one of overwhelming enthusiasm and acceptance. So why, despite these rallying calls to “love myself!” does the number on the waistband of my jeans still feel like a slap of failure?
I want to preface this by clarifying that I can only speak from my perspective as an East Asian woman. I’m not claiming to understand the body image struggles women from other parts of Asia face, all of which are nuanced and culture-specific. What I do know, however, is that in a world of rising obesity rates, East Asians have traditionally dominated the lowest ends of the spectrum, creating a perverse “chicken or egg” situation where thinness is seen as the norm in Asian cultures and women feel incredible pressure to keep upholding society’s dictate. To be thin is normal, and to be abnormal is unacceptable. Being East Asian has come to be synonymous with thinness, an explicit checkmark of one’s “Asian-ness” encapsulated into a neat list of traits. This is problematic beyond just body image or societal expectations. To East Asian cultures, not being thin has become more than just a physical attribute; rather, it seems to signify some deep-rooted failure reflective of one’s entire being.
As an Asian American woman, my weight has morphed beyond issues of self-esteem into a matter of cultural identity. I can’t count the number of times my size has prompted comments from relatives like “You’re getting so American-sized”, or “You look so westernized now”, or (my personal favorite) a conciliatory “It’s because those Americans pump hormones into everything they eat,” as if the only way I could have gotten to a whopping size 8 is through the ingestion of excessive hormones. Like many Asian Americans, my racial heritage and cultural belongingness are a constant point of inner contention. We’re too Asian, not Asian enough, too Americanized, not Americanized enough. We have to be exotic enough to fulfill the right sexual fetishes, but not so foreign as to be threatening. Somehow, in a never-ending dialogue of stereotypes, cultural confusion, and being told who we are, our weight has become another tipping point by which our identities are defined.
It goes without saying that the pressure to be thin has never been an issue that only impacts Asian women. As I mentioned earlier, mainstream society is finally (finally!) seeing a pushback from women against the unrealistic standards set by the beauty industry, and entire movements have been launched towards self-love and body acceptance. What is especially problematic to East Asian cultures, however, is the widespread belief that Asian women should be naturally (keyword: naturally) petite and thin, resulting in the body acceptance movement largely passing Asian countries by. Even within the United States where conversations of body positivity are oftentimes loudest, Asians are frequently excluded from a conversation of self-acceptance and diversity that supposedly celebrates women of all colors and sizes. I can’t stress enough how incredibly damaging this belief is to the cultural identity and belongingness of Asian Americans who are repeatedly bombarded with reminders that they’re not “real” Asians or are “too westernized” because they’re not effortlessly slender. Our appearance has devolved from an issue of societal ideals to embodying the very crux of our racial identity. There must be something wrong; we didn’t emerge from the womb delicate, elfish Asian waifs!
Luckily, more and more of my fellow fat Asian-American women have –to put it crudely– smelt the bullshit and started speaking out against it. In a great article for Everyday Feminism, Rachel Kuo addresses the racialized expectations for Asian women to be thin, asserting, “Racialized people cannot escape the ‘for/because’ clause of their bodies. We are either seen as skinny because we are Asian women or as ‘too fat’ for an Asian woman.” Another fantastic article by Judy Lee also highlights the pressure of having only one acceptable way to look in order to conform to both Eastern and Western standards of beauty. It’s an indescribable relief to know that, in a sea of “effortlessly” thin Asian women, I’m not the only one who feels outcasted by the unbearable pressure and inability to be skinny. But it’s not enough to just walk away with a sense of validation. As the body positivity movement continues to gain momentum, it’s important that East Asian women emerge from our long-held silence and join in on the conversation. We can’t just sit by and wait to be included; we have to be active participants in seeking the change we want. And the only way to do this is to keep talking about these issues, in a voice as loud and as unabashed as we can muster. By taking a stand against the racialized expectations telling us how to label ourselves, we can reclaim the power to assert our cultural identities and try telling the world who we are, for a change.
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