Back in February, I went to the doctor for a general checkup. “You should work on losing weight,” my doctor said, looking coolly over her notes. “Asian women are usually slim. You’re overweight for an Asian woman.”
For most of my life, my body and I were friends. I didn’t have unreasonable expectations of it, and it generally did what it was supposed to do. So I wasn’t prepared me for the changes that took over in my mid-20s — first good, then bad. I entered into a happy, loving relationship. Then I got an office job and stopped freelancing. Then I moved out of my horrible apartment which I shared with a horrible roommate. Then I lost my dad. Then I lost my job.
And while my mind grew exhausted taking it all in, my body sought comfort. It walked me toward indulgent meals. It found me snacks when all I wanted to do was cry. My body grew to envelope me in its warmth, and grief became a physical thing I carried with me. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like the reminders of it. I couldn’t look at myself for long in the mirror. I deleted every photograph taken of me from the hips up.
When I looked in the mirror now, my thighs looked huge, the skin stretched across them grotesque. My face was as misshapen as a potato and my stomach was engorged. I felt monstrous.
The doctor who said I was too big “for an Asian woman” spoke with clinical callousness. She said it so matter-of-factly I almost didn’t register what it meant. I filed it to the back of my mind, like it was genuine medical advice – take two a day and call me in the morning. It wasn’t until I was walking out of the office that it set in.
Among the South Asians I know, weight is discussed openly and cruelly. If you’re a woman, your weight is everyone’s business. So when my doctor brought up my weight apropos of nothing, I had to listen. Maybe she was just telling me what everyone else had noticed. And she had the medical degree to back it up.
I was angry at her and disgusted at myself. When I looked in the mirror now, my thighs looked huge, the skin stretched across them grotesque. My face was as misshapen as a potato and my stomach was engorged. I felt monstrous. None of my clothes fit anymore. Nothing settled correctly on my body. It was foreign to me. At last, we grew estranged.
It was like she materialized some hidden rubric of how I was supposed to fulfill Asianess. My size…was an error that had to be fixed.
I hated being seen in public. Going to family events like weddings, where I’d have to wear Indian outfits with their exposed midsections, required intensive preparation, both mentally and physically. I worked diligently to shield as much of my body as I could under voluminous saris and heavy, floor-length lehnga skirts. When my aunties walked by, I’d hang close to my mom to avoid scrutiny. Anyone else pointing out what I knew to be true would have shattered me. And I couldn’t let my body, with all its soft exposed areas, be tutted over by these women, whose intentions are always a blur of blithe interest and malice.
In my experience, no one holds faster to the stereotype that Asians need to be thin more than other Asians. My doctor was Chinese-American, and I wonder sometimes if that’s why she was so judgmental. But that’s a stereotype, too.
It was like she materialized some hidden rubric of how I was supposed to fulfill Asianess. Short was fine. The way my hair curled was correct, as were the color of my eyes. My size, though, was an error that had to be fixed. I didn’t even know I was stepping out of bounds, but now suddenly I was wrong even in my own body to people who didn’t know me.
It’s been nearly two years of this mental self-sabotage and I am tired. I have gorged and I am overfull on self-hate. The truth, as I’ve learned, is that there are no race-based, or for that matter any real, health guidelines for weight. Some experts, like dietitian Sharon Zarabi think we need to redefine how we view health as something beyond weight that includes things like sleep, vitamin levels, and happiness. I’ve been to other doctors, none of whom said anything about my race or my weight or made any correlation between them. I’ve spent time with other people who do not see what that doctor did, and I learned my insecurities made bad companions. But I haven’t yet hit acceptance. I still have to force myself to look in the mirror, and to stare long and hard and without fear.