Thick Dumpling Skin

[It's what's on the inside that counts]

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My Chinese-Japanese Heritage and Body Image Struggles

Long story short, I was born and raised in Japan from Chinese parents, and spent several years of my childhood in Oklahoma and Finland. And while it all fits in a single sentence, this background of mine has brought about many challenges, some even risked my mental and physical health. I have practically spent most of my 19 years of life trying to figure out what was so “wrong” with me. My all-time goal was to be “the same” as everybody else, and belong somewhere, wherever that is. We don’t have a Chinese-Japanese community here.

I’ve always felt myself being insufficient, that I was not Japanese enough but not enough to be Chinese either. Though I was born and brought up in Japan, I hold a Chinese passport because that’s my mother’s home country. This is how it works in the Japanese system; your mother’s nationality automatically becomes yours, and China doesn’t allow for double citizenship. So on paper, I am just “Chinese” even though I speak elementary school-level Chinese and have never really lived there except for few visits to my grandparents’ house.

Everyday I look at my alien card (foreign resident card) in Japan and wonder who this person is. Since this convinces me everyday that I am not one of them, i have tried every other attempt to force myself to believe that I am a perfect Chinese. But every attempt has failed in various ways.

In middle school, I begged my parents to allow me to go to school in China, which they were very happy about. But this ended up exacerbating my identity crisis, because I literally was shut away from China. My Chinese was not sufficient to go to a local school, and I was denied enrollment to an international school in China because enrollment there requires a non-Chinese foreign passport, and the only passport I have is a Chinese one.
So I went on to a Japanese middle school, where together with my relatively shy personality, I was alone most of the time. I spent most of my time binging on sweets, crying myself to sleep, or trying to find out what was wrong with me. I would finish the lunch my mom made way before lunch time, together with a whole lot of other food, and go to first period bloated everyday. Almost all of my allowances went to snacks, which replaced proper meals. I even habitually stole my younger sister’s snacks, which I secretly replaced with new ones I buy after eating them. Whereas I spent most of my time eating, I was at the same time malnutritioned because I only ate sweets every day. They were the only things that kept me mentally alive.

In high school, I went on to a school with many native Chinese students doing study abroad in Japan. I had thought that this is going to end all my challenges. I was certain that i would find a place I belonged, because since I was “Chinese,” they should find me as one of them. What I didn’t know was that this experience would further worsen my situation. I didn’t blend with “real” Chinese. They openly showed me how different I was from them, convincing me that I have nowhere to belong. I felt then like I had lost my imaginary and spiritual hometown.

This was also when my physical health started to be even more at risk. It was when I developed anorexia nervosa losing half of my weight and most of my energy. On the two hour train ride to school everyday, I would very often faint, and find myself in the emergency room in the station. I couldn’t concentrate. I was always cold. I was wearing sweaters in July, and in the hot August, the heat deprived the very little energy I had left.

The somewhat stereotypical image of Chinese women in Japan is long legged, tall, slender women, none of which I fit with my height. Neither do I actually identify with the petit image of Japanese women; I am short but always saw myself to be overweight. Adding to this is my Chinese relatives’ remarks about my body. They would openly call me fat and overweight, and still force me to eat when I was not eating “enough”.

It was a gradual process, but when I realized, I was scared of the food that I had loved so much. But thinking back, I may have needed a better fashion sense, or a better hair dresser, but not a diet. Thinness is very valued in Japan, which was very stressful to me.

To be honest, I still suffer from my identity crisis, and while I now have enough food to keep me active, the anorexic mindset still haunts me at times, and I would resort to binging to deal with whatever stress. But I try at least to change the way I deal with those negative thoughts. I used to spend my nights crying because of questions about my nationality. Now, when someone asks about my nationality, I try to answer that I am a very proud citizen of Earth. And when old eating habits haunt me, I try to remember how beautiful and powerful Lynn and Lisa are, and maybe I can reclaim my life as well.

Together with their dumpling skin (I am also a reader of The Actor’s Diet), I hope that I would be able to enjoy food the way Lynn seems to.

This Fall, I will be studying in California, and as a big fan of The Actor’s Diet, I hope to explore many of the places Lynn shared.

I am extremely grateful for having found Thick Dumpling Skin, The Actor’s Diet, and the inspiring Lynn and Lisa. Theses really kept me alive.
Thank you.

H. | Tokyo | Japan

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Choosing Happiness

I am a recovering bulimic Chinese American woman. 

Over the years, I’ve been learning to love myself and realizing that beauty shouldn’t be held to a standard. I’ve met countless other Asian women that struggle with the concept of the Perfect Asian Woman, aka thigh gap, porcelain skin, and petite.  

To be quite frank, there is no such thing as the Perfect Asian Woman/Man. We need to stop comparing ourselves to freaking KPOP stars or Asian celebrities that happen to fit this “perfect Asian” bill. 

For the first time in a long time, I feel okay with myself. I’m tan, bridge-less nosed, and quite curvy Asian woman. Granted that I am a quarter Spanish, i still embrace all of me. I can honestly say that I love myself better now than I have before. 

I am not perfect, but because I’m not I am so much happier and feel more freedom from stereotypes and preconceived notions of what an Asian person should look like. 

Whenever I’m at family reunions and my aunt or uncle say to me,

"Hey you got a little chubbier!"

