10 years old

I shrink away at the sight of my mother struggling to make sense of what the tall man in the white shirt says to her. I hunch up my shoulders instinctively, digging my hands into the folds of her pleated skirt as if it would be enough to keep me still. Keep me rooted. Keep me grounded. He speaks harsh sounds and stings of pain, as if he pinches, prods, and pulls at our skins, scoffs at our furrowed brows and obscenities sent our way.

“Go back to where you came from.”

I learn to become ashamed of stutters and broken English; I promise to myself I will not become my mother. I learn to distance myself from her. Her identity will not be mine. She will not be a representation of me.

I’m better than that.

12 years old

“That’s disgusting!”

My friends laugh, crinkling their noses and pushing it around the table. The distinctive smell and taste of home becomes a joke; everything becomes slow and sleepy and hazy. My throat closes up and I feel the familiar sting of burning acid threatening to drip out of my eyes. My friends look at me with a weary expression, rolling their eyes and laughing. All of a sudden, all I can taste is my own words and laughter, “I know, right?”

I pack up my favorite meal, and throw it out.

I tell my mother that it was disgusting.

Next time she asks what I want for lunch, I point to the white bread in favor of the white rice. Peanut butter in exchange for the dried seaweed. An apple replacing the kimchi.

Lunch becomes the first step away from my parents’ culture.

They’re different. I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to be foreign.

I just want to be American.

13 years old

The people who looked like me were the people I didn’t want to be. Awkwardly short with chubby faces, we seemed to blend into each other. I was called three different names in the same hour.

“Lisa! No. Yuan. Wait no … I got it — just wait for it. It’s on the tip of my tongue. It has to be … Susanna?”

Even in middle school, I understood we were all perceived in the same way — smart, submissive, shy, quiet, second-rate objects to satisfy the nearest diversity requirement. In group projects, we were given the most responsibility, and assumed to complete the project on our own means. We were talked about as the “model minorities,” the ones who would get ‘A’s to attend prestigious universities. My race, it seemed, embraced the pressure to be perfect.

Surrounded by these representations, I believed that this was all that I could be. All that I would ever be. To break away from that stereotype, I spent time unfairly judging my own outward appearance. If I could change what I looked like, I believed that it would change what other people expected of me. I thought that if I looked like other girls — tall, skinny, shiny, and happy, I could break away from the stereotype that followed me. Trying to contort my body to gain acceptance, I skipped meals and chewed gum. My appetite and hunger began to disappear. So did I.

15 years old

I wish I could say that the first time I stuck my fingers down my throat would be the last time I ever did something carelessly harmful to myself. I felt my own ghosts sink down the drains and transform themselves into something clear, something pure. As if purging my insides would transform my bruises, self-inflicted by my own distaste for my appearance. It made me forget I needed to write out an excused absence for my sister, that I needed to read documents and explain to my mother what it meant in elementary English, that I needed to find a plausible excuse for why I wasn’t feeling up to eating lunch again.

Throwing up food to maintain my unnaturally slim figure was something that I could control in a world where I was being labeled, used, and expected to hold up the image that was thrown upon me the moment I stepped into rooms. Purging became a coping mechanism; it became a way of life; it began to define me.

Last year

I thought I understood my intentions for turning my insides out, for sticking my fingers down my throat, for refusing anything but a handful of grapes a day. I never really thought to see how fragile it all ways, how deep it went. Just like everyone else, I only saw the top layer, where I was close to the size 0 jeans and Western standard of thin beauty, and never cared to go to the root of the problem. I was desperate, frightened, and my coping mechanism became my downfall; it ate me up when I was young and impressionable, and I clung on to it with hopeful despair until destruction.

Now

Living with an eating disorder is a permanent battle between what I know is right and what I feel is right. After multiple fainting spells and even greater health problems, I steadily forced myself to eat three meals a day and keep it inside my stomach. However, I began to feel as if I was losing a piece of myself with the improvement of my health. I felt as if I had no control over who I was becoming.

This feeling of helplessness is what makes it easy to fall back into familiar patterns. It’s easy to resort to a coping mechanism that seemed to quench my thirst for control because the number on the scale was the only tie I had with self-confidence. Just as it became easier to allow others’ preconceived notions of what I should be to sculpt me into an image of impossibility.

I never once tried to explain that their idea of perfection based on my race eventually molded me into a misunderstood mask of repressed desire for control over who I wanted to be. My weight became representative of everything that I desired to attain but was out of my reach — acceptance, perfection, admiration, assimilation into American society when I looked and was born into someone that seemed completely misaligned with stereotypical social norms. Similarly, my weight became the only thing that I felt I could control about myself. Every pound I lost became a step further from the bookish, nerdy Asian stereotype and a step closer to attaining a beach body of Californian girls who were attractive, alluring, accepted. It was hard to ignore expectations, but it was harder still to change myself to meet different standards. I always thought that people wouldn’t accept me until I perfectly met these irrational demands of societal convention.

It’s hard to understand the essence of acceptance, and it’s hard to describe the transition from self-hatred to self-love. I still have some days when I wake up and shrink away at the sight of my skin, pinching, prodding, and pulling at my ribs. But most days, I know that it’s okay to be in love with myself. That it’s okay to care about me. I understand that I’m not vain when I look into the mirror to admire what my weight gain has done to me. I’m not conceited when all I am is looking out for myself when I need it the most. I would much rather be called arrogant than be shamed for admiring the person that I’ve grown to be so proud of.

It’s through this journey that I realized that I’m not invincible; I found out that I’m a little more than a larger pile of mistakes. It allowed me to grow, to know that I’m no longer afraid of disappointing others or proving them wrong.

I’m not afraid of not being perfect.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.

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