Actress and blogger Lynn Chen and Hyphen magazine publisher Lisa Lee, both Taiwanese Americans, just co-founded a new blog that I am extremely excited about. Called Thick Dumpling Skin, it is the first Web site that focuses on Asian Americans and body image.

This is a very personal and painful topic for me. I grew up hearing myself described as fat by other Asian kids and adults (and the non-Asian ones weren’t so nice either, to be honest). I was known as the chubby girl for most of my childhood and adolescence, a confidence-quashing experience I described in this piece I wrote for Hyphen Magazine blog last year.

I never developed an eating disorder, but my relationship with food was extremely messed up. One thing I didn’t talk about in the Hyphen article was a depressive episode I went through in college. One of the symptoms of my depression was a complete loss of appetite. I would spend an hour working my way through half a potato knish. Most of my calories were from soft drinks and juice, since those were the only things I could get down without gagging. After several months of barely eating and sleeping, I had a physical and mental breakdown and ended up in the hospital twice. One of the worst parts was laying huddled in a shivering, sobbing ball on the cold, grimy tile floor of a psychiatric ward because I had a lung infection and was too weak to stand up, but the doctor on call refused to treat me until my student health insurance was verified. My college contemplated forcing me to take a leave of absence. It was a nightmare.

But you know what I would think every morning when I got up and looked in the mirror? “At least I’m thin!” (Clearly, my body had started digesting brain matter in its desperation for fuel.)

It makes me sad to look at photos of myself as a young girl now. Despite all the labels that were attached to me and the names I was called, I was never fat. But my lack of self-confidence and discomfort with my developing body is obvious. I wore a lot of clothes from the boy’s section: baggy sweatshirts, formless corduroys, X-large T-shirts. I begged and begged my parents to let me buy a full-torso girdle or at least a waist cincher from Mervyn’s. If I had to sit down without a table or school desk in front of me, I plopped my backpack on my lap. Seeing the roundness of my thighs or the curve of my belly sometimes made me feel physically ill with disgust.

On a beach in 1995
I think I was about 13 in this photo.

After my health problems in college, however, I realized that taking care of myself is not an aesthetic issue. It’s about physical and emotional well-being. It’s about eating nutritious foods and exercising to be mentally healthy, not to get down to a certain dress size. It’s about never, ever getting to the point again where I obsessively fantasize about suicide or actually attempt to overdose, as I did in high school before being diagnosed with depression. I had to learn to be okay with my body and whatever size and shape it wants to be. I didn’t completely succeed, but I made progress.But when I got to Taiwan and saw diet ads like the one above, where 60 kg is considered grotesque and you aren’t skinny until you get down to 45 kg, I felt my hard-won confidence slipping. (Seriously, the people in that ad have to slouch for their bellies to pop out. That’s called poor posture, not obesity). I encountered the root of a cultural dogma — the one that hurt me when I was still a little girl growing up an ocean away — that states women have to be extremely thin not just to be seen as attractive, but for their minds to be taken seriously, too. Any heavier, and you are considered lazy or a figure of fun.

This is something I struggle with more often than I like to admit. The other day I went into a clothing store and the saleswoman told me I wouldn’t fit into a dress and not to bother trying it on. It was hard for me to remind myself that she didn’t call me fat — she just said the dress was too small. But a lot of mainstream clothing stores carry an extremely limited range of sizes. And, frankly, a lot of places have crappy customer service. If you don’t fit into something, it’s not because the dress is too small, it’s because your bust or hips are too big. From the way certain salespeople act, you’d think my ass was single-handedly changing weather patterns in Taiwan. And that is just stupid, because no matter what the media or fashion retailers insist, not everyone here is 45kg. There doesn’t seem to be the same movement towards size acceptance in Taiwan that there is in the US. Commenting on other people’s bodies is also more culturally acceptable here, as I blogged about a couple years ago, and if you have body image issues or a history of disordered eating, that can be triggering. Every time somebody comments on my weight — even if they mean it as a compliment — I start to panic. If I’ve gained weight, then it’s a moral judgment on my sloth and lack of willpower. And if I’ve lost weight, it just makes me remember my health issues and the fact that I will never be free from the specter of depression, because psychopharmaceuticals and a good attitude only go so far.

I’m still trying to find my peace with my body. I want to have the strength and the sass to tell anyone who is bothered by my size to, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, kiss my curvy yellow butt. I can’t wait to read the posts on Thick Dumpling Skin. And, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat a sandwich right now.