Now, I can proudly and boldly retort back,

"Hell yeah I did and you can go f**k yourselves because I am beautiful despite my weight. You are setting a disgusting example for your children and those around you. Stop body bashing and making weight take precedence over the other qualities your children and loved ones have to offer."

I am beautiful and I am more than the number on the scale. I know it has taken me a while but I want to shout it to the world that I am happy with who I am and that we as people should stop pointing out peoples’ flaws and magnify their strengths instead.  

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want every man and woman to be able to realize that they are so much more than what people say and how they feel. 

I’ve chosen to be healthy, but more importantly happy.

I know it’s a hard road to follow but I know that everyone can choose to be happy. 


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Thigh Gap

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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Outing the Dead

In the past few days my Facebook feed has gone wild with opinion pieces about Woody Allen and whether or not he abused his daughter Dylan. Is he guilty? Is she but a pawn in the manipulative games of Mia Farrow who is just punishing Allen for marrying his stepdaughter? It is hard for me to imagine that he is not guilty because it is incredibly farfetched for me to imagine that a young woman would continue to tell the facts of her childhood in the context of a world famous father when most of the public could not fathom how someone so talented could be so brutal?  Clearly the stakes are incredibly high and the idea that one’s renowned father might in fact be publicly forgiven because of his artistry would serve as a significant reason to refrain and hold onto the secret once more. Yet, in many ways Dylan’s story belies the atrocities of men in powerful places—if you challenge them, the public will undoubtedly question your sanity and your values. Wait—this is Woody Allen we are talking about! The famed director and masterpiece maker who is one of the greats! He’s a musician to wit! Haven’t you seen Blue Jasmine?!  Allen is the man who had an affair, married and adopted children with his 19 year old step daughter. And yet it is Mia Farrow that the public calls the villain, the crazy woman who adopted so many children that something must be wrong with her. Her sons claim that this abuse could not have happened and they vehemently deny it claiming that their sister was a product of manipulation not by her father, but by her scheming mother. But the question remains—how could they possibly know? Abuse can be quiet and shameful. It can take away a person’s confidence to speak up for herself and by herself.  The moniker of an abused child is certainly not one that most people wish to earn and, yet, speaking truth is a liberatory practice and a courageous act. Especially when you know the consequences that await you. Yet still, she speaks.

And so today I speak. I wish that I could speak out like Dylan and put a name and face to my story, but alas, I am not there yet. Baby steps.

I was one of those children whose abuse rendered it nearly impossible to stand up for herself. As a child, I lived with an abusive and mentally unstable woman. A woman who seemed to mother in two dramatically opposed styles depending on which child was in the room.  My brother was the first-born Korean son, born in 1967 in New York to very young immigrant parents who arrived in the state of Missouri at the age of 19 and later moved to Manhattan to pursue that American dream. My brother was the brightest star and the apple of my mother’s eye while it seems that I was the worm that spoiled its taste. He was raised with such a doting and loving mother. My earliest memories of this love for my brother are confirmed in the many photo books showing him dressed as an adorable sailor, wearing little home sewn overalls and matching caps, in his Korean clothing to celebrate his first birthday. The fewer photos (common for many a second child) that I have found of my own young childhood with my parents show me shiny and red with tears next to my dear brother on a cushioned chair; they show pictures of me slightly chubby with bad haircuts. One such haircut never made it into the photo albums because that was the hack job that my mother gave me after she discovered that I tried to use her curling iron in the fifth grade to make myself pretty. After discovering me trying to curl my straight black Korean hair, she flew into a rage and grabbed a pair of scissors and hacked my hair from shoulder length to a hideous uneven crooked short bob to my ears. I still remember the shame of having to go to her hairdresser and listening to her lie about doing it myself. I still remember the pain and shame of having to get on the school bus to my elementary school with yet even more fuel to add to the teasing. Chinky eyes and now bad hair.

But the pictures aren’t all sad. Other pictures show me as a smiling little two-year-old with a pixie cut and cute little a-line jumper dress cut so short in those days that you could see the frilly little lace bottom attached to the tights. I looked so happy. I also looked motherless. I was motherless at the time and perhaps that is why I could smile so. Apparently my mother and father decided to send me to Korea to live with my mother’s father and stepmother for a year while my parents moved into a new house in Long Island. Why I was there is still a bit of a mystery to me especially since my older brother got to stay with my parents. Apparently, my mother was sick and I was a handful. While I don’t remember her raising me in Korea, I do remember the photos of a young smiling girl looking up at her grandmother while waiting for a piece of candy that she upwrapped from her purse. Then there is the picture of me with her at the zoo in Seoul as my grandfather carries me in his arm and I have a huge grin on my face as a I hold my newest treat—a balloon. I was loved, protected and enjoyed. It showed in the looseness of my smile and the way I molded into their loving arms.

I look back at these photos in my mind’s eye and imagine that as a young child surely I must have been lovable. I must have been adored—especially by my grandmother who did not have any children of her own. Maybe I was a sort of consolation prize as women who didn’t have children were often considered less than. And yet while I brought so much joy to my grandmother, I also know that I brought so much grief and rage to my mother who could not square having a daughter like me.

