Illustration by Grace Wilson
When Chinese New Year rolls around, Asian women like me know it's open season for family comments on our weight. But a much deeper cultural problem lies underneath the fat jokes, and it's driving some to crash diets and disordered eating.
"Ah, fay mui," my mother would say as she poked and prodded my wobbly bits.
For those who aren't familiar with the Cantonese term, it literally translates to "big girl," "chubby," "porker"... You get the gist: fat.
Hating on fat people and worshipping unachievable body goals is nothing new to Western cultures, but it's a totally different ball game when it comes to east Asian families. And when Chinese New Year rolls around, most women know it's time to brace yourself for an emotional shitstorm of nasty weight comments.
For those who don't know, this annual holiday is the Asian equivalent of Christmas, where millions head home to spend time with their families and have multiple big banquets. It's meant to be our version of the most wonderful time of the year, but for many women, it's a time of familial weight heckling and an endless barrage of "why aren't you married yet?" questions.
I used to dread big family gatherings for fear of being ridiculed, and in some ways I still dread them. The closest members of my family would look me up and down to examine me and tell me that I'd gained a couple of pounds and that I definitely need to eat less rice. The sad fact is I know I'm not alone in this story.
Many other Asian girls have suffered the same taunts from their nearest and dearest. Selina Tan, a 22-year-old British Malaysian-Chinese production assistant, knows this all too well. "I would get teased a lot as opposed to hurtful comments and it was always from the females of the family. Say if I sat on someone's lap they would make exaggerated faces because of my weight."
The same goes for London-based Thai content manager, Fong Chau. Her family even held a secret family summit about her size. "I did Atkins for a year after the family fat-shaming conference," the 33 year old says, "which meant when I went for family dinners I refused to eat any rice. That caused its own drama—refusing your mother's food is a big deal. I was probably doing it on purpose to get at her because she called me fat."
Weight issues have always come with huge social stigma in east Asian and diaspora communities. In an article for Stylist magazine, Beijing journalist Yuan Ren highlights how this type of family-based, tough love attitude creates an obsessive beauty standard where everyone ends up looking like pale, petite, and stick-thin clones.
Asia's obsession with thinness stems from various reasons but—as in the West—one of the main reasons is a media-driven culture that sees young girls idolize perfect pop stars and skinny celebrities from an early age. The extensive list includes Hong Kong model-actress Angelababy, Chinese actress Chrissie Chau and pretty much all eight members of the K-pop group Girl's Generation. In the process, this creates fertile ground for unrealistic beauty standards that no one can ever really reach.
K-pop band Girls' Generation performing at a concert. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
According to Dr Terry Loong, 37, a Malaysian integrative cosmetic and skin doctor at the Dr Terry Clinic in London, "There is a lot of pressure in Asia to have fair or light skin which represents youth, wealth, fertility and success. Asian women may even potentially go through dangerous surgery such as facial bone slimming and bone lengthening to increase height."
Dr Henry Chuen Choy Lim, who works as a GP at West Middlesex University Hospital, adds: "It's not just an obsession about thinning, it's also the obsession about having the perfect physique." As Jennifer Chen points out in her essay for The Bold Italic, these suffocating social norms are so widely accepted that many white Europeans or Americans even believe that there is no such thing as a "fat Asian."
In search for a quick-fix solution, I too have jumped on many a weight loss bandwagons including extreme juice cleansing, diet pills, herbal laxative teas, and even starving myself to the point of passing out.
I developed a stomach ulcer, I often went to bed crippled with stomach cramps and pain, my hair was thinning and I was feeling so low that at times felt suicidal.
For Dr Loong, the comments got so serious that it lead to radically changing her body. "I grew up wanting to fit in with the skinny girls which I was not. I was chubby at first and then went on crash diets in my early teens. I developed a stomach ulcer, I often went to bed crippled with stomach cramps and pain, my hair was thinning and I was feeling so low that at times felt suicidal."
The huge pressure to be skinny doesn't just come from family catcalling. Shirley Lau, a British-born Chinese 22 year old tells me that coercion comes from all sides, including friends, boyfriends, and Asian media. "People will always have an expectation no matter what that girl thinks. I don't think I've ever come across an advert in Asia that promotes the message to love yourself."
According to Dr Lim, this is down to a cultural problem. "What we perceive as the social norm in Asia is very media driven and advertising from companies tend to present their products with slim models and as a result, most people will perceive this as something of a target or goal for them to achieve."
"When I was young, I was constantly told that if I didn't stop eating, I would never marry and would grow up to be fat and alone." Photo by Goldmund Lukic via Flickr
Even Asian women born and raised in Western countries like me aren't exempt from the influence of these attitudes. When I was young, I was constantly told that if I didn't stop eating, I would never marry and would grow up to be fat and alone. My idea of beauty standards are still skewed by these subliminal threats.
Dr Loong tells me that when she was growing up her father would openly criticize others in front of her. "I grew up thinking fat people were lazy, unhealthy, unloved and unsuccessful. It definitely put a fear in me as child growing up that fat is bad and I must never become fat!"
In my experience, Asian families tend to be more upfront with one another than the families of my white peers—they disregard feelings and focus more on strict discipline. Being too fat or too thin represents an unhealthy, undisciplined lifestyle, and whoever doesn't conform to their standards will be shamed until they reform. It's a vicious cycle of tough love where there's no winning.
"Now that I've lost weight," Selina Tan says, "my family always emphasize on this fact and they usually end it by saying now I'm beautiful. I guess being a 'normal weight' means they have one less thing to comment about, but Asian aunties will always have something to comment on regardless!"
America and Europe still has a long way to go when it comes to oppressive beauty norms, but at least a conversation is beginning around taboo subjects such as weight, periods, and body hair. By comparison, the body issues and beauty standards of Asian cultures are seriously lagging behind. Recently, we seem to be taking the right steps towards more achievable beauty standards—even if they are baby steps, like Korea's first plus-size model Kim Gee-yang launching 66100, a fashion magazine for plus size Asian consumers that aims to promotes healthy body image.
As Dr Loong puts it, "It's important to have open conversations and communication with our young girls and boys about their self-worth, self-confidence and body concerns."It couldn't be more true—talking and tackling the subject head-on is the key to stop people falling under the spell of the status quo.
So, until Asian beauty standards start catching up with the times, I'll put my fay mui middle finger up and ask for another bowl of rice. Kung hei fat choy, everyone.
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