Two weeks ago, I sat in my grandmother’s kitchen as she placed piles of galbi (Korean beef ribs), ddukbokki (spicy rice cakes), three different kinds of kimchi, a various assortment of side dishes and a heaping bowl of white rice. As I put back some of the rice, she commented on how it seemed that I’ve gained some weight. Of course, she says it in her most grandmotherly and loving way, but I still winced at the comment and suck in my gut a little more while I tugged at my shirt.
Half way through the meal, my grandmother asks me if I want more food because it seems like I’m not eating enough. I shake my head no while feeling the same confusion of mixed messages about my body since childhood. Should I even be eating a second helping if I’ve gained so much weight? I know that my grandmother likes to feed me – it’s an expression of her love, so how I can say no?
I can’t remember a time where I was happy with my body. It wasn’t so much because some adult in our family was dieting (I don’t remember anyone actually dieting) or because someone was directly commenting about my body, but there was this unspoken thread of discontent that permeated my life since I was young. I used to be so scrawny that my uncle nicknamed me “chicken legs.” I still remember having to drink herbal medicines to cure the weakness of my body – I was too thin and was prone to illness frequently.
As I grew up, though, the balance of eating and staying the right type of thin was difficult. My indulgent and loving grandfather filled his pantry full of cookies, chips, soda and whatever else a kid could want to snack on. It was a child’s snack food paradise. By the time I was a teenager, my lunch consisted of Clearly Canadian sparkling water and chips. It’s safe to say that I didn’t grow up with the healthiest eating habits. But each soda can, cheeseburger or homemade donut was offered up in love wrapped heavily in equal parts guilt, a past life of not having enough and because of a lack of language. Despite learning Korean, there was still an invisible barrier of culture, language and generation between my parents as well as my grandparents. The one mainstay of overcoming that barrier was always food.
And so I was fed. But as I was fed, I was also chided for chubby cheeks, chicken legs, a round face, a lack of the second crease in my eyelid, hair without enough volume, wide calves and big feet. When I looked around, I questioned my looks and my body a lot. I hated how I looked and felt ashamed and ugly. I wanted to have blue eyes and blonde hair. I wanted to be waif-thin. My only redeeming quality was my relatively blemish-free skin that was just the right amount of pale.
I saw the popular girls, the magazines and who was voted homecoming queen. I knew it would never be me.
I wish that I could tell you that I’ve overcome all those feelings, but I still struggle with them. I hate looking in the mirror or seeing pictures of myself because I see an ugly and fat version of me and I never see the beauty. And every magazine, movie or TV show I see reminds me that the standard of beauty hasn’t changed that much since I was a teenager and I am still far from it. My love-hate relationship with food is still ever-present. I try hard to make sure that I am not equating food with love to my daughter or to my nieces and nephews. I do my best to try not to eat emotionally and to embrace my body for what it is – to recognize that this body birthed a beautiful and healthy child, is loved deeply by a partner who does his best to reassure me when I am feeling so insecure and is capable of so much more than I give it credit for.
I’ve come to realize and accept that my Asianness impacts my body image and how I see myself in the mirror. I’ve also learned that having a healthy relationship with food is possible and can be separated from the cultural web that I’ve been caught in. When I eat, I am more mindful and I will ask myself, “Why am I eating this? Am I eating this out of hunger? Am I eating this because I don’t feel good about myself? Am I eating this because I feel guilty and I want my grandmother to know that I love her and that I know she loves me? Am I eating this because I want to numb the pain I feel when I look in the mirror?” As I ask these questions, I continue to do the work of loving my body and myself. I also continue to do the work of embracing my Asian identity and allowing it to be a part of the healthy picture of myself – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
This is such a familiar journey for me. Growing up with immigrant parents there were always mixed signals like you mentioned. And as best I tried to let them roll off my back, they imbedded themselves in my personal narrative. You are so beautiful and I hope you reach a point where you see and cherish the beauty we all see 🙂