There is much to mourn about a childhood filled with rage, fear, abuse, lack of emotional care, and unkindness. I grew up in Long Island in the 1970s and recall the fear I would have when my father left on his monthly trips to Asia or throughout the US for work. Our immigrant culture condoned his travels; he was one of the first to do business with China in 1976, was the first Asian American hired in one of the big accounting firms. As a model minority CFO of a major firm, my dad’s work took him all over the world. How hard it must have been for my mother to raise two children on her own for those long weeks. How hard it was for me to be raised by my mother for those long weeks. Those were the days when I was often kicked out of my house from as early as five-years-old left to wander the neighborhood and the playground of my elementary school. I remember walking all over the neighborhood by myself and returning home to ask my mother at the front door if I could enter. No, I could not. I remember being kicked out of the house in a floral nightgown just as the garbage men where collecting the trash. I remember them laughing at me because I was in my nightgown and my hair was wet. I remember wishing that they could rescue me because I had just had my head dunked into the toilet and my lip was bleeding from hitting the rim because my mother had flown into a rage after I picked up her beautiful perfume bottle to smell it, but dropped it my mistake into the toilet. I didn’t tell the garbage collectors, I didn’t tell my father, I didn’t tell the neighbors because there is great consequence in telling. Besides, my mother had already done a fine job telling people that I was a pathological liar so who would believe me anyway if I told them my mother locked me in a closet and once tied me down in the basement in the dark until my aunt came over and my mother casually went downstairs untied me and let me back up. She knew then that I wouldn’t tell because no one would believe me and I couldn’t speak up or cry for help.

My childhood memories revolve quite a bit around issues of food and body image. I remember as a young girl of about four-years-old, I would stand at the little step that led down into the den where my mother would sit watching television with my brother. Maybe it was Gilligan’s Island or I Love Lucy. I was never allowed to enter that room with them and enjoy the laughter and love. Instead I stood out on that step on the precipice waiting to be invited to step over that threshold and become an integral part of the family. I remember standing there as my mother insulted my looks, telling me that my nose was too flat, that I had an ugly profile due to its flat nose and big lips. Later on these taunts would be absorbed by me as truth and reiterated by my brother who learned that it was okay to call me fat, make up songs about my chubbiness, and have his friends join in.

I was too weak to speak out and I also knew that if I told on my brother, my laments would fall upon deaf ears. My mother never stood up for me so I simply learned that it must be so. I must in fact be irredeemably ugly and fat. Isn’t that what my brother’s song said?… “(My name) is fat… I know that. (My name) is fat… I know that.” The taunting tune plays over in my ears sometimes when I recall those years.  I remember the taunts I received from him when I wore those tormenting Billy The Kid brand corduroy pants so popular then for boys because my brother would turn the sewn on BTK brand insignia from Billy the Kid to Beluga Ton Kid. So yes I grew up thinking that I was fat because… well “everyone knows that.” I came to think that he was just telling the truth because nobody told me otherwise.

I am the 40 something Korean American mother of two biracial preteen girls now. I am often struck with gratitude how they seem to have a general sense of wellbeing and confidence about their strong bodies. The younger girl is a dancer with beautiful strong legs; the older has the legs of her father—long runner legs that hold up the rest of her stunning self.  I look at them and marvel that I haven’t yet completely messed them up.  That I don’t make them feel bad about their bodies. That I don’t repeat the sins of my mother.  I remind them everyday that I love them no matter what and that they are the loves of my life.  Whenever I hear anything negative they might say about themselves, I offer immediate antidotal words of truth that speak back to those misperceptions. “My thighs are big” my younger one says to me one day as she sits in the car in shorts.  I have to suppress the fear that she might end up thinking negative thoughts like me and remind myself that I have raised her differently.  Instead, I say as I gaze into her eyes, “your legs are dancer legs and they are beautiful strong and muscular like all good dancers.” I continue, “they are beautiful legs and you are so lucky to have them so they can propel you up in the air.”  I offer the antidotal commentary as a way of nipping the other negativity in the bud. I still worry that she will carry this negative misperception in her head, but she turns to me, says, “alright mom,” grins, hops out of the car with her backpack on her back, and skips away all the while my own heart skipping a beat in the hopes that my response was enough. 

Even today as a grown woman, mother of two, educator, runner, writer, and secret yoga enthusiast, I sometimes come to the dinner table reluctant to eat the foods served to me when my partner makes dinner. I ought to be thankful that someone else does the cooking and makes delicious meals.  And yet I come sometimes with a heavy heart and have to consciously tell myself to stop the negativity and partake in this meal as a way of healing myself and showing a good example to my daughters. And so I partake, and I swallow my anxiety over being fed, and then allow myself the joy of eating delicious foods. I eat with relish and hope that my children see this part of me, and not the anxiousness that sometimes reawakens during moments of stress.

The anxiety I have over being fed and not controlling my own meals comes from years of being force fed occasionally to the point of throwing up. Recently I read about a couple in Tennessee whose five-year-old daughter Alexa Linboom died after they forced her to drink down two liters of grape soda in punishment for merely taking a sip or two of her stepmother’s drink.  A five-year-old girl killed by her parents because she drank a few sips. She was forced to drink so much liquid that her poor body shut down and her brain swelled. She was force fed to the point of death like a foie gras goose for doing nothing more than taking a few sips. My husband mentioned this story to me and I was completely overwhelmed with outrage and grief over the injustice and the depravity of these two people who should not even be considered human beings. That the two could collaborate in the death of their child brought me to tears. But there was something more to my tears. It was memory.  Hearing this story brought me right back to the times when as a child I was forced to sit at the dining table eating whatever my mother forced me to eat.  Huge glasses of milk, big plates of food with white rice, bolgogi (Korean beef) and whatever other thing I was given. Once I was forced to eat so much that I vomited all over the kitchen table and I remember in my five-year old-mind that it looked just like the devil dogs I had eaten. Alexa Linbom was the same age when she died from being force fed.

