The first word I ever learned in Cantonese was fei, or fat. This was when I was 14, on a trip to Malaysia to meet part of my extended family. Some of my cousins said nice things to me in English, but then they’d break off into whispered Cantonese conversations, and I kept hearing that word, apparently used to describe me.
It was news to me that my body was anything other than the tool I used to scratch a drawing in the dirt, play the piano, and all the other fun stuff I liked to do. I had not yet thought of it as the AESTHETIC REPRESENTATION OF MY VERY BEING. But I had been brought up to take whatever my elders said as gospel, so I figured my slender cousins must be right. My body went from something that felt like a natural extension of me to something I despised and tried to pretend didn’t exist. I felt totally betrayed that it had opened me up to such hurtful scrutiny.
Although my doctor had no concerns about my health, when I told my parents what my cousins had said, they tended to agree. They pointedly encouraged me to exercise and said, “Everyone can always lose a bit of weight,” and I knew “everyone” meant me. One campaign involved reminding me that I was a good swimmer when I was younger, but I silently thought, My new, big body won’t be able to swim as fast as it used to, though…
My parents even bought me a treadmill that they put in our living room. I guess they figured that if an exercise apparatus was sitting there RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF MY HOUSE, I might change my mind about working out, but it had the opposite effect: As much as I disliked my body, I resented the constant nagging from my family even more. I refused to give in. This was partly because it would mean admitting they were right: I needed to exercise, and that was because I was fat. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone to be happy and healthy in the ways I used to feel.
Around eighth grade, my friends became more invested in how they dressed and looked. I was not immune to the siren song of FASHION—I too wanted to wear cool outfits. I absorbed all the constant idealizing of skinny bodies in the magazines I read and the television shows I watched and was finally convinced I needed to trim my “fat” body down to a “fashion-friendly” size. I saw the treadmill in a new light—my possible salvation from this body of mine that people seemed to think needed improving! I started jogging for the length of a television episode a few days a week.
After a couple months of this, my parents started praising me. “Wow,” they’d say, “have you lost weight? You look so nice!” I liked hearing that! I had done this myself—conquered my wicked, unbecoming body—and I was in control again. The way my body looked to other people became far more important than anything I might want for it, since it was much more pleasant to be praised for my body than be censured for looking “wrong.” Who wouldn’t want approval from their family and peers?
When I was 15, I was on a quiz-bowl type of school team that came in second in a national competition, earning us a place in the international finals, which were to be held in Ann Arbor, Michigan—a long way from my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. I was super proud and excited, even more so when my mom offered to buy me some new clothes for the trip. I persuaded her to take my sister and me to the coolest store in town, where I’d never been before. I felt exactly like I was starring in the scene from every movie ever, where a character buys a new, transformative identity at the mall. I took piles of neon lycra, feathers, and multi-colored pleather into a dressing room (this was the ’90s). I was gonna be a brand-new girl!
As I changed, the sales assistant brought me a pair of metallic brocade pedal-pushers. I scrunched my nose up and said I wasn’t sure if they’d look good on me. “Come on,” she said. “Just try them on!” Reluctantly, I disappeared back into the changing room and squished myself into the very tight (and ugly) pants. I could barely zip them up.
Feeling awkward and uncomfortable, I emerged from the room—since the assistant had been so enthusiastic, I thought I should at least show her what they looked like.
“I don’t think I feel that good about these,” I said.
She looked disappointed and shrugged. I don’t know whether she was earning a commission on the garments she sold, or if she really did think they looked great, but I was in her bad books now. My sister wandered over and asked, “How’s it going?”
The sales assistant answered for me: “It’s OK, except your sister has a funny body.”
After everything I’d already heard from my family and soaked in from magazines and TV, the fact that a perfect stranger thought my body was “funny” didn’t even shock me. And I believed her—after all, she was clearly an “expert” on clothes and bodies, and her professional opinion was that my body was weird. Even the “new, improved” version of my flesh envelope didn’t seem to make the grade, and I was totally at a loss as to how I could do anything to my body that would please everyone—or myself. I despaired of ever being able to wear things that “normal girls” wore and felt more alienated from my own corporeal self than ever.
No matter how hard I tried to stop caring what other people thought of my shape or size, some offhand comment would deal a confidence-destroying blow when I least expected it. Like in college, when I worked as shopgirl and very official and accredited style expert myself, and I was showing a petite customer a pair of pants. Squinting at the label, she asked me if I thought they were right for her, saying, “I’m about your size. What size are you?”
“They’re totally fine for you, but they’d be too small for me,” I said.
She looked me up and down and exclaimed, “Gosh, you’re bigger than you look, aren’t you?” I laughed it off: I knew she was being impolite and that I had really started it by sizing up my body in the first place. But I still felt secretly stung. Her comment reminded me that other people still had opinions about my body, and that those opinions still had the power to make me see myself in a new, entirely unwelcome way.
I wish I could say that, as an adult, I’ve totally accepted my body for what it is and that my brain and body are knitted together in perfect love and harmony. But at least I can say I’m trying. It’s not that I don’t realize I’m lucky and healthy—I do. I am able-bodied and have never had any serious or chronic health issues. My inability to accept and even love my body causes me shame and distress.
Not too long ago, I complained to Brodie after my dad told me I was fat, and she said, “Not that fat is bad.” A lightbulb went off above my head: DUH. All this time I had been accepting that what other people had said to me was absolutely right. What if I thought about these comments in another way? So what if I have a “flat nose,” as one perceptive and kind acquaintance once casually observed? So does my mother, and I love that we share that. Rather than seeing my body as an enemy, I am trying to consider it a part of a beloved whole that serves me in everything I wanna do.
I can’t control what other people do. What I can do is try to respond constructively when I find myself in a hate triangle between another person, my body, and myself. I don’t want to let anyone get away with such thoughtless speech; I want to let someone know that there are some things I won’t tolerate. It’s sometimes hard to know what to say— I like to think I’d smile and go, “Too bad I don’t give a shit what you think!” but it’s not always easy. The last time my mother suggested I could lose some weight—a couple of months ago, actually—I just shrugged and said, “I eat pretty healthfully and exercise regularly, and this is just where I’m at right now.” It wasn’t exactly shouting off the rooftops that I love my bod, but it was a far cry from my old deer-in-headlights routine. Plus, it was the truth, and it was pretty effective in ending the conversation. (Although I wouldn’t be surprised if my mom bought a treadmill and had it shipped to me.)
Sometimes I long for my childhood, before I visited my cousins for the first time, when I enjoyed scampering around pretending to be a horse, or listening to wondrous music, or making things with my hands, and thinking of my body as the thing that helped me do all of these things. I would love to return to this head-and-heart union. Realistically speaking, though, I know I’m never going to be able to un-know what it’s like to feel separate from my body. I am slowly learning to come to terms with my it. I have to—my body is my constant companion. It’s not an “other.” It’s me. ♦