We’re Not Immune: A Reality Check about Eating Disorders within Asian communities  

TW: Eating disorders, depression, anxiety, self harm

My favourite Indian meal happens to be Khatti Daal[1], and Chicken 65 with a serving of basmati rice. My favourite non-Indian meal is a Double Bondi burger with extra chicken salt on chips. As you can probably tell, food is something that I enjoy, and I think my fellow Asians can agree with me when I claim that food is something that brings people in our communities together. However, the food-centric nature of Asian cultures has not allowed for our communities and families to safely and genuinely engage in discussions about having a healthy relationship with food, and what to do if someone is exhibiting unhealthy food patterns. Afterall, Asian communities are not immune to eating disorders – no cultures or groups of people are.

Eating disorders are complex disabilities. They don’t just impact an individual physically, but also often occur simultaneously with other mental health struggles such as depression, anxiety and self-harm. Eating Disorders Victoria defines an eating disorder as “a serious mental illness characterised by disturbances to thoughts, behaviours and attitudes to food and eating. For some, this extends to preoccupation with exercise and body weight/shape.”

There are different types of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating (to name a few). Now, as a woman, I am no stranger to the diet culture that informs nearly all female beauty standards. However, my struggle with anorexia nervosa was informed not only by unrealistic Western beauty standards, but also by the equally obsessive nature of Asian cultures when it comes to monitoring women’s bodies. Factually, I can tell you that anorexia nervosa is “characterised by self-starvation and weight loss resulting in low weight for height and age” (Guarad, 2021) and “is driven by an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat” (Guarad, 2021). However, my experience of being brought to literal tears by the guilt of consuming my mother’s lovingly brewed Khatti Daal or the hours that culminate standing in front of the mirror picking at my stomach and hips, is not something that I believe words can ever accurately capture and communicate.

I began showing signs of anorexia in the lead up to the 2018/2019 Australian summer. That summer I visited my dad’s side of the family in America to attend a cousin’s wedding. I think we can all relate to how good and dangerously empowering it feels when members of your Asian family switch their language from “ayyoo watch what you’re eating” to “wow beta[2] you look so good!” and “OMG you’re so lucky – you can eat anything and still remain pretty and skinny!”. While these phrases may be well-intentioned (and I say ‘may’ because the unhealthy need to compete between Asian families is unreal), the associations of “skinny” with “lucky”, “pretty” and “wow” are very hard to shake. I suddenly went from an ugly duckling to being praised by every member of my Indian community as an “ideal” looking woman. 

I hadn’t gotten plastic surgery. 

My dressing style had only somewhat evolved. 

I wasn’t experimenting with my hair. 

I had simply lost about eight kilograms in the span of less than two months.

Caption: The left picture was taken on my 18th birthday in January 2018 (introducing “fat” Lina) and the right is a picture my brother took of me on Eid-ul-fitr 2019 (introducing the “ideal woman”). Even with layers of clothes on me in the picture on the right, my frame was still narrow – something that was and will never be normal for me. The blue jeans are a size 12/14 while the beige coloured pants were a size 8/10

At first I loved the comments. I loved the praise. I felt that this was it – this was my ideal figure. I wanted to feel this pretty in the eyes of others forever. However, with this newfound obsession, came the horror and gut-wrenching panic whenever my jeans felt even a smidge tighter than usual. Anorexia, for me, was a slippery slope. Whenever I thought I’d reached my perfect ideal weight, a smaller jeans and bra size became the grass that was infinitely greener. What I wasn’t prepared for was the catch-22. The more compliments I got on how “lucky” I was, the more convinced I became that 2018 “fat” Lina was simply unacceptable.

And the more I became convinced that my worth as a human being was dependent on that number on the scale, the less I ate.

Very quickly in the eyes of my Asian community I went from being a “pretty little thing” to “a sick woman”. It was distressing.

It was like having the rug pulled out from under my feet. I went from being an “ideal woman”, to the example of “sickness”. The enthusiasm I received when I began to rapidly lose weight disappeared. Everyone thought it was better now to keep their distance and pretend that I wasn’t wasting away in front of them. And when they did offer advice, they made sure to remind me that this was “not normal”, and to consider the stress I was putting my family through. And while I cannot hold entire Asian cultures and communities responsible for my eating disorder, I can hold them accountable for the toxic relationship they perpetuate between our body, food, and our worth.

No one seemed to remember that by the time I was nine years old, everyone had given themselves the right to constantly put a dupatta3 over my “too large” breasts .

No one seemed to remember how they began to frequently worry about the fat around my hips and thighs when I was just twelve years old.

No one seemed to remember the off-handed comments they made to 2018 “fat” Lina, which were usually along the lines of, “you don’t want to get too fat – it’ll be difficult to marry”.

Caption: The picture on the left was taken in January 2020 for my birthday – this was exactly a month before I was rushed to the ER (on the advice of my psychologist and GP) due to my ECG presenting irregularities. In January 2020 I was eating extremely restricted amounts of food and this worsened by February 2020 as I was eating one meal and a snack per day, quickly dropping to my lowest recorded weight (under 50 kilograms). This lasted a week or so, resulting in a trip to the ER. The picture on the right was taken in April 2021 and for my trained eye, the way my stomach noticeably (to me anyways) strained against my jeans was the only thing on my mind that day, even though it was my first live radio recording. By the end of 2020, I had begun regaining weight and while it was healthy for me, it didn’t mean I hated it any less or that I hadn’t got up that morning and forced my body into a size 9 jeans (because size 9 was my last attempt at staying “pretty”).

Don’t get me wrong, I love my Indian culture. I love the foods of my motherland. But what I don’t love is the constant need of the Asian community to pick at people’s physical appearances. Now, maybe telling someone to “watch what they eat” or, “ayoo you look too sick, eat more” won’t always result in an eating disorder, but it damn well sends the message that our worth as human beings is intrinsically linked to how physically “pleasing” we are. Similarly, shaming family and community members for developing healthy eating habits is not funny. Making jokes at the expense of someone’s physical appearance, particularly in relation to their weight, is not cool. When I write it out like this, what I’m saying sounds a lot like common sense and basic human decency. But the lived experiences of multiple Asian individuals with eating disorders proves that more often than not, common sense and basic human decency are not employed when considering what is and is not appropriate when interacting with others.

And so, while I can say that at 22 years of age, I have successfully been in remission for just over a year now, it doesn’t change the fact that Asian communities need to do better when understanding, engaging and learning about these disabilities. I may not be disabled in the way that most Asian cultures understand the term ‘disabled’, but trust me, having to constantly fight with myself before, during, and after meal times is debilitating. Enjoying and doing simple things can very easily become a trigger for me, and I don’t believe that I’m alone in this experience. So please hear me loud and clear when I say: enough with the obsession over bodies and the nit-picking of our food consumption. I am in no way endorsing that families and communities should allow their members to become unhealthy but the general consensus that people (apart from health professionals and trusted persons) are allowed to comment and advise on someone’s body and eating habits, is harmful to all Asian communities.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating Disorders Explained

[1]Hyderabadi style lentil curry

[2]Urdu/Hindi word meaning “child”3 The scarf-like component of Indian traditional wear that sits across the shoulders and chest

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