At the time in my life, I was powerless to fight back and so I lived in fear and silence and over time developed an inability to measure how full I was when I ate. The dining room table and meal time became a source of anxiety and stress. I remember the stress of being forced to finish everything that was on my plate (which was a lot, so much so that my cousins would remark upon how big my appetite was) and to live with the deception my mother weaved around me and my eating habits. Sometimes I was given so much food to eat that I would be at the dinner table long after my brother was done because I could not finish it. I remember once almost falling asleep in my high chair when my father came home at night and my mother would simply said, “Oh, she just finished eating.” Once my dad came home, I was allowed to leave the table as if nothing had happened. And as I grew up with these experiences, I tried to forget that they happened. The problem is that I repressed the cause but suffered the symptoms and after effects.

Hearing Alexa’s story brought me back to the countless times my mother would put extra salt and butter in my food with the hopes that I would get fatter while she got thinner. I remember watching her at the stove her back turned to us as she surreptitiously opened the cabinet where the salt was and poured it into her hand and then dumped it into my bowl.  I watched her do this and became complicit in her deception because I was afraid to do otherwise. The fear was not unfounded. Her rage was swift, severe, and easy to hide.  My Korean immigrant mother with the beautiful eyes and lovely figure deprived herself of food, took laxatives everyday, and spent hours in the bathroom throughout my childhood. I recall her weighing herself each year and hearing her note that the numbers on the scale were moving down with each step on the scale. This was the year she died at the age of 54.  She simply stopped eating.  She also developed kidney disease and eventually died from it. Some of the causes of her death were related to her laxative abuse and her abuse of diuretics. Sometimes I wonder why a certain number on the scale seems so high for my 5 foot 3.5 inched self and another random number seems seems just right. 

Yet for my body, the effort to be at that just right number means that I have to run that much more and eat that much less which I don’t want to do. My body likes to be at a different place and yet I aim for that elusive number. And now I know why. That number is one of the numbers I remember my mother noting out loud.  Anything above that is fat and, as the songs remind me when they play in my ear, “(My name) is Fat. I know that.” While I haven’t spoken about what really ailed my mother, I am doing so purposefully because I know that at another time I will be courageous enough to tackle her mental illness, the fact that my father was not around enough to intervene, and that like many other Korean cultural norms that dictate that we don’t betray our own, mental illness and abuse remain unspoken secrets.  Sometimes I find myself buying into these norms out of a desire to not bring shame to myself or to my family, but when they come to me later and express relief and gratitude that I do not abuse my own children, the injustice and grief well up in my throat as I refrain from rage. I worked to transform the anger that comes from knowing that they were aware of the abuse but felt powerless to name it and challenge it. 

Sometimes when I am invited out to lunch, to a sit down dinner, or even when my husband announces like he just did, “I am making spaghetti and meatballs,” I have a shift inside my body, an immediate discomfort that says, “But I don’t want that.” I fight the urge to change the plans to meet for coffee instead. I don’t wish to change plans because I reject the hand that feeds me. Instead, I get anxious over the idea that I might not be able to control what I want to eat and the internal struggles over food that I suffer when my life seems particularly stressful on the outside. But I do eat. I have learned the value of nourishment even if I can’t yet always moderate. I do try to be mindful about why I am the way I am and try to offer some soothing to that brutalized child inside myself who never learned how to have an appropriate self enhancing relationship to food. And I eat lovely delicious things that I enjoy baking—I make a mean brownie and flourless chocolate cake. I make beautiful raw kale salads mixed with pumpkin seeds, brown rice, tofu and spices. I make them and I eat them sometimes for breakfast because I can and because I want to. But sometimes I eat them with a heavy heart knowing deep down that I will regret what passes through my mouth because I fear that I will become that girl my brother sang about. I fear that I will become that little girl chased around the neighborhood by my brother and his friends singing that dreaded song.  I become gloomy when I think that I will continue to be that little girl forced to eat more than she could. I fear that I might become that little girl again who ate so much she threw up and had to endure her mother lying about it and telling people that I made myself throw up. I will become that little girl that had to endure hearing her mother lie to the pediatrician that I make myself throw up as a young girl out of defiance. I will become that little girl forced to endure lies and hold my tongue out of fear of violent retribution.

