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Not white, not quite: eating disorders + ethnic minorities

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Fucked-up relationships with food are a fact of coming-of-age for many – but the situation is complicated by not being white. Here’s why the body image conversation needs to make space for every culture

Today is Chinese New Year. Millions of families will be coming together to eat and drink in abundance, welcoming in the Year of the Monkey. For families who have left China for the UK or US, separation from the ancestors will feel particularly acute. For the children of these families, the New Year is a chance to reflect on their dual identities, and maybe have another guess at figuring out who they are. 

“Hen pang! Hen pang!” I am standing awkwardly at a family gathering, and my relatives are grabbing at my face and arms. Hen pang means ‘very fat’ in Mandarin, and although the word ‘fat’ doesn’t always carry the same weight in Mandarin as it does in English, the implicit judgement in their words silences me more than my limited Chinese language skills.

My mother is Chinese. In China, and in the West, Chinese women are considered beautiful because, or when, they are thin and petite and fragile. I am none of these things; I’m not even fully Chinese. I am always the biggest woman in the room in the room at family events, and relatives do not hesitate to tell me so. They marvel at the size of the strange hybrid that stands before them, who is twisting up inside and making a mental note to eat less at dinner, or scouting out a bathroom for a post-meal purge.

People in China are reluctant to waste food. Every part of the animal, from the brains to the feet, is considered a delicacy. I wish I could say I pondered this more as I stuck my fingers down my throat whenever I got the chance as a teenager, but truth be told, I was a little preoccupied.

At this point I should point out that this is not another confessional think piece about how terrible it is to have an eating disorder – mainly because I wouldn’t really know. I have seen lives ruined (and restored) by fucked up relationships with food and love and self-care, but mine is not one of them. I am mostly fine, most of the time.

But what I do know is that the pursuit of perfection that drags hands away from plates, and fingers down throats, is complicated by not being white.

“When the problem at hand is represented by the colour of your skin, the marker of your whole cultural identity, the only way of getting rid of it is getting rid of yourself”

Beat, the eating disorder charity, does not feature a single non-white face on its website. Actually, I’m lying: there is one doctor. In many ways, I was the typical neurotic, high achieving, high-pressured girl that is the stereotypical sufferer. But I did not recognise myself in any of the support available. At not one of the (hundreds of) talks my school put on to raise awareness of eating disorders was there any mention of cultural factors, or how to access help without family support. Eating disorders are not just about wanting to be thin, but cultural ideas of beauty undeniably play a part – and these ideas are generally focused on being white.

“I thought if I was thinner I'd be more ‘legitimately Japanese’,” says Hanna, who was anorexic for three years as a teenager. “I think also the idea of whiteness and the male gaze played a role in it, because I felt ugly to boys because I wasn't white and was chubby, so I wanted to lose weight to be more confident in myself.”

I can relate: the addiction of insecurity is the hope, floating on the horizon, that when you lose whatever part of yourself is making you ugly, you will be happy. That the happiness never seems to arrive does little to tarnish this faith.

But when the problem at hand is represented by the colour of your skin, the marker of your whole cultural identity, the only way of getting rid of it is getting rid of yourself.

Asian girls are supposed to be skinny. “I wouldn’t have thought of myself as fat if I was white,” says Hanna. “I felt a mismatch between my race and my body type.”

While Hanna wanted to conform more to Japanese beauty standards, other BME women experience the opposite. Danni*, who is Iranian, struggled to accept her non-white appearance. Her cousins are half-Iranian and half-British, which “has always been a deep source of jealousy”.

“I was angry that they had more ‘anglo’ features and lacked my nose, my hairy body, all that sort of stuff…My female cousins around my age who live in Iran all have similar faces to mine, but unlike me, they’ve had rhinoplasty and this has always fed into my anxieties about my nose. They’re also all very petite, whereas I am just naturally pear shaped. I don’t look like my Iranian relatives, my half-Iranian relatives, or my English friends.”

