Feeding on Stereotypes
Audrey Magazine, News Feature, Devon Haynie Posted: Jun 09, 2007
Editor’s Note: Some say Asian Americans are immune to eating disorders, dismissing slim physiques as a mere result of genetics. But more and more young Asian American women are proving them wrong.
In Asian American beauty salons and spas across the country, a cultural transformation is under way. Young women huddle around counters, their high-pitched voices humming with possibility as they scan menus advertising facials, massages and rainbows of nail polish. But few are looking for a perfect pedicure.
These mostly waifish young women are searching for a way to detoxify, re-mineralize and stimulate their way to an even thinner, cellulite-free body. They’re willing to slough on creams, wrap themselves in hard clay and endure rough, sometimes painful, massages — almost anything to melt the pounds away. Although official numbers don’t exist, ask any college counselor and she’ll be quick to tell you: It’s not just white girls throwing up in dorm bathrooms anymore. Due to a variety of factors — ranging from the quest to look “more Western” to the quest to keep up with their counterparts back in Asia — minority and immigrant adolescents are increasingly shedding pounds in an effort to emulate the tall, thin women exalted in fashion and pop culture.
Asian American women, an ethnic group that traditionally has one of the highest suicide and lowest self-esteem rates in the country, may be more prone to eating disorders than previously imagined, according to Christine Iijima Hall, a Japanese American psychologist and former president of the Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA). Hall and other Asian American mental health professionals believe that many Asian American women, long stereotyped as the nation’s “model minority,” feel pressured to achieve academic and professional excellence. These expectations, combined with acculturation pressures, an aversion to seeking mental health services, and the desire to be thin, may be more than many women can endure.
The White Standard
Medical professionals disagree about the causes of eating disorders in Asian Americans, but recent research points to distinct trends. In the latter part of the 20th century and in the last decade in particular, the globalization of Western notions of beauty has changed the way developed Asian countries view thinness. While many Asian women were once admired for their fuller figures and faces, Hall says today many feel pressure to look like blonde, blue-eyed celebrities. Unable to change their Asian features without footing high bills for plastic surgery, some focus on the easiest thing they can control: their weight.
“It’s definitely a problem that’s overlooked,” says Lynda Yoshikawa, a Japanese American counselor at San Jose State University and a member of the AAPA. “The propensity for high body dissatisfaction is definitely there.”
“The white American woman is considered the ideal body type,” Hall explains. “And ethnic women are further away from that ideal. Weight is an issue, but it’s not the only issue. For Asian women, it’s eyes, nose, legs and butt.”
For many young Asian Americans, discomfort with their Asian features can take a dangerous toll. Aretha Choi, a Korean American freshman at Barnard College in New York City, began watching her weight in middle school. Aretha went to an all-white school in Denver, Colo., where her broad, pale cheeks and straight black hair stood out among her classmates. “In seventh grade I realized I was different,” says the slender 18-year-old during a study break at a college cafe. “I didn’t look like Britney Spears, I didn’t have blonde hair. Physically, I couldn’t embody that, so the next best thing was to be skinny.” In Denver, Aretha’s sense of identity was in perpetual conflict. Her parents, both first-generation Korean immigrants, expected her to abide by Korean customs at home. But at school she was exposed to different kinds of culturally appropriate behavior. Times were confusing, says Aretha, but for the most part she was able to balance both cultural demands.
But in the ninth grade Aretha left home for Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and things began to fall apart. Aretha found her move particularly jarring. She couldn’t eat Korean food; she couldn’t speak Korean at home. For the first time, she was consumed by American culture. “Korean culture was so present that it strained my interactions with the outside world,” explains Aretha. At the same time, she became increasingly insecure about her appearance. But unlike her peers, it wasn’t her thighs or her waistline that was bothering her — it was her Asian facial features. “I thought if I shrunk everything, my face would look smaller — more proportional, more Western,” she says.
Aretha began to diet as soon as she arrived at Phillips. By her junior year, she was anorexic. At 5-foot-7, she withered to 90 pounds. Doctors pleaded with her to be hospitalized, but she refused. “I lost my period,” she says. “My body was wasting away.”
Now recovered from anorexia, Aretha is quick to note that her parents never pressured her about weight. Many Korean American women, she says, are not so lucky. “A long time ago Koreans believed that a rounder face had a lot of blessings,” she says. “But at some point the emphasis on being thin became very, very deeply ingrained in Korean culture.”
Korea, a country that idolized full-figured women up until the 1970s, is one of many industrialized Asian countries that saw its beauty standards change after opening its media to foreign-influenced programming. Recently, the number of Korean women seeking Western-looking eyes through plastic surgery has exploded, and many are now turning to calf surgery to make their legs appear more Western. A cultural transformation has also occurred in Fiji, where women’s self-esteem plummeted after years of exposure to Western television, according to a Harvard University study in the late 1990s. The trend has spread to Hong Kong, where weight loss pills saturate the market, and to Japan, a country where Hall says most women desire large breasts, small waists and Western facial features. From Seoul to Hong Kong, Singapore to Tokyo, physicians report that eating disorders are on the rise.
The Asian Standard
Asia’s changing beauty norms can have a negative impact on Asian American women, notes Hue-Sun Ahn, a Korean American psychologist at the College of New Jersey. As cultural exchange between Asia and America increases, Ahn explains, many are likely to internalize certain Asian cultural preferences for smaller body size. “Asian Americans who are larger are often ostracized,” says Ahn.
