Don’t get me wrong, I have a very loving father. I know fully well how much he loves me and wants the best for me. He used to read stories to me every night. He used to sit by my bedside until I fell asleep, when he’s had a full day of work. I remember that mom used to wake him up to bring him back to his room. He told me I was a princess. He played house with me. He let me dress him up like a Barbie doll. He tutored me. He supported my artistic skills. He did everything from being a stuffed animal to being my pretend prince to being my tutor. As I grew up and he knows that he can’t provide as much as he used to, he continued to mentor me and support me in my passions. I know that he wants the best for me, and I know that he’s given it his all.
But there is one thing that went wrong that was entirely out of his control. He grew up in Taiwan. He had this expectation in the back of his head that really bothered me. He wanted me to be a slender, quiet, sweet, obedient girl. He didn’t care about my career as much as he cared about my future status as a wife. He, among many other relatives, has talked about my weight.
Growing up in Taiwan and around my Taiwanese relatives, I’ve gotten used to these things. The way that my great-grandparents would pinch my thighs and my arms “oh, look all that” they would chuckle. The way my mother’s friends would refer to me as the “hefty” one of her two daughters. I never really minded these things. (The pinching got pretty annoying, though, the same way that little kids poking you while you’re trying to do homework annoys you.) Things only escalated the summer of my high school freshman year, when my father commented on my weight every few hours. He started to tell me things like, “oh, you’d be pretty if you lose 5 kilos.” Something among the hormonal changes and the transition to a Catholic boarding high school made this a bigger deal than it used to be. Somehow, it started mattering to me what I looked like in clothes. And somehow, the way that I was is not good enough anymore.
When this pressure was the most intense, I felt like I was trapped in this box. With each meal I eat and with each second that I am not feeling like my body is in pain from working out I felt that the box was getting smaller. I have not gotten to the point of anorexia, but I felt like I was getting close. All I could think about for almost two years was my weight (and my grades). I was suffocating in a dark, burning, and shrinking box.
I like telling this story. This is not because I like hearing the “oh no, you are beautiful, I don’t know why he would say that, he is crazy!” (ok, maybe a little). This story reminds me that although fathers and mothers and relatives sometimes make seemingly toxic comments, they come from concern. I know that my father loves me and he only wants the best for me and I should never blame him for not thinking about what his words would do psychologically. I didn’t even know I would be so affected by his comments. My father wanted me to look a certain way because his culture has taught him that women who look that way had been “happy.” They are “happily” married. “Happily” thought of as beautiful. “Happily” praised. My father only wanted me to be happy. I don’t have to be praised for my looks. But it would be nice. Maybe if he had known what it would do to my psyche and what kinds of unhealthy thoughts and actions and unnecessary insecurities it brought me, he would have done something different.
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles about this lately, these articles about how Southeast Asian American girls grow up with this pressure of appearing and behaving a certain way. I’ve seen some of my close friends and people that I care about go through the same things. I am still currently trying to break out of the trance. Our culture has hypnotized us to believe that we are not “beautiful” unless our hip width can be hidden behind a sheet of A4 paper.
We are trying to break out of this trance, and it is so great that we have all this media attention on the topic. But I think that our stepping out of the trance is very westernized. I have yet to see Taiwanese people talk about these kinds of issues. The last time I returned home for break, I landed on several channels with co-hosts and audiences critiquing women based on their weights. Although some of us have already grown up in America, many of our families are still very influenced by the culture overseas. My grandparents still broadcast the news and TV channels from Taiwan. How do we get to our roots? Can we get those TV hosts to be more aware of these things? Are they already aware? Whether we start with the people or the media, someone needs to start talking.