It is not just a desire to look more like a white person, or more like your own race, that can screw you up – it’s actually the impossibility of looking like both, and all at once. “According to western beauty standards I need to be slimmer, but I’m unable meet to [western beauty] standards anyway because I’m dark and have curly hair,” says Rianna, who is from a West Indian background. “Then, in the black community and by some select people outside of it, larger black women are fetishized, which feels quite nasty.”

“I was angry that they had more “anglo” features and lacked my nose, my hairy body, all that sort of stuff… I don’t look like my Iranian relatives, my half-Iranian relatives, or my English friends” – Danni

In a culture driven by ideas of what is beautiful, racial characterisations add fuel to the fire. I may not fit the typical media image of the submissive, delicate Asian woman, but that doesn’t stop creepy men from telling me that they “love oriental women because they don’t understand anything and they do what I say”. How I could do what they say when I don’t understand anything, I’ve never been quite able to figure out.

In all honesty, the stress of reconciling race and beauty and body type is fucking exhausting. It is a battle you can never win, because if you are not white, you will never be white. “People will refer to you as loud for just existing,” Rianna tells me, speaking about the experience of bigger, darker women. On the one hand, “the bigger you, are the sassier”, which is seen as positive, but on the other being “overweight” or “too dark” will make you unattractive, and therefore refused entry to a nightclub.

Added to these competing pressures is the stress caused by lack of understanding within BME communities about eating disorders.

When I told my mum about my problems, the idea of seeing a doctor was not contemplated. “Stop doing that,” was her only advice. The Mandarin translation for eating disorder is “Tān shí zhèng”, which literally means “hating food sickness”. There is no concept of anorexia or bulimia being anything other than a dislike of food, which in China, with its hundreds of varieties of dumpling and its three weeks of national food-based holidays a year, is simply bizarre. A culture of perseverance, privacy and ‘showing face’ means not displaying weakness, and silences any discussion of mental health.

There is an irony in this: eating disorders are about self-control, yet those whose cultural background makes them lack control the most are often erased from our conversations. The strong traditions of filial piety in many BME communities leave the younger generation even more powerless than their white peers, yet they are invisible in the representation, and often treatment, of eating disorders.

Women’s bodies – white or otherwise – are subject to scrutiny, sexualisation and invasion on a regular basis. But our bodies are also our heritage. “Look after yourself, because then you’re looking after me,” my mum has always told me. My body is not my own; it is living proof that my mother made it this far. Starving yourself is not just dangerous, it is disrespectful.

And there is no greater disrespect than to reject an offering of food. The sharing of meals is central to the immigrant experience, and under the watchful eyes of friends and family, it can be hard not to overeat, let alone be left to the serious and determined pursuit of starvation. “Iranians are very big on food and there’s a very delicate balance between accepting and rejecting food,” says Danni. “If I’m in a large family gathering, often someone older than me will keep insisting that I take more food, mock me for being ‘too skinny’, and you can only say no a certain number of times. Later on, that same person may come up to you, grab your ‘wide’ hips without asking and make a comment about being ready to have kids with that kind of figure.”

“Beat, the eating disorder charity, does not feature a single non-white face on its website. Actually, I’m lying: there is one doctor”

If the food of your family’s culture naturally more ‘healthy’, this can be a guise for further neuroses. When Hanna was suffering from anorexia, she would prefer it when her mum made Japanese dishes, instead of ‘unhealthy’ western food. “Strangely, I think when I was ill was when I got more into Japanese culture, maybe because I felt like western culture was overindulgent and consumerist in ways that I didn’t associate Japanese culture with”.

For me, enjoying Asian food became both a means and an end in the search for an identity: desperate to cut out any food group that I could, and already a vegetarian, Chinese food was a handy way of avoiding carbs and dairy. There are more than enough vegetables to go round at most Chinese meals, and a reassuringly meagre supply of calories.

When sharing the meals of your family’s culture becomes a method of control, rather than communion, it rather taints the celebrations. And if you are not white, or not quite, you may find yourself on the edge, trying not to take up too much space.

*Name has been changed.