Slim. Long glossy black hair. Skin as white as paper. That is the image of the ideal Vietnamese woman that I saw growing up. I created a list of 10 details and comments related to body image and my own body that I still carry with me in one form or another, some more prominently than others:
I used to watch “Paris By Night,” a popular Vietnamese musical show where all the female singers would wear skintight traditional dresses. My mom would watch with me and comment on their bodies, comparing herself to them once in a while, often in terms of what she was lacking. I would hear what she said, but I always thought that she was more beautiful than them.
It was a strange contradiction living in a Vietnamese culture where, as a young girl, I was encouraged to eat until I was full. However, I had to make sure that my stomach would be flat as a board the following day.
Being athletic and doing martial arts prioritized my safety, but the main point of doing martial arts was to stay in shape so I could fit this image of what a Vietnamese woman should look like. That included being lean but not overtly muscular. Lithe.
Very rarely did I see an Asian-American female empower others to take ownership of their body and fitness to prolong their lives instead of to the mold of an ideal Vietnamese woman.
The “Asian” channel, as I used to call it growing up, would have ads for the latest weight loss pill or tea, making shedding the pounds seem super quick and easy with three simple payments. Even better was when “Paris By Night” celebrities promoted these products. That stomach fat? Not a problem with this magic pill.
Getting a tattoo was out of the question. A “good” Vietnamese girl never got one. If I wanted the tattoo to represent something special to me, such as family, it was a nice thought but never an option.
My hair was fine the way it was. I didn’t need to dye it a different color to impress anyone. I wanted to do it for myself. I needed to set myself apart from other Asian girls that I had seen on TV or in newspapers that looked the same.
My skin can get very tan. Super tan. Having white skin was seen as a sign of wealth. But my family was not wealthy. We were hard-working, which was fine, and I liked the outdoors.
One comment I had gotten when I lost enough weight for it to show on my face was if I was sick. I was “thin” and wasn’t that good enough already?
Going to college was strange. Now I was interacting with other Asian-American girls who fit the type of idealistic body mold I had in my mind. I did not grow up in a town where there were many Asian-Americans. Now I was on a campus where there were other Asian girls everywhere, some with physical traits that now I yearned to have.
This random list represents the thoughts and ideas that add up to how I have viewed my body throughout my life so far. This point of view hurt me in college.
I ate to be skinny. I would skip a meal here or there. Mom, if you’re reading this, I used to skip breakfast and lie to you over the phone that I did, because not eating breakfast would mean a place where I could reduce my calorie count. I worked out to be skinny. I punished my body at the gym for a late night meal I had. I would skip hanging out with my friends to go to the gym for two hours. If my friends complimented me for my strict gym schedule, I would smile but inside I knew that I would punish my body for the fat that it was holding. I became a pescatarian, not with the intention of eating healthier, but with the full intent of trying to lose pounds.
I am trying to change my mindset about health and fitness. I am trying to work out for me, to be as strong as I can be, but it’s still hard not to think doing an extra set means losing an extra pound. With food, I’m trying to avoid calorie-counting and Googling, “How many calories are in a personal pizza?” even though I did that over the weekend and tried to figure out if I met my calorie limit or if I still had wiggle room to buy a medium coffee.
When my mom makes comments about my body, I accept and acknowledge her words but try to remember that my body will forever be a work in progress, that there will always be something to comment on.
My clothing style is the therapy that I am using to work on how I should view my own body. It’s a way for me to be creative and dress my body for how it is in the present, not for the future.
All these little comments, all these little events in my life, have accumulated into my skewed mindset of what health and fitness should be. When you make a comment about my body, I’ll always be holding up that comment to the list that’s been perpetuated in me of what an ideal Vietnamese woman should be. I hate it, but it’s true.
Kimberly Nguyen is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.