Don’t Call Me Fat: Asian American Body-shaming

Welcome to our second round of blog posts on AAPI issues. For previous posts on racial identity, click here.


Last week, at work (yes, at this internship), a fellow Asian-American coworker joked that I was “obese.” Another coworker chimed in that I might be considered a “pig.” You’re probably thinking that I should’ve run to Human Resources as fast as my chubby little legs could’ve carried me. Unfortunately, I was not all that fazed. You see, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before—from my Asian-American family, friends, and myself.

When I was little in China, I resembled a watermelon, which earned me the name “Fei Mei” (fat little sister). But that was in another country, where people had grown up in austerity and where Botticelli’s women might have been persecuted for excess under the Communist regime.  Certainly, the girls in China are much smaller than they are in the US: I am 122 pounds, in the perfect BMI range for my age, and I still have to wear XL or XXL in Chinese sizes. On a trip back to China, a photographer remarked to me that I must like “fatty pork” because I was so much bigger than most girls he photographed.

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The culprit.

These cultural differences are expected and understood; my expatriate family might seem like the epitome of excess to our friends back home. What’s disturbing is that these remarks and attitudes don’t just stay in Asia—they seem to have migrated along with our immigrant parents and are still pervasive in our American communities. I can’t count the number of times that my parents or their Asian-American friends have remarked that I have gotten a little plump, or that my baby fat was going away thank goodness. These kinds of statements are made in earnest, and supposedly for our own good: how was I supposed to attract a husband, without being stick-thin and white as a lotus flower?

In my Asian-American community, being fat was a sign of shame. Whenever my friend Raina’s* mom picked us up for tennis practice, she would compare how skinny each of were and lament the fact that Raina was the heaviest, leading to some of the most awkward car rides ever. At some point, I realized that these fat-shaming attitudes were rubbing off on me: suddenly, I looked down on Raina for having extra arm fat, and I would weigh myself constantly to make sure that I wasn’t gaining any weight.

While it’s true that all Americans are obsessed with dieting and losing weight, I can’t explain to my American friends that it’s a whole different ball game when it comes to AAPI’s. Americans want to be slim, but the AAPI’s that I know want to be microscopic. For some AAPI fashion bloggers (Stylishpetite.com and extrapetite.com), being able to fit into XXS sizes is a source of pride and the reason for their blog popularity. Some AAPI girls even diet before they go home for vacations, just so that their parents won’t call them fat (http://www.xojane.com/issues/fat-for-an-asian-the-pressure-to-be-naturally-perfect) . Not only are we constantly expected to uphold the ideal “small and delicate” Asian-American stereotype, but because of the shame involved in discussing our weight, we never get to have a healthy conversation about body image issues. All these factors add up to a maddening, inescapable circle of shaming and purging, all for a beauty standard that doesn’t make sense.

What’s more, I feel like body-shaming is the one topic that I cannot talk about with my non-AAPI friends, despite the fact that it’s the one that affects me daily. Any other topic about AAPI’s, including racial discrimination and hate crimes, leads to intelligent debate among my pals, but when I complain about Asian-American body-shaming, I am met with blank stares. “If you are fat, what am I?” my white friend would ask, to which I have to stammer that she is at a perfect weight. Which is true—even though she is 30 pounds heavier, she might be at her perfect weight for her culture. Whereas I am on the fat side “for an Asian”. However, there is just no way to bring up that issue in non-AAPI company without making it seem like I am humble-bragging.

The lack of discussion over this pervasive body-shaming has led me to feel estranged from both American and Asian cultures. While Americans admire curvaceous girls with golden tans, Asians are obsessed with skin-lightning creams and petite figures that look good in a tight qipao. I am both too chubby for my parent’s liking, but too skinny to fill out a bikini top. I tan easily, a fact that my American friends are jealous of, but I still carry an umbrella to block out the sun so I don’t tan too much, or else I will “look like a Mexican.” I am caught on the fence between two cultures, and what makes it worse is that staying on the fence makes me feel like I don’t belong in either.

I can totally fit into this qipao—if they don’t zip up the back.

As you can probably predict, this kind of cultural priming has probably contributed to thousands of eating disorders among Asian-American women. I was anorexic for a while, but I had to say “F that”, because I just love my fatty pork too much. That’s the reason I consider myself one of the lucky ones, because I can still have a good relationship with food. I can’t imagine the other Asian-American women who are out there counting calories and crying over a heartless comment by a loved one, women who can’t be happy with who they are because they are constantly bombarded with conflicting views of what to look like.

There is no easy solution. For most of us, the damage is done. I will never forget my Asian-American coworker’s astonished “You’re a HUNDRED AND TWENTY-TWO POUNDS?” for the rest of my life. And I’m scared that I might be guilty of transmitting these poisonous attitudes to the next generation, if my children ever see me compulsively dieting.

So for now, I will laugh off the comments (although I did talk to one of the coworkers about being insensitive, and he did apologize). I’ll eat my Mexican cheesy fries, and I’ll go to the gym for hours later to make up for it. It’s not an easy compromise—but since when has being AAPI ever been easy?


*Names have been changed. To read more from Brittney, you can visit her blog at Another Beautiful Thing.

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