Recently my new therapist named my childhood as one of brutality and it is a word that is both hard to swallow and one that comes as a relief because it seems so extreme and yet it characterizes the experience so completely.  The ways that I often wall up emotionally and crawl back into my mental tortoise shell in the midst of stress, the way I have backed out of arguments verbally only to voice my outrage in my head. The ways that I present so well because I don’t know how to fall apart in public because I have worked so hard to keep myself together all these years. Some of my women acquaintances have often remarked how put together I am. One once told me that I didn’t really seem to have any problems which seemed to justify her non-stop talking about herself and her problems without taking pause to see if I might have something to say. Yes, I am a Ph.D. Yes, I married a doctor. Yes, I have two healthy beautiful smart and well adjusted girls. Yes, I have a great job that I appreciate most of the time. Yes I am a runner. I understand all that, but would encourage us never to assume that because we look so polished on the outside that our insides are so neat and tidy.  Over time I have come to realize that these women are not ones that I would call friends and that perhaps it is time to let down the guard just a little bit so that I can learn to live this life as it is and appreciate myself as I am, broken bits and all. Those women are not the friends who will ever know how hard it is for me to shut that voice of negativity off in my head or at least keep the volume down about looking fat, feeling bloated and wondering if people will notice that I put on a few extra pounds. There are only a precious few that are trusted with my truth, my struggles, my pain because these friends are the ones who let me breathe, that accept my stories as an integral part of me, and the ones who don’t let me be defined only by these stories. 

So, while reading the latest about Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen, I immediately thought about how hard it is to speak one’s truth in a self protecting way when the consequences are so painful. The private where we retreat is suddenly exposed. The atrocities laid bare. The brutality uncovered. But who will believe?  Who wants to out the living?  Who wants to out the dead?  I do.

Anonymous | Seattle, WA | U.S.A 

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The Cult of Skinny Asian Girls


I’m not sure if I would classify myself as having an eating disorder because I believe that I have a pretty healthy diet from day to day. However, I struggle everyday with constantly feeling insecure about my “broad shoulders” or “big arms” or lack of a “thigh gap.” I often feel like I’m not in control of what I eat because the simple fact of the matter is that I love food. I especially love Korean food like noodles, mandoo, and dduk bokkee. I have always struggled with hating my appearance ever since I was in 6th grade and I realized that the boys in the class were calling me a “cavewoman.” Since then I’ve grown to realize that so much of my obsession with my body image stems from being an Asian American girl.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Beyonce’s latest album lately. I think what really got me obsessed with this album was the feminist messages behind some of the songs such as “Pretty Hurts,” “Flawless,” and “Grown Woman.” While I love the message in Beyonce’s songs and I appreciate the increasing attention that TV shows and movies are giving to eating disorders I can’t help but notice that there is a glaring racial divide. Black women can celebrate their curves when they see Beyonce gyrating and showing off her muscular thighs. All the girls in TV shows that have eating disorders are almost always white. Asian women are hardly represented in the media at all and when they are, their characters are one-dimensional and serve as a foil for the main white girl character. Furthermore, Asian American girls are only represented in movies, TV shows, and magazines by impossibly thin girls with double eyelids and perfect porcelain skin.

I have noticed the growing popularity of K-POP in the U.S. (maybe even replacing J-POP) with girl bands such as Girls’ Generation, Wonder Girls, or 2NE1. While I am proud to see more attention to Koreans in the music industry, I always roll my eyes whenever I hear guys talking about how they wish they could have a girlfriend who looked like Taeyeon or Tiffany. I scoff when I hear other girls wish that they could be an Asian girl because then they would be tiny and petite and have perfect hair. It makes me sick to think that there is this perception that all Asian girls are somehow “blessed” with perfectly thin 100 lb bodies. It just makes it that much more difficult for girls like me who don’t fit this stereotype. It induces self-blame and self-hate for being “curvier” and actually having thighs. Why can’t I just be thin like my Korean cousins? Why can’t I fit into a tiny bikini like my mom did when she was my age? My mom brags about how she was so tiny – she has been collecting compliments about her good looks all of her life and all of my life ever since I can remember.

As I help her prepare dinner, I notice how she heaps a healthy portion onto my plate and takes only half for herself. I notice how when she takes my sister and me to a Korean restaurant in Flushing she doesn’t order anything and I am guilted into giving her half of my jjajangmyun, which is normally such a treat for me. As she nibbles on the side dishes of pickled radishes and kimchi she reminisces, “When I was in college I was only 100 pounds…” Whenever I ask my dad about their failed marriage he always blames his naiveté saying that he just wanted to marry an Asian woman and that my mom was the most beautiful one of them all. And she was beautiful. I look back on old pictures of my mother when she was my age and from when she got married and admire how small her waist was and how delicate her shoulders looked in her wedding dress. It’s almost an obsession that I look at her old pictures and think to myself that if I have children they will not have any of my old pictures to look at and marvel at how thin I was. I will never fit into my mom’s old wedding dress, which she only saves in the hopes that one day my sister or I will wear it at our own weddings.

It is 4 am and I am kept awake yet again by the nagging thoughts of why I can’t be a thin Asian girl like my mom. Was it because she grew up in Korea and I was raised here in the United States of America where children are lazy and suffer from an obesity epidemic? But no, it couldn’t be! Look at Julia or Alyssa or Jenny from high school! They are all second generation Asian Americans like me yet they’ve maintained a weight of 80 pounds since junior high. They were part of the exclusive cult of Skinny Asian Girls. What is wrong with me? Is it because I’ve always loved eating that second serving of rice? All the weight loss bloggers tell me that carbs are the number one cause of belly fat. My grandparents would always laugh and ask “masisseoyo? [delicious?]” whenever I asked for another bowl of dduk gook. My skinny cousins would giggle among themselves about how I eat so much. Lisa, the girl who loves food. Lisa is just big-boned. She’s a “healthy-eater.” This has been said about me all my life. They are not necessarily insults but I’ve always associated them with the looks of scorn cast at my stomach, arms, and legs.

