V. Chau is pushing back against their mother's preoccupation with their weight and eating habits. And psychologist Yuying Tsong, who studies Asian American body image, speaks with Juleyka about disordered eating within immigrant families.
Yuying Tsong is a psychologist and Professor in the Department of Human Services at California State University, Fullerton. A mixed-method researcher, her/their research and clinical areas of interests include sexual and ethnic minority mental health, Asian American body image and disordered eating, immigration and adjustment, transnational family’s bi-cultural adaptation process, and help seeking attitudes and behaviors. Nationally, Yuying serves on the American Psychological Association Board of Convention Affairs and is Past President and fellows of the Society for the Psychology of Women. She/They co-edited the journal of Women and Therapy special issue on Trauma and Psychology Well-being of Asian American Women and has an upcoming book, entitled “Body Image and the Asian Experience: Asians, Asian Americans, and Asian Diasporas Across the Globe.” Yuying is also a public speaker/trainer and facilitates training on authentic healing from racial- and gender-based trauma and Asian American mental health, body wellness, and intergenerational care.
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Juleyka Lantigua :
Hi everybody. My guest today is V. Chau. V. Chau's Vietnamese mom likes to look a certain way and often comments on V. Chau's weight and how much they eat. But after living through a pandemic in a different state, away from their mom, V. Chau is establishing a healthier relationship with food and their body. Let's get into it.
V. Chau: My name is V. Chau. I am a Queer, Southeast Asian, former refugee from Vietnam, current new American. I was seven when we resettled in the U.S. I come by way of Florida currently calling Cincinnati, Ohio home, and in our culture, the way we would say mom and dad really depends on which region you are from. I speak with the Southern dialect, so I say mẹ and ba. Coming over as a refugee resettling in the U.S. As a Drake would have said it,"It went from zero to 100 real quick." One way that we were able to retain our culture and heritage was absolutely through recipes, childhood comfort food in particular, certain kinds of soups and stews and broken rice dishes. As my relationship to food would inevitably change, in the U.S. being exposed to so many different variety of food from other cultures, my body also shifted. It really revealed some internalized body shaming that passed from mother onto daughter, for sure.
One way that I noticed my mother using body shaming language was at the, the dinner table, she would jokingly say, "Don't eat too much. Men don't like fat girls." "Have you stepped on a scale recently?" kind of in place of a greeting as I got older. She has a completely different relationship to my brother. He can eat as much as he would like, right? He can do whatever he likes. Initially, I was incredibly hurt by that. However, as I got older, as a coping mechanism, I developed a sense of humor around it. So I would respond to the idea of a man not liking me, because I'm chunky with the retort of “Who is this imaginary man telling me what to do with my body? I wouldn't want to be with a man who can handle me.”
I live in Cincinnati, Ohio now, there are a lot of Hills. Whenever my mother asked, if I've stepped on a scale recently, I told her I broke the scale and actually I rolled down the hill. Now at full velocity. We are now about the same age as when she came to America. So 29. And I can only imagine the way that her body shifted. My mother is an incredibly vain woman. After surviving seven years in a refugee camp. First thing she did was she got a nose job. That was the first thing. As I get older, I become more empathetic to what she might have gone through being a farm girl in a rural Vietnam and how she internalized a lot of that like body shaming, old world sexism, ideals, that's been drilled into her.
V. Chau: So I've lived in Cincinnati, Ohio for the past 10 years. This was the first time that I've lived on my own in a different state. It's rethinking, re-imagining what it means to reclaim me for myself. How do I, if a former refugee become a sovereign nation of self. One significant way that happened was through food, learning how to make the food of my childhood and just kind of recreating it in a way that fits my palette a little bit more for sure. As far as diplomatic relationships between my sovereign state hood and my mother country? In taking my freedom, I feel like I'm America in this regard, it forced her to say, "Hmm, I guess that is an independent nation state. I guess I can recognize its sovereignty kind of." From a thousand miles away, I'm definitely a lot braver.
This pandemic in particular really forced me to introspect in the ways that I've internalized fat shaming and my own relationship to my body. I'm chunkier than I've ever been. I gained a significant amount of weight, according to me. I gained 12 pounds. My sense of reality is very warped and I am clearly working through some of my own body dysmorphia. Six of those pounds were proudly gained during a solo trip to Vietnam back in December 2019, where I ate all the street food to my heart's content. There's something about fried chicken eaten on the street. I'm perfectly healthy. I'm healthier than the average American. You know, like I eat very whole, I cook my own food. I rarely eat out. In a lot of ways, I am my own Asian mother., that I've always wanted .
Lantigua : Woof...Navigating and pushing back against family and social pressures to look a certain way is akin to walking on hot coals. You see them on fire. You walk toward them, you walk over them. You think you made it across, but the burn marks remain for a long time. I really wanted–in fact–I needed to better understand the root of such pressures and how we as first gens can avoid internalizing the body shaming we may experience from our loved ones. So, I called in an expert.
