Editor’s note: Here’s the third and last of a WORLD series on the trouble many Americans have with something that should be simple: eating. Reporter Sophia Lee last year wrote about eating disorders (“Food and loathing, Nov. 17, 2012). Last month she wrote about special diet programs (“What goes into the mouth,” Nov. 30). In this issue she examines how disorders affect members of her own demographic group, Asian-Americans.
During the most successful years of her career, actress Lynn Chen was destroying herself.
After months of self-starvation to play a petite ballerina in a 2004 film, Chen was bingeing behind closed doors. For hours, she would stuff cookies and chips into her mouth, heart pounding with agitation and self-disgust: sweet, salty, sweet, salty, and always ending with sweet chocolate for “dessert.”
Her binge, as uncontrollable and hedonistic as it seemed, was meticulously planned. As soon as her husband was out the door, the all-day binge would begin, her stomach painfully distended but her hands still continuously feeding it. With the last icing licked and the last crumb swept off the floor, Chen would replace all the missing food items in the pantry so her husband would not suspect a thing.
The next day she would fast. She both loathed and lusted for this vicious binge/restrict cycle: “The only way I knew how to maintain my weight was to binge one day a week, be anorexic for two consecutive days, and then diet for the rest of the week.” She finally realized the problem stemmed from something more powerful and deep-rooted than fear of fans calling her chubby: It had to do with her identity as an Asian-American woman.
Chen isn’t the only one struggling with this issue. Research has found that Asian-American women are an ethnic group that has one of the highest suicide and lowest self-esteem rates in the nation. For many of these women, that translates into disordered body image and in more serious cases, eating disorders. Traditionally, eating disorders have been seen as a middle- and upper-class white women disease, which means people like Chen have felt alone and silenced.
With her jet-black straight hair and dark almond-shaped eyes, Chen has distinct Chinese features that set her apart from other Hollywood actors. Chen knew that being an Asian-American meant she had to work harder to land good roles. It also meant she had to fit “this underlying stereotype that we Asians are naturally small people. You can eat whatever you want and still be tiny, [but] there’s also this cultural demand from Asian families to ‘eat, eat, eat!’”
Later, Chen heard an interview on NPR’s Tell Me More in which Lisa Lee, now a Facebook diversity program manager, talked about an article she wrote concerning her struggles as a size 10 Asian-American and the lack of Asian-American role models regarding body image.
Since Lee at 5'5" then weighed 60 kilograms (132 pounds), advertisements in Taiwan hit her hard when they showed before-and-after pictures of a woman with the headline, “Before: 60kg! Now: 40kg!” She also hated it when her relatives or her mother’s friends pinched her arms and said she’s “eating too well,” and when a weight-loss product salesman at a crowded market pointed directly at her and yelled, “You! You need this!”
A Facebook search later, Chen sent Lee an excited, nervous email: “Hey, please don’t think I’m crazy, but I want to do something with you. I don’t even know what it is or what I’m thinking, but I feel like I’ve been wanting to talk about this forever.” Lee flew to Los Angeles from San Francisco to meet Chen. And over scones and tea, they decided to start a blog, Thick Dumpling Skin, that opened up a public forum for all Asian-Americans struggling with eating disorders and body image issues.
Thick Dumpling Skin published its first post in February 2011. Since then, many more Asian-Americans, both men and women, have submitted their stories to the blog. One of the submitters, Melissa Schlothan, a 28-year-old Japanese-American, wrote about developing anorexia when she entered college, but said triggers to her eating disorder can be traced back to when she was 9 and her Asian aunts told her, “You’re lucky you’re Asian because you don’t have any boobs or butt.”
“That’s how my eating disorder started,” Schlothan said. “Somebody said something.” When Schlothan started filling out as a young woman, she recalled taping down her chest and being ashamed of her curves as she tried “to live up to that Asian stereotype.”
Esther Suh, a 21-year-old Korean-American student at Smith College, is 5'7", wears a size 8, and used to eat a small carton of yogurt and then burn the calories off by running 10 miles. She lost 30 pounds, only to gain double the weight back once she realized she would never reach the ideal 100 pounds. She says the Asian-American community tends to ignore weight questions: “No one talks about it.”
