When Lisa Lee was 18, her parents enrolled her in a weight-loss spa in Taipei, Taiwan. Her parents thought she was “big-boned” and hoped the spa, which instituted rules like “no solids after 6:00 P.M.,” would help her look more like the thin women on Chinese variety shows. Over the course of that summer, primarily through severe food restriction, Lee lost 20 pounds. Months after leaving the spa, running out of diet pills, and bingeing in response to her punishing diet, Lee had gained the weight back, and then some. Wracked with insecurity, she started shrouding herself in layers of clothing and suffering from insomnia.
It wasn’t until years later when Lee wrote a story in Hyphen Magazine about her time at the spa that she realized how profoundly it had affected her. Her trip to the spa, her shame at not being able to maintain the weight loss, and her resulting eating disorder were all rooted in “the stereotype that Asian men and women are more naturally petite and small,” Lee, now 33, tells SELF. What makes it even harder? In many cultures, food is a way to show love. “Within [Asian] communities, we’re constantly getting a mixed message of, ‘You’re too fat’ and, ‘You’re too skinny, I need to feed you more,'” Lee says.
There’s also the fact that Asians and Asian-Americans are often underrepresented in media, and when they do appear are usually thin, petite, and light-skinned East Asians or East Asian-Americans. For many people of Asian descent, the end result of this combination is not only body-image issues, but the isolating feeling that they are alone in their experience.
In 2011, Lee, now the director of Diversity and Inclusion Strategies at the music streaming service Pandora, co-founded Thick Dumpling Skin with actress Lynn Chen. Their mission: to shine a light on Asian-American people’s experiences with body image. “This site is a place for hungry Asian voices to be heard,” says Thick Dumpling Skin’s about page, which goes on to refer to terms for varying Asian ethnic groups: “Are you a Con Gái, Kakak, Mak, Aiyi, Otosan, Putra, Kuya, Halapoji, Hoahanau, etc. who feels like you’re alone when it comes to obsession with both food and body image? Trust us, you’re not.”
Along with posts covering Asian-Americans who have talked about body image in other corners of the internet, the blog features original pieces from contributors. Many of these describe the difficulty of straddling cultural lines when it comes to food, family relationships, and body issues. In one post, writer Elizabeth Tiglao-Guss writes of Filipino culture:
“Every gathering, every celebration, every holiday is defined by a
bounty of food, representing blessings, abundance, and love among
family and friends. Yet, [as I grew up], every struggle and every
difficulty seemed to be defined by the comfort of food as well. ‘Eat
this,’ [said] some. ‘You looked like you gained weight,’ said
others…. ‘You’re beautiful when you’re light-skinned,’ said Filipino
family and friends. ‘You look gorgeous with your tan, olive skin,’
In another post, actress Sheetal Sheth writes about how growing up, her Indian family always told her she was too skinny, but once she moved to Hollywood, there was pressure around her to become even thinner. “Suddenly, I wasn’t too skinny anymore—I wasn’t skinny enough,” Sheth says. “I discovered a very special slice of the absurd…. I will probably always be too skinny for my family. And will probably never be skinny enough for Hollywood.”
Like Lee, Chen has wrestled with her body image and disordered eating. She started binge-eating in childhood in response to feeling like she needed to fit the conventional image of being a thin and petite Asian, she says. Becoming an actress only exacerbated her eating disorder, from which she has now recovered.
She’s now committed to sharing her story—and getting more people talking about eating disorders in the Asian-American community. Her parents, who were immigrants, “didn’t believe therapy was a way to heal,” Chen tells SELF. (She would rather not reveal her age due to potential age discrimination in Hollywood.) “They didn’t think that was a valid way to get better.”
There can be a pervasive stigma around seeking help for mental health issues like eating disorders in the Asian-American community, May Wang, Ph.D., community health sciences professor at University of California, Los Angeles, tells SELF. Studies suggest that while Asian-Americans report fewer mental health concerns than the general population, they’re disproportionately less likely to get help when they need it. “Low utilization rates of mental health services by Asian-Americans are well documented,” says a December 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health that cites stigma around mental health problems, “cultural barriers such as fear of loss of face” (that is, a fear of humiliation), and race and language discrimination as some core reasons behind this phenomenon. Asian-Americans are about one-third as likely to use mental health services than non-Hispanic white people, according to the U.S. Department on Health and Human Service’s Office of Minority Health.
“Around eating disorders particularly, sometimes people think it’s something that the person can get over on their own, but there are usually psychological underpinnings,” Wang says. “Professional treatment is really important.” But media portrayals of who gets treatment for eating disorders rarely show people other than young white women, underscoring the message that it just isn’t done.
This is precisely why Thick Dumpling Skin matters. “I’m trying to share my story the best I can,” says Chen, who partially credits eating disorder specialists for helping her reach her version of recovery. “I’ve heard from many others over the years. Many people…[have] benefited from knowing they’re not alone.”
Earlier this year, Chen stepped away from the blog to focus on other projects and responsibilities. She’s currently an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association and has worked with the National Organization for Women on their “Love Your Body Campaign.” She also hosts a podcast called “The Actor’s Diet,” which discusses food, lifestyle, and body image.
Now in full control of Thick Dumpling Skin’s future, Lee has decided it’s time for a rebrand to focus on Asian-American wellness overall, not just body image: “We’re thinking, ‘What are some of the things that [promote] wellness in general?'” She envisions Thick Dumpling Skin as a place where Asian-Americans can continue to discuss their relationships with their bodies, but also topics like how activism can boost self-confidence. No matter how the blog evolves, Lee is committed to maintaining an online space that can give a voice to Asians and Asian-Americans who want to discuss their experiences.
“I struggle with the same things, the desire to want to be enough and the insecurities that I’m not enough,” she says. “Whenever I feel those things, I can go on the site and read other people’s stories. Whether or not it’s positive, I can have a place to put it and leave the thoughts there.”
If you or someone you know is at risk or experiencing an eating disorder, resources are available through NEDA or contact their phone helpline at 800-931-2237 or their text crisis line by texting “NEDA” to 741741. You can also visit the Eating Recovery Center online to speak to a clinician.
Rosalie Chan is a software engineer and freelance journalist living in the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in TIME, Teen Vogue, Racked, Inverse, VICE, and more. In her free time she enjoys reading, running and cooking Asian food.
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