Yuying Tsao: My name is Dr. Yuying Tsao. I'm a professor at California State University- Fullerton. I'm trained as a psychologist. So I've worked as a staff psychologist at a university counseling center for several years. My research and work area has a lot to do with help seeking and mental wellness. So this really applies to disordered eating within, particularly Asian American women, immigrants, and families and transnational families.
Lantigua : You listened to V. Chau's story. What did you hear as you listened?
Tsao: Their story ,it made me think about a lot about my experiences working with Asian American, young adults, particularly those with immigrant parents. The way we express affection and love and the way that we want to experience love and affections is a little bit different, I think for those folks who grow up in the U.S. versus who those who grew up in Asian countries or other countries who have more collectivistic values. So for example, for a lot of the Asian American families, the communication style is very much explicit communications of feedback with implicit love. Meaning that I want the best for you. And in order for you to be the best, I need to tell you what you need to change. So you can have this best life because I love you so much. But the “because I love you so much” oftentimes is not explicitly expressed.
Tsao: Of course, you know, I love you. So why do I need to say, I love you? From the parent's perspective, it's implied, but from the children's perspective, the experiences that they're hearing criticism all the time. So for a lot of the Asian American young adults, it's such a disjointed watching parents talking to their white friends a lot of the time. It's more polite, there's more explicit expressions of hugging in the words “I love you”, which is kind of, I think the way in the media in movies kind of romanticize, like this is a loving parent child relationship. So a lot of time, what we talked about with our Asian American young adults, particularly those with immigrant parents, is that, recognize our pain, and we’'re also kind of checking if I don't hear that, am I just making the assumption that they don't love me, they want to shame me. At the same time, thinking about why they're saying that? Being successful professionally, it's such a dream for their children.
Yuying Tsao: And part of that oftentimes comes with the idea is that you, if you present better, you're more likely to have professional possibility. You may get promoted better and make it a better job. So we're not going to be able to unpack all of the white supremacists ideas behind that. We'll recognize that, but that on the shelf.
Lantigua : Right.
Tsao: But from the parent's perspective, that's what they believe. For the parents often time, if this is the way how they're raised, they don't quite have the tools to express their affections in other ways. So when they have a conversation with their parents, maybe even ask about, "Why do you want me to be skinny?"Just even asking that kind of open a door for the parents, to be able to talk about their intentions, unpacking, what even thin means is really important. So one of the story that always stick out to me, for a lot of the Asian American young adults, they left college for the first time. If they don't have a lot of Westerns food in their typical family diet like soft serve ice cream pizza limited in the cafeteria, it's fascinating. They can eat all of that. So by the time you go home, the first time at Thanksgiving, you packed on that first year, 15, 20 pounds, young person go home, open the door. First thing they heard is not like TV say, "Oh, I missed you. I love you so much." First thing they heard is what? "You got so fat!"
Lantigua : Fat!
Tsao: Exactly! So you heard the story too.
Lantigua : I definitely heard it ‘cause I got the Freshman 15.
Tsao: And so as a young person, I like what happened? This is the first thing he told me. And then an hour later, we're at the dinner table. You just told me I'm fat. So I'm not going to eat as much.
Lantigua : Right.
Tsao: But then what happens? Like what , you're a college student now. You don't love the food anymore. I slay three days to cook this for you.
Lantigua : Right.
Tsao: Because food is love for a lot of communities.
Lantigua : Yup.
Tsao: So then the parents are so hard and they yell. Adults love their parents so much. They don't want to see their parents hurt. So they eat. So one of the things that the child talked about is as coping mechanism, that's actually some of how the disordered eating happens.
Lantigua : Mmm…..
Tsao: Cause I want to eat. Because you want me to eat a lot to show that I love you. So I eat a lot, but I'm so uncomfortable. And also you just call me fat. So one of the coping mechanism we see actually is that then they will go to the bathroom and they learn how to throw up in college a lot of the times and they throw up.
Lantigua : Sigh….
Tsao: So it's not so much about the pathology research has talked about in terms of hating myself and some of them. Yes. But for a lot of Asian-American young adults, it's a coping mechanism.
Lantigua : Let's define a little bit, what disordered eating means and how someone might be able to recognize that in themselves?
Tsao: Yes. So disordered eating, meaning that when we're engaging behaviors or having thoughts and beliefs about what we should eat, how much we should eat, what I should look like, that's not the most functional. Disordered eating capture a much wider range than eating disorder. Cause eating disorders is a clinical term. So you need to have certain symptoms for a certain amount of time. So disordered eating for me is a much better way to kind of capture that dysfunction. No ways of thinking about food. For example, I must control how I eat. So I can be happy or I'm so afraid of being fat. So it could be throwed up. It could be over-exercising. So all of that fall under the spectrum.
