Eating Disorders Affect Asian Women Too

by | March 2, 2014
filed under Feminism, Racism

Photo of mannequins in a store in Montrealby Sasha Fierce

This past week, numerous countries around the world, including Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, took part in the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAW). According to the website, NEDAW aims to “promote public and media attention to the seriousness of eating disorders and improve education about the biological underpinnings, environmental triggers, warning signs and how to help those struggling.”

This year, the organizers chose to focus on the theme “I Had No Idea” in an attempt to combat misconceptions about eating disorders. Although there are numerous misunderstandings about eating disorders, I find it particularly disconcerting that much of the discourse on eating disorders seems to focus almost exclusively on white women.

From the numerous conversations I have had with my friends and classmates over the years, I have come to the painful realization that many people simply and genuinely believe that Asian women are genetically blessed to be thin. As a female of Asian descent myself, I find it difficult to discuss my personal experiences with self-esteem and body image issues without hearing someone respond with an inconsiderate attempt to be funny: “But you’re Asian. Asians don’t get fat. You have naturally fast metabolism! You’re so small – what do you have to worry about?”

It is unfair that so many Asian women are faced with the unrealistic expectation to be naturally slim. There was a period of time when I did meet this expectation: growing up, I was always a skinny girl. No matter how much I ate, my grandmother would force feed me and ask me whether my parents were feeding me enough.

I was skinny until I entered high school, started birth control, and my body changed. At 5’2 and 115 pounds, my family and then-boyfriend began to “joke” that I was “chubby”, “fat”, and “porky”. I was no longer told to eat more, but was instead reminded to watch what I eat and to make sure I got enough exercise. I am always either too thin or too fat – there is no middle ground, no comfortable medium.

“For many Asian girls,” Noel Duan notes, “being thin is imperative; being a fat Asian—or even an Asian of “normal” weight—basically implies you’re a glutton who managed to out eat your own superfast metabolism. To be an attractive Asian girl, being thin is supposed to be a given.”

Although I cannot speak for other Asian cultures, I am Chinese and I know that the pressure to be thin comes from not just Western society, but also from within Chinese culture, where “skinny” is a cultural norm. Both Western expectations and Chinese norms about the way women should look have serious consequences for the health and wellbeing of many Asian females.

Those who do not fit the stereotype and expectations, in particular, strive extremely hard to make it appear as if they do by resorting to fad diets and extreme practices of keeping the number on the scale low. I know what it is like: I struggled with bulimia on and off for three years. I have rarely openly talked about my experience with people, for the very reasons I have stated above.

Last year, I met my friend Sophie, who is one of the most inspiring people I know. She is also in recovery from an eating disorder. Unlike me, however, she has been more open to sharing her story – she believes that sharing it is a crucial part of her recovery.

Today, I have chosen to share my story not only because I believe it is time to address this part of my life, but also because I want to change the common misconception that Asian women are naturally thin. Essentializing the female Asian body as uniformly skinny prevents those who have suffered from eating disorders from seeking the help they need. I know this first hand and I also know that the first step in addressing and changing it is by talking about it.

(photo of mannequins by Peter E. Lee, CC-licensed via Flickr)

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  • Genevieve – thank you for speaking out! Project HEAL would love to speak with you and Sophie! Thank you for being brave and sharing your story with everyone.

    • Genevieve Yam

      Hi Sara, thank you for taking the time to read my piece. I would love to find out more about Project HEAL. Please feel free to email me at anytime :)

  • Clementine

    Genevieve, thank you so much for sharing this story! I am also Chinese-American, but I have never fulfilled the “skinny little Asian girl stereotype”, starting from when I was 4, and my family always made sure to remind me of it, whether it was telling me to eat less or passive-aggressively calling me “zhuang” (stocky/stout). I’m curvy by Western standards, so I’m even more out of place in a Chinese-American community. And yes, half of the Chinese-American girls I know have some kind of disordered eating, whether that’s compulsive over-exercise or skipping meals or whatnot (and yes, I was one of these girls – though it never made me skinny). I wish there was more visibility of eating disorders in Asian communities, so thanks again for your perspective.

    • Genevieve Yam

      Hi Clementine, thank you for taking the time to read my piece! I also wish there was more visibility of eating disorders in Asian communities. I hope this piece gets people thinking and talking about not just eating disorders, but also how the common misconception that Asian individuals are naturally thin has serious consequences. I also hope that other Asian individuals suffering from eating disorders who see this will be inspired to seek help and to speak out.

  • I appreciate the difficulty of growing up in such a thin-focused culture; I do have a friend who is also Chinese who has shared how difficult it is to not be stereotypically thin.

    I do find it concerning when people conflate body image disorders with illness of eating disorders. Most women in the U.S. have body image issues, but only a few of those get eating disorders. As I begin work as an ED activist after my daughter’s anorexia, I hope to turn the conversation to access to and insurance coverage for treatment.