These are things that I think about when I swallow another pill that promises to suppress my appetite or when I decide to cut my diet down to one meal a day. Why can’t I just be like the other Asian girls? Why can’t I have their delicate frame and be feminine like them? I’m so tired of feeling insecure about my body and my eating habits. I’m tired of constantly wishing I could lose 10 more pounds. I’ve had it with wasting time on the Internet researching how I can tone my arms or get “sexy abs.” I’ve made it my goal from here on out that I will look at myself in the mirror and appreciate my body as it is without always seeing it as something that needs fixing. Love your body! Right? Yet I still find myself flipping through pictures on Facebook of my skinny Asian friends or cousins and hating myself. Why couldn’t I have inherited the skinny Asian gene from my mom? No! Appreciating my curvy Asian body starts now. The blame stops here. 

Lisa (Reader)

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Keeping Your Wits

I wanted to write some brief thoughts that have been on my mind over the past weekend while I was visiting my friend in Texas. It has to do with the ubiquity of diet-talk and women’s shame in their own bodies, as well as the onslaught of messages (from friends, strangers, and the ever-maligned media) that make it seem like it is normal–in fact, a duty–to be dieting and watching our weight. And if we aren’t ashamed, we still possess notions of an ideal “me,” some physical manifestation of health and beauty that we are supposed to “kick our butts” into attaining, retaining, or retrieving.

In just one single day this weekend, I experienced:

(1) a vigorous morning walk which, in my own mind (accustomed as it is to my own abuses), was at least partly meant to “make up” for some kind of indulgence the night before–other good reasons for taking it aside;

(2) a very, very dear friend who means nothing but the best for the people in her life, making half-jokes about the names of diets to invent and then follow with her sisters;

(3) shopping at the airport newsstand for something else besides the novel I’ve been reading non-stop to distract me during my 4-hour layover, and encountering dieting and exercise advice to achieve a “hotter you,” photos of the “best and worst” beach bodies, and headlines about how Kim Kardashian was ashamed of her pregnant body;

(4) a flight into NYC during which I spoke with an extremely nice, well educated, poised, funny and strong single mother, who simultaneously informed me of all the things she can’t be eating on her 500-calorie-a-day diet, on which she drops half a pound a day.

Having lived with an eating disorder for upwards of six years, and having grown much more educated and attuned to negative, detrimental ways of thinking about nourishment, exercise, and body image, it still shocks me when I have days like this. There was a time when this barrage of judgment and unhealthy advice would have thrown me into a very anxious state. Even now, as far as I have come in understanding my relationship between mind, food and body, this kind of onslaught can cause anxiety. Many people who are trying to recover from an eating disorder have probably experienced the feeling that all surrounding conditions about food and lifestyle must be perfectly positive, in order to safeguard themselves from attitudes that might trigger old patterns of thinking. I used to be that way, and I would be lying if I tried to say that I am sometimes not sensitive that way. But I also have realized that, unfortunately, because of the way our culture has developed, it is pretty impossible to avoid all talk of dieting, “feeling fat,” extreme juicing lifestyles, excessive exercise, and the mantra of “body perfection” that sets the standard for how so many people (young, old and in between) decide what to eat, how to move, and even how to cope.

The expression “keeping your wits about you” feels especially fitting here. It can be an enormous challenge to learn how to brush the conversations, comments, headlines, photos and advice columns aside–especially when they may come from a source you trust. Somehow, you have to learn how to trust your own wisdom, and the head on your shoulders. It helps to recognize that the fixations with dieting are just that: fixations. I get very nervous when I hear about people being on a diet, or wanting to go on one, even if the comment is made flippantly. I know all too well from experience that even the most grounded, seemingly self-confidant feminist woman can develop a serious eating disorder from restricting calories for that purpose, under the mantra “I’m getting fit.” And I worry, now that my friends have started to marry and even think about having kids of their own, that these kinds of anxieties and values will get passed down to their sons or daughters. The world around us is more a trigger to us than we know. I wish that we could keep our wits about us, and assert self-love, and try hard to recognize the fears and criticisms we can pass to others without even meaning to.

Kate @

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I’m not Asian, but I was always a part of the Asian group growing up. I was always the only black kid, but I never thought of myself that way. My friends and I were “the other” and that was okay. It was easy to identify with them because we were all the children of immigrants, and I quickly picked up on the similarities between our cultures. I ate their seaweed and shared their rice and noodles. I watched Asian films and listened to Asian music. I loved learning new things about their cultures and I absolutely loved the dishes. Over time, I noticed that I picked up on many things from them. Among those things were speech patterns and an extremely unhealthy body image. I was always the overweight girl in a group of “skinny girls”, but it never bothered me. I was always the one telling them that they were beautiful and that they didn’t need to lose any weight. Stay healthy. Be confident. Of course, they never listened. Always hanging around girls 40 pounds lighter than me that keep calling themselves fat did some damage. In high school I lost weight as the side effect of a certain medication I was taking. Because my appetite was reduced it was easier for me to eat less. There were days I didn’t eat at all. But then I started becoming more tired, more stressed, weaker, and would become sick more easily. It effected my school work, my friendships, and my health. During the summer after that school year, I went off my medication. I became addicted to the joy that reentered my life as I began to slowly accept myself again. I can happily say that I’m now healthy and happy with my body again. I know this site is primarily for Asian Americans, but I can really connect with what’s going on here and I just want to say thank you for creating Thick Dumpling Skin.

