Last Friday I watched UCLA’s 2009 Chinese American Culture Night. It brought up a number of themes of relevance to Asian Pacific Islander (API) Americans today, one of which was eating disorders and poor body image.
A 2007 feature article in Audrey magazine goes into depth about the multiple issues that API women struggle with today: the Asian beauty standard of slenderness; the American beauty standard of slenderness and Western facial features; and cultural beliefs and practices that discourage API women from seeking or receiving help.
Below is an excerpt from the article that discusses the cultural factors in API eating disorders.
During her sophomore year of high school, Marilla began a six-month battle with bulimia. Looking back, she says the lack of emotional openness with her parents may have also contributed to her disease. “There aren’t many displays of affection in a lot of Chinese families,” she says. “Having an eating disorder gives you more ground to work with — the chance to have a release that you don’t get from your parents.”
Experts say Marilla’s experience isn’t atypical. “Most Asian Americans feel they have to fill the model minority stereotype,” says Ahn, who points out that many Asian Americans put a premium on academic success. She also notes that some Asian Americans lack the tools to handle intense emotion, because “culturally, there is less emphasis on emotional expression.”
Although Marilla, Aretha and Jin insist that eating disorders are widespread among their Asian American peers, there’s little data to back their assertion. None of the girls are surprised by this, however, and each offers the same reason why the phenomenon goes unnoticed. “It’s just hush, hush — one of those Asian things,” says Aretha. And experts agree that shame plays a role in discouraging Asian American women from discussing their eating disorders. “Asian Americans in general avoid mental health services,” says Yoshikawa. “Going to an outsider can seem like you’re disrespecting the family.”
There may be another reason why the phenomenon goes undetected. A 2002 Florida State University study found that undergraduate survey participants were more likely to diagnose Caucasian women with eating disorders than minorities, even when the minority women exhibited the same symptoms. If the same is true for physicians, the data could have troubling implications for Asian American women, a segment of the population that is often believed to be naturally thin. “There’s an assumption that Asian Americans are happy with their bodies,” says Ahn. “Most people think they’re all petite, so even if someone is underweight because they are restricting food and engaging in other unhealthy behaviors, they might think, ‘oh, that’s just genetic.’”
Although researchers are divided on whether the experiences of Marilla, Aretha and Jin should be seen as individual cases or parts of an overall trend, most agree more studies need to be done. “There’s a lack of research; the field is still developing,” Yoshikawa explains. “And it’s not a field that Asian Americans go into. Culturally, going into psychology is not promoted.”
– posted by Debbie Chong