“It’s not only the white beauty ideal that they can’t meet; they can’t meet the Asian beauty ideal either.” Jin Lee, a 26-year-old Korean American who came to the United States at 15, says that she often feels burdened by both America’s and Korea’s body image standards. Jin works as a research assistant for an environmental think-tank in Washington, D.C., and goes home only for two or three weeks every year. In America she thinks about her weight occasionally, but in Korea, she says, she can’t escape it.
Jin has a round, porcelain face, shoulder-length black hair and dark eyes that light up when she smiles. At 5-foot-3, she also has what Americans call an athletic build: muscular calves, sculpted thighs and a sleek, compact torso. In the U.S. she wears a size 4 or 6. In Korea, she can’t find clothes that fit. “Here [in the U.S.], people would say I’m thin, maybe even skinny,” says Jin. “If I go to Korea, I’m big. It weighs down on me — I know I’m bigger than average, and that hurts.” As a child in Korea, Jin remembers adults making comments about her weight. “When I was little, my mom and grandmother always said my back was so broad you could do laundry on it,” she says. “I also used to have a biology teacher who would pinch my cheeks and say, ‘Look, Jin’s got two boiled eggs on her face.’”
The comments intensified each time Jin visited Korea throughout the years, fueling a self-esteem crisis that eventually led to an eating disorder. After a devastating breakup a year and a half ago, Jin struggled with bulimia for three months, losing 20 pounds and dropping two dress sizes. “It was something that I could control,” says Jin, who now recognizes her behavior was unhealthy. “I thought it would make me feel better about myself physically.”
The Model Minority Standard
Although pressure from family members and peers may contribute to eating disorders, Hall, Ahn and Yoshikawa all agree that there are also other cultural forces at play.
Marilla Li, a Chinese American who spent much of her life shuttling back and forth between Cincinnati and Beijing, says she thinks the Asian American emphasis on hard work at all costs might be contributing to low Asian American self-esteem.?Marilla, an 18-year-old Barnard freshman with wispy black hair, full red lips and a penchant for dangling earrings and glittery designer bags, grew up with incredibly hardworking parents.
Marilla’s mom, a gynecologist, and her father, a businessman, both “generally left her alone,” she says. Although neither put outright pressure on her to do well in school, she says she put the pressure on herself.
When Marilla moved from Ohio to Queens in the ninth grade, she says she started to feel insecure about fitting in. As she began to work harder in school, she started to eat less. It was a habit, she says, that many Asian American students developed in high stress environments. Having time to eat, she began to think, meant she wasn’t working hard enough. Marilla says part of her dieting was due to the desire to be as thin as her Asian friends. “But it also had to do with work ethic,” she says. “You forget to see the distinction between not eating and not having the time to eat.”
During her sophomore year of high school, Marilla began a six-month battle with bulimia. Looking back, she says the lack of emotional openness with her parents may have also contributed to her disease. “There aren’t many displays of affection in a lot of Chinese families,” she says. “Having an eating disorder gives you more ground to work with — the chance to have a release that you don’t get from your parents.”
Experts say Marilla’s experience isn’t atypical. “Most Asian Americans feel they have to fill the model minority stereotype,” says Ahn, who points out that many Asian Americans put a premium on academic success. She also notes that some Asian Americans lack the tools to handle intense emotion, because “culturally, there is less emphasis on emotional expression.”
Although Marilla, Aretha and Jin insist that eating disorders are widespread among their Asian American peers, there’s little data to back their assertion. None of the girls are surprised by this, however, and each offers the same reason why the phenomenon goes unnoticed. “It’s just hush, hush — one of those Asian things,” says Aretha. And experts agree that shame plays a role in discouraging Asian American women from discussing their eating disorders. “Asian Americans in general avoid mental health services,” says Yoshikawa. “Going to an outsider can seem like you’re disrespecting the family.”
There may be another reason why the phenomenon goes undetected. A 2002 Florida State University study found that undergraduate survey participants were more likely to diagnose Caucasian women with eating disorders than minorities, even when the minority women exhibited the same symptoms. If the same is true for physicians, the data could have troubling implications for Asian American women, a segment of the population that is often believed to be naturally thin. “There’s an assumption that Asian Americans are happy with their bodies,” says Ahn. “Most people think they’re all petite, so even if someone is underweight because they are restricting food and engaging in other unhealthy behaviors, they might think, ‘oh, that’s just genetic.’”
Although researchers are divided on whether the experiences of Marilla, Aretha and Jin should be seen as individual cases or parts of an overall trend, most agree more studies need to be done. “There’s a lack of research; the field is still developing,” Yoshikawa explains. “And it’s not a field that Asian Americans go into. Culturally, going into psychology is not promoted.”
Aretha, who bounced from doctor to doctor in her search for culturally appropriate treatment, is hoping researchers and donors will get the ball moving sooner rather than later. “It was very difficult for doctors to know where I was coming from,” she says. “The food the nutritionist gave me was Western food. They didn’t get it. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I want to be skinny,’ it was, ‘Oh, I want to be white.’”
Where to get help
Here are a couple of resources
where you can get more information and help.
The Renfrew Center Foundation
Health related issues
Issues involve Asian Americans
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