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"I am from Finland."

People always seem taken aback when I tell them this.

They asked. So I answered them.

Some try to subtly comment on the fact that Northern Europe is famous for various things, such as, incredibly attractive Nordic women with cascading golden locks, piercing blue eyes, long legs and a lovely ‘glow’ about them.

Others are much more direct. They either accuse me of lying or comment on the fact that I don’t look Finnish at all. That I don’t meet their expectations of a typical nordic woman.

"No… you MUST be from the US. You look so athletic. You’re so tanned! You look just like one of those Californian Asian Americans!"

What? You didn’t expect a Chinese woman to be from Finland did you?

Just because I am tanned does NOT make me Californian (or Asian American for that matter).

And that adjective ‘athletic’. I would like to take it as a compliment. I AM very active. I love exercising and I DO regularly exercise. Of course I am glad that my training is paying off with my body reflecting the hard work.


Don’t make it sound so negative. Since when has it been wrong for Asian women to look athletic? Why does it hold such a negative connotation? Also apparently being ‘athletic’ includes having a certain type of ‘attitude’ which is not considered attractive. Are you seriously saying that confidence is not attractive?

Do I have to conform to some sort of perverted ideal of an Asian woman to be considered attractive by not only other Asians but also other people? ‘Willowy’, ‘demure’, blah blah blah. 

I currently live in Shanghai, China. I’ve heard my extended family moan about my ‘athletic’ appearance for sometime already that it no longer has any effect on me (although this has stopped over the years). What irks me the most is dealing with expats who live here.

I worked at a local bar last summer. It was populated entirely by young twenty something expats in the evenings. Some male expats were involved with local girls and I noticed that most of these girls shared similar physical features. They were incredibly skinny/petite with fair skin. All pretty ladies. My co-worker was basically a girl who had all the desired physical attributes and because of that was often hit-on by male patrons.

What disturbed me the most was overhearing these sleazy boys saying the reason for their preference for girls such girls. Being pint-sized meant that they could be easily overpowered. That is sick. Don’t even get me started on how some take advantage of the language barrier.

I noticed massive differences between how the male patrons treated me and my co-worker. In a twisted way, I was treated with much more respect (no sleaziness involved) because of my appearance, whereas my co-worker was constantly being touched or hit-on with racist pick-up lines because of her appearance. 

I am not trying to moan over the fact that these people find me ‘less’ attractive than my co-worker. Rather, due to my athletic appearance I don’t get equated as an attractive Chinese girl and instead become LESS of their idea of a typical Chinese girl, which makes them treat me as their equal. I have been told right to my face that I am ‘different’ from the local Chinese girls. I am only different because I was raised in a different physical and cultural environment. Essentially I am still Chinese.

We are both Chinese girls. We should both be treated equally. These expat men get me incredibly frustrated when they are talking to me about women’s body image issues and agree with me that women come in different sizes… yet they don’t seem to realize that they are being complete hypocrites. 

Yes, Asian women come in different sizes, shades and shapes.


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Dumpling Mail

Hi Lisa & Lynn,

This originally was supposed to be a short comment, but because of the character limit, I’ll write more here.

Growing up in a very traditional Cantonese household, it’s common to get remarks like: “Oh, you’re getting fatter each time,” or “Don’t overeat.” Perhaps the harsh and blunt Chinese culture builds up that “thick dumpling skin” so we learn to learn to ignore criticism, but I really enjoy reading about a more sensitive, embracing (perhaps American?) approach to the topics your page discusses.

I now realize that “thick dumpling skin” isn’t a defense mechanism, but a positive approach to dealing with difficult issues regarding self-image. I think it’s very important that we learn to start inside and accept ourselves first before we jump too quickly to make changes on the outside.  And I thank you both for providing this outlet.

I’ve always been more muscular than any of the females in my family. I dress in boys clothing and cut my hair short because that’s how I feel comfortable. Unfortunately, this small amount of comfort doesn’t eliminate low self-esteem. I’m struggling right now to build up my confidence and to learn to love myself due to recently relocation back to my parents’ house.

Because of my androgynous look, I still get put down for being “not man, not woman.” It hurts because I’m trying so hard to figure out my identity and can’t come out to my parents (fearing that “my-daughter-can’t-be-gay” scene from “Saving Face” every day). I can’t help feeling like I’m moving backwards into a negative environment. Perhaps Chinese parents just have their own weird way of expressing love to their children.

If there’s anybody else out there that feels this way or knows of any advice that may be comforting, I would really appreciate it. I’m seeking therapy currently with the Asian American Wellness Center, but it’d be nice to hear from others as well.

- Bea Cheung

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TDS Mail

Dear Thick Dumpling Skin,

My name is Kate, I am half-Japanese, half-Spanish, and I write a pro-food, pro-recovery blog called Liquid Yolk. I have struggled with eating disorders for six and a half years. While I was off and on with professional therapy, my commitment to it was very low, in part because I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t get over my problems by myself.