Lantigua : How do we get help?
Yuying Tsao: How do we get help? Fantastic. So how do we get help for disordered eating? One is that, that literacy of recognizing the symptoms and the beliefs and the behaviors. So one of the misconception about people with disordered eating or eating disorder is that they don't love, they don't like food actually on the contrary, a lot of the folks really like food, but how to have a good relationship with food is kind of what's problematic. So how do we get help, Is if we recognize that we're having an ambivalent relationship about food, that we want to kind of reflect on that. How much, what kind of behaviors am I doing? If I wake up thinking about how much I weigh today? If every bite that I take, I think about how it's going to affecting my calorie? Then I'm spending, I'm getting a lot more energy than it really deserve.
Tsao: Then that's the time I will say definitely it will be a good time to kind of talk to a mental health professional. It doesn't mean that you have a disorder, but it just means that it's occupying your time and energy. Thinking about this a lot. So one of the issues we do know though the misconception that Asian American adults are just smaller. So even with, Asian-American not just young adults, Asian American folks have disordered eating or even eating disorder. A lot of the mental health professionals actually doesn't really assess that because if you're small while you're just naturally small.
Lantigua : So this is actually a great time to talk about a little bit of the cultural pressure that V. Chau experiences. And they talk about how growing up, back home in Vietnam, there was a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way so that they could be appealing for potential husbands, their mom. They say someone who is very, very invested in her appearance. And even when they live a thousand miles away, there is still pressure to maintain the appearance that they are. In fact, still trying to maintain the cultural standard. What's up with that. And how do we break that?
Tsao: I love it. What's up with that. That's what I want to say all the time. That's something that we've talked about, the white supremacists and sexist idea, about what a body should look like and how does one have social mobility? So I was really happy to hear the child talked about they recognizing the sexism in that, that for female expressing folks, if you're not fitting into, what's considered to be quote unquote attractive, with the parenthesis, sexist way supremacist standards. And part of my work really now is focusing on recognizing all these “isms” and oppression. But also kind of recognizing how we have internalized them, because exactly like you said, V. Chau has lived now thousands of miles away from Vietnam. And also many, many miles away from their parents at the same time, we can't help, but internalize the values that were taught or we experience were exposed to growing up.
Tsao: But what we do hear from them is that they're recognizing some of that. That they are paying attention to how they're eating that, connecting to how they were taught when they were younger at the same time, I'm also hearing them talking about, how do they reframe that reinterpret? These values and expectations served a purpose in the society that are still upholding these values. A lot of the collectivism culture, meaning that I love you, that's why I give you feedback. I want you to be successful. A lot of these traditional Asian cultures, traditional collective as culture are one of the reasons that the community really hold down together through all kinds of trauma. A lot of these communities escaped from wars. Escape from poverty, especially for refugee folks to be able to survive and be successful. So these were the values that were very helpful to hold the community together, to help each other out. And to be able to look at trauma and say, "that happened, but I'm going to hold it together, not pay attention to the feelings and we’re going to move forward, so we can keep going." So during trauma, that's how we survive. But for the children, now the approach of not recognizing feelings, not recognizing trauma, doesn't quite fit for them, for folks like V. Chau, being able to kind of recognize the context of the cultural expectations can be very helpful because what it does is that it lifts that blaming of the parents out of the pain. It's not because my parents did not like the way I look it is because this is the way that they know how to express love. They don't have the best tools or languages to do that. So understanding the context of the trauma, it's hopeful, I think, to heal from the pain and these cultural or family expectations.
Lantigua : Thank you. So, so much for being here today.
Tsao: It's my pleasure. I love talking about this, so thank you for the opportunity for me to talk about it.
Lantigua : All right. Let's recap what we learned from Yuying.
Recognized communication styles. If explicit, words of love and affection are not common in your family look for other ways your loved ones are showing how much they care about you.
Consider behavior around food. If you or a loved one is spending a lot of time and energy thinking about and planning how you act when it comes to food, consider having a conversation about disordered eating, or getting help.
And remember: Factor in trauma, values and behaviors that are passed from one generation to the next may have been helpful to a family's survival in extreme situations like war, poverty and forced migration. Knowing this context can help us understand our parents, help us heal and stop blaming.
Thank you for listening and thank you so much for sharing us. How to Talk to [Mami & Papi] About Anything is on our original production of LWCC studios. Virginia Lora is the show's producer. Kojin Tashiro is our mixer. Manuela Bedoya is our social media editor. I'm the creator Juleyka Lantigua.
Lantigua : On Twitter and Instagram we are @talktomamipapi, please follow us and rate us on apple podcasts, Amazon music, Pandora, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye everybody. Same place next week.
Lantigua, Juleyka, host. “When Mom Body Shames You.”
How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything,
LWC Studios., October 11, 2021. TalkToMamiPapi.com.