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CULTURAL DEMAND: Lynn Chen.
Jonathan Leibson/WireImage/Getty Images
CULTURAL DEMAND: Lynn Chen.

Asian-American struggle

Food | The stereotype of a naturally thin people is contributing to a quiet crisis of eating disorders

Issue: "Tidings of discomfort and joy," Dec. 28, 2013

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.” 

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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.”

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