All Amy wanted was a thigh gap, to fit into a size 2 dress before prom. My eyes twitch with disdain, and I shut my laptop. I couldn’t even finish the article on anorexia, as if the elementary prose didn’t already kill it. Once again, fine journalism showcasing anorexia as a female-teenage disease for white girls with Bieber obsessions and overly-tanned helicopter moms.
Image courtesy of Pink DNA.
Eating disorders, especially anorexia, are heavily female-biased and described as a lack of self-esteem and positive self-image. Anorexia in particular conjures up an image of a skeletal white girl—clad in her undergarments—glaring unhappily at her obese reflection. But eating disorders don’t always stem from issues with body image—people develop anorexia for many reasons besides physical dissatisfaction.
In fact, I was happier at a much higher weight. I never saw rippling mounds of lard in the mirror—I saw exactly what was there: bones, skin, and a lot of unhappiness. I hated being anorexic. I bruised upon contact with anything remotely hard, my thick oily hair crisped into wispy strands, and I could barely regulate my own bladder. Depression blanketed my days and weeks with unrelenting cruelty, and I wept constantly. I lost all sexual impulse. For me, eating disorders was not about body image nor perfection—it was about control.
Control—that sweet, exquisite ability to mold my body into whatever I desired, and consequently, the reactions I elicited. The hunger-laced discipline of food restraint was my cocaine, my heroine. I cared less about the detrimental physical or mental side effects because for the first time, my parents didn’t comment on my thunder thighs or suggest I adopt some kind of diet. For the first time, I could buy from “XS” sized clothes and fit into petite little dresses that only professional models wore. For the first time, I shocked my friends in a way that didn’t involve crude humor or youthful inhibition. I basked in the worried whispers, the awkward and halfhearted compliments, the staring as small t-shirts billowed over my concave abdomen and flat chest. Despite my physical figure, I exuded confidence, ate “normally” in front of others, and had a full arsenal of excuses. I’m just Asian, we’re all skinny. I’m just training for a marathon, that’s why.
This manipulation of my environment was so addictive that my days revolved around restriction. I became a cocoon of my past self, numb yet filled with a masochistic happiness so bitterly decadent, I could sink into its cold caress. In my darkest moments, I scribbled calories onto my wrists so I wouldn’t forget them later. My internet history was filled with calorie count websites and nutrition articles, and I habitually lied to my therapist. As I plunged further into my dark hole, I would often gaze up, squint desperately at the pinpoint of light, and wonder how I fell.
I fell because I needed more control.
Control. The holy grail of personality traits. Children better at delayed gratification perform better in school and exhibit fewer behavioral problems. As adults, they’re more likely to graduate college and earn higher incomes. Asian Americans, particularly those of immigrants, are notoriously skilled at delayed gratification, striving in the presence of pain, doubt, and unhappiness. Why stop at one hour of piano practice? Why become a photographer when you can attend medical/nursing/law/business/graduate school? Why does Sue Lee have ten medals and you have none? We learn early on the importance of filial piety, of sucking it up, of interpreting “insults” as motivation. Though many Asians refute the model minority stereotype, it was a strong reality for me. I was taught by my family and culture that I controlled my success through hard work, not some nebulous and capricious god. I controlled my emotions because those who cannot are weak.
So when one random attempt at weight loss actually succeeded, I took the reigns and sprinted off. I never once thought about looking back, forgetting the people and memories I shattered in my wake. I forgot every sense of propriety, every morsel of reason—for what? For that bit of control that lost me a few pounds? But I didn’t become anorexic because I’m Asian, though being one certainly exacerbated it. The stigma of mental disorders in the Asian community impedes discussion and recovery. Though honestly, I’ve always been (for lack of a better term) a control freak; I never procrastinated at school, scheduled “hang-outs” with my friends, made checklists for fun, and did my own laundry every week since I was 10 years old. But there’s a fine line between being a control freak and being a hyperventilating anal retentive—I was more carefree and outspoken than anyone I’ve ever known.
Recovery. Am I better? No. Because recovery is an incorrect term. No one recovers from an eating disorder like they recover from the flu. It is an eternal struggle, a war consisting of battles that ebb in intensity and frequency over the course of your life. Some days, life feels fruitless, and other days, I experience waves of optimism. But would I exchange pounds for happiness? No, I would not. But I suppose that’s the curse of an eating disorder.
For interesting articles, check out:
A framework to analyse gender bias in epidemiological research
Anonymous | Evanston, IL | U.S.A
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