A number of things helped show me otherwise. One was discovering Thick Dumpling Skin and Lynn’s blog, The Actor’s Diet, which really rung true for me and gave a much different face to the story of eating disorders than we typically hear. Another factor is that I’m in grad school and due to graduate in May, so the prospect of being a “real” adult with 7 years of disordered eating in my history suddenly sounds very scary, and I really feel I’ve had enough. I’ve done a lot of pondering over the last summer, and I’m now putting my health at top priority. I have also been able to share a part of me with some of my friends, friends who have known me for years. I dreaded this, and yet, having told them, I feel an incredible load off my shoulders.

What follows is something that I wrote on my blog before I made the blog public ( For me, it has been a huge revelation to acknowledge my body image issues without being ashamed of those hangups, and to understand that these thoughts are just thoughts, and are also coexisting with my love of my body. By recognizing this, I can focus on loving my body and caring for myself, rather than trying to bury the discomfort or fear it.

June 2013

I am going to be honest and say that things are not good. In general and from an unfocused lens, they are, but I am really struggling and hurting. I can see clearly everything that is at stake with my health. I recognize that, here at the six and a half year mark, I have a huge choice over whether or not I want to live the way I want to live. I know that to overcome this may well be emotionally horrifying, and require an amount of honesty that the cheery premise of this blog needs to come around to.

So here’s a little introspection. After years of saying to the world, I don’t get why I have an issue with food, I don’t have body image hang-ups, this is just a way for me to manage my anxiety about a number of things (which is partly true)… let’s just be straight. I DO have body image hang-ups, and yet at the same time I DO love myself and love my body and believe that I am beautiful. When my body looks the way I expect it to (my vision of what my true body shape is has softened and grown kinder), I am proud and positive. The thing is, I have a continuing fear that, however satisfied I may be with how I look and feel today, I still can’t bear the thought of gaining “too much.”

Since I was little, I’ve had hang-ups about my appearance. At the time, I was a skinny girl with hairy legs, and I was awkward, but I had a high opinion of myself. I can say that I have been blessed with self-confidence thanks to my parents. It’s a blessing and a curse. Because that same self-confidence has come with it a delusion of infallibility and a fear of failure. Simultaneously, I have grappled with feeling like the odd girl out for a lot of my younger life… whether it was because I had a peanut allergy and had to eat special snacks at school, or because I also had asthma so I didn’t participate in sports the same way as the other kids, or because I was the weird biracial kid with the mixed up heritage.

I think I always used to feel out of sync with my body, for its allergic reactions that were totally out of my control and for its awkwardness in sports because I had never really gotten a chance to be athletic. It’s why I took so much to yoga in high school and college, and why I wanted to run a marathon when I graduated college, as a kind of proving to myself that I was more than an asthmatic klutz, that I could be in control of my body as a functional machine. There were other factors too… the fact that I was an only child in a town where that was virtually unheard of… and having to fight the teasing stereotype that I was spoiled rotten. The fact, too, that my extended family was so very small in New Jersey. All my first cousins live in Japan, and I grew up with a sneaking suspicion that my mom’s side of the family was unhappy, a fact that I tried desperately to cover up and fix by intervening in all the high-emotion passive aggression that used to surround our holidays. The fact that we only saw my gregarious extended family for funerals did not help this insecurity.

As I got older, being half-Japanese half-Spanish became cool… even before the Hawaiian word “hapa” came onto my radar. I started to identify with the Japanese side of my family more, probably because my dad was born there, and because I loved visiting Japan and my relatives there, and because it was not riddled with the suburban confusion of the Spanish side. I would come, later, to embrace the Spanish, but I still feel closest to my Japanese roots.

I wanted to fit in with the Japanese side, to maybe even be full Japanese, or at least look more Japanese, so people wouldn’t keep asking me what I was, where I was from, and, not least of all, so that I would have a genetic slenderness that I had begun to lose as I became a real adult woman. This is, of course, a stereotype – one that has contributed to the body image hang-ups of a lot of Asian Americans – but it is one that I still find myself saying from time to time… that Asians are short and small.

My boyfriend is lucky enough to be from Hawaii. Going to Hawaii for the first time was a huge breakthrough for me, because there, my body type and skin color and mixed race were more the norm. For the first time in my life, I saw other women who sort of look like me. And in Hawaii, people seemed content to flaunt their bodies, no matter what the shape, at least more than on the East Coast. Beautiful, hot women with the athletic curves born of moderate exercise and lots of rice.

There is another side to this story, which only compounds the insecurities I’ve mentioned. It’s about young love and always dating skinny boys. Even now, living with my boyfriend, I find it absurdly frustrating that he can eat a gigantic meal and never not be skinny. And even now, having gone through being so hard on myself in college and being deluded enough to fear gaining any weight after I had lost so much, because it would signal that I had an eating disorder to begin with, and that the loss of weight was unsustainable… even now, I find myself hoping to be just that much fitter every time I feel the need to jazz up our relationship… after we’ve been apart for a few weeks, or after a semester of sleep deprivation and therefore not much time for romance.

So that’s the truth. It is hard to believe that it has taken me six and a half years to say that I do have body image issues. I am all the things I said I was in high school: feminist, smart, beautiful. But I am a paradox like any human. But what I do know: I love myself. My body is the only one I have, and it lets me be here, in this life. I am beautiful. I am young. And I promise to love and care for myself to the best of my ability.


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