According to the National Eating Disorder Association’s latest statistics, 20 million women and 10 million men in America struggle with some form of clinically significant eating disorder, which includes anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). But we still have no statistics on how many of these individuals with eating disorders or serious body image issues are Asian-Americans. Susie Roman, program director of NEDA said part of the reason is because the information available is drawn from treatment centers. Asian-Americans are less likely to seek help for mental issues.
For example, Stefani Tran, 37, a Korean adoptee who has never been clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder, says she obsesses about her body image daily. When she moved to Korea to teach English for two years, the constant comments (“You’re fatter than yesterday!”) her students and co-workers made on her weight “really messed with my head. This was 10 years ago, but it’s still with me today.”
Chad Yoo, a clinical psychology Ph.D. candidate in California School of Professional Psychology, did a yearlong study in 2009 on Korean-American women and disordered eating. Yoo’s research focused on young Korean-American women ages 18-25, many whom he found at local churches. His studies found that Korean-Americans who struggle to fit into both sides of their cultures have significantly increased risk of developing disordered eating. When juggling this issue with other external factors like racial and weight teasing, the risk for disordered eating further increased.
If Yoo’s research result is true, that puts every Asian-American woman at a higher risk for disordered eating, because all of them experience certain levels of stress from acculturation, whether they want it or not. “Consciously or unconsciously, they all have to figure out their racial identity,” Yoo said.
Yoo said his research could also be applied to other Asian-Americans with similar backgrounds, such as Chinese- and Japanese-Americans who share Confucian influences: “Parents worry about their children becoming fat, so parents will always say that to their children, that is natural to them.” Yoo said the problem has gotten worse because Asian-Americans think struggling with a mental illness is shameful to their family and society.
Grace Cheng, a 21-year-old Taiwanese-American who once struggled with bingeing and cutting, said Asian-Americans need to “ask questions: Who are you to tell me how I should look like? We need to create our own culture. We need to scream and shout or nobody’s going to listen to us.”
Thick Dumpling Skin isn’t meant to “cure” Asian-American women of their food issues, but Chen and Lee hope to open up a dialogue. Chen has had a bittersweet feeling reading submitted posts because some of the writers are so young: One post featured a 15-year-old hospitalized for anorexia in eighth grade.
Chen, though, found that talking about her disorder was her first step toward treatment. Initially, she worried that revealing her problem “would be career suicide. I was afraid people won’t take the risk of hiring me. I was afraid of the shame. And I didn’t trust myself to be able to come clean about it and not relapse.” But ever since she opened up, Chen said her recovery has been steady: Although she still binges occasionally, she no longer follows it up with days of self-condemnation, and “was surprised by how everyone I knew started coming clean to me that they have food issues, too.”
WORLD’s November 2012 story on eating disorders began with a profile of Jessica Perez, whom I met through Skype, phone calls, emails, and Facebook. I remember the day I first got an email from her: She had read about my own battle with eating disorders and wrote, “It is obvious that your religious background has been a font of strength and wisdom to you. Personally, I consider myself an eternal seeker—I want to know God, I want to feel as though God hears me, will help me … loves me.”
Jessi concluded, “I feel like I can’t do this by myself. … Only something stronger than me can help me, and the only thing I can think of is God.” I told her then, that she was blessed through her suffering, because she realized a truth that not many people accept.
Jessi Perez died in her sleep on Jan. 18, 2013. She was 25 and weighed less than 60 pounds. After almost 15 years of struggling with an eating disorder, her body finally gave up. When I heard the news, my first thought was: “Oh no. No, no, no.” The second thought was: “I hope she’s with God right now.” And the third: “That could have been me.” I remembered the nights when I would stir awake to my parents gently cupping my shrunken face, checking that I was still breathing.
One morning, after I talked with her about the gospel via Skype, she clasped her tiny hands to her cheeks and gasped, “I understand. I get it!” That was grace. —S.L.