Asian-Americans And The Quest For Thin

For many Americans, New Year's resolutions are likely to include weight loss, especially after the holidays. Body image is a thorny issue for many women of different backgrounds, including Asian-Americans. In Tell Me More's "Behind Closed Doors" segment, host Michel Martin speaks with Lisa Lee, publisher of Hyphen magazine, about body image among Asian-Americans and her own quest to be thin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, a few reflections from me about how we were marked by the year that was. That's my Can I Just Tell You? commentary, and that's coming up.

But first, we go behind closed doors, as we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues people usually keep private. And in this case it's something on many a list of New Year's resolutions: losing weight. Now, some people will go to remarkable lengths to drop the pounds, like, say, eating no solid food after six in the evening or no liquids after seven, or no carbs or fried foods or dairy or soda. And some may combine those disciplines with the use of a machine that is supposed to shock your muscles into burning calories.

Well, those are all methods that Lisa Lee tried. She is the publisher of Hyphen magazine. That's a magazine that focuses on Asian-American art, culture and politics. She shared her personal struggle with weight and body image in the magazine recently. She says there is a particular edge to body image issues in the Asian-American community because a very slender physique is highly prized.

And Lisa Lee is with us now to tell us more. Thanks so much for joining us. Happy New Year to you.

Ms. LISA LEE (Publisher, Hyphen): Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: When do you think you started this whole extreme dieting thing? And I want to mention that some of the things that we talked about in the introduction, this fairly rigorous diets and subjecting yourself to all kinds of machines and manipulations. I mean, some of that involved, like, a spa you went to in Taiwan, which sounds to me more like boot camp than a spa. So, when did that whole business start?

Ms. LEE: So that started after I graduated from high school. Basically it was the couple of months that I had before I went to college and, you know, the whole point was for me to go to Taiwan, spend some time with, you know, my relatives there and just take a break from, you know, the craziness of high school. And that was when my mom picked up this, you know, marketing pamphlet for this weight loss spa.

And she was like, you know, hey, since we have nothing else to do, why don't we go check out this place? And the pamphlet had this, you know, before and after picture of this one woman. And I remember looking at it thinking, whatever, it's probably just another weight loss scam, whatever. And I decided to check out the spa with her.

And that was somehow, you know, how I fell into this rabbit hole, and going into it not really believing that it could work, but then sort of putting myself through all of these really crazy methods of losing weight.

MARTIN: Tell me about this machine thing. I will get off it for a minute, but I just really can't - now, I heard about the body reps. Many people do that where they get wrapped up in things. But this machine, what is with the machine?

Ms. LEE: So, this was when - so, later on, in my diet, oftentimes when you go on a diet, you'll hit this point where they call it the plateau, where you've lost the majority of the weight that your body can handle. And, you know, it's not enough for your personal goals and you want to lose more weight. So this was later on during the weight loss period where they started putting me on this machine.

And basically, how it works is that, you know, it has these different wires and it sort of sticks to the body part that you want to, quote, unquote "exercise." And so for me, you know, it was a lot of the love handle area, the thigh and even some of my back fat, if you can believe that. And how it works is that it sort of sends these little shocks of electricity through these wires and it exercises your muscles for you while you're just basically lying there.

And it starts off being on really small shocks that you can barely feel. And then as you start getting used to it, the spa person who you're with, you know, they start turning up the amps or, you know, I'm not really even sure what to call it, until you - basically you can see your - that piece of muscle moving.

MARTIN: Oh goodness.

Ms. LEE: I know. It's pretty...

MARTIN: OK. It sounds pretty gross. But I guess the question would be, why did you feel a need to do this - and I do think it's fair, if you don't mind my telling this, you talk about this in your article called "Seeking the Perfect Body," you're a size 10 and that is hardly obese. So, where did this message come from that being a size 10 is somehow not acceptable?

Ms. LEE: You know, I've been thinking about this a lot when I was prepping for this talk with you and also when I was, you know, writing this article. And I think it has, you know, there are a lot of reasons. I've always been big compared to like people in my family and my extended family. I'm probably the biggest out of all of my cousins. And compared to my mom, you know, when she was my age, she used to brag about how she was a size zero. And I don't think it's really so much that I'm a size 10, but compared to everybody else, that's where things really matter.

And I and, you know, in a lot of the mass media that we see, especially in Asian-American community, you know, women are supposed to be, you know, thin and almost, you know, fragile and, you know, a lot of these Asian women are prized that they need to be extra slender to be loved, essentially.

MARTIN: So it's the stereotypical little doll, you know.

Ms. LEE: Exactly.

MARTIN: That image is, and that still is out there.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. And then, you know, a lot of the men in our community are already emasculated and they are sort of seen as very womanly and all of that. So a lot of women feel like in order themselves to be, you know, a woman, they need to be even skinnier and more slender than the men that are already emasculated.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about weight loss and body image. We're placing a particular focus on the Asian-American community, particularly Asian-American women.

We're talking to Lisa Lee. She's the publisher of Hyphen magazine. That's the magazine that focuses on issues of politics, culture and the arts in the Asian-American community in the U.S.

One of the things you point out in your piece is that there's this inherent contradiction. On the one hand eating, particularly in the Chinese-American tradition, is very social, right?

Ms. LEE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Big family meals. Lots of choices. It's convivial. It's important. On the other hand, you're saying, you get this image very early that if youre woman youre supposed to be very petite and almost fragile and birdlike. It's like you're almost kind of set up to fail.

What do you think the origin of that is? I mean you say that your own parents, per se, didn't push this ideal on you. That they just cared that you are healthy and fit. But where do you think you adopted this point of view - that you had to be petite and tiny? Do you just think it's part of the culture? I know that though, and I just want to sat that there are many women who are not Asian-American who will relate to what you're saying - that they feel that pressure from where ever they feel it. But I'm asking why do you think it's something about the Asian-American beauty ideal, were just Asian in general, not just for Americans.

Ms. LEE: Right. Well, so for my parents, I mean I think one of the issues here is that people in the Asian-American community, like especially parents, tend to be pretty blunt. So it's not taboo to see you and go oh my gosh, you know, you've gained so much weight. Or, you know, oh my gosh, youve lost so much weight.

So even though my parents didn't particularly push this body image on me, per se, and they've always defended me when my relatives would see me and remark on, you know, how big I'm getting or things like that, I think it's just one of those things that I've adopted from, like, my relatives. And then I think, for me personally, definitely through a lot of the media that I was consuming when I was younger, you know, a lot of the soap operas that I was watching, a lot of the romance novels that I was reading when I was a child. And just having this really romanticized idea that, you know, if I were to meet the love of my life I need to be, you know, slender and, you know, birdlike and very, you know, fragile in order for this person to really fall in love with me. And it sounds crazy to say it but, you know, when youre just 11, 12 years old, you know, you just have this idea in your head that that's what perfection looks like.

MARTIN: And you took it to - at some point, you think you took it to a dangerous level, where you were, after you got back from the spa from hell...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...which describes to me, it did not seem like a very relaxing experience, but you were taking diet pills. You were essentially starving yourself. Your friends became very concerned because you would go out with them, you'd eat nothing, you'd lie and say you'd already eaten. When did it finally turn around for you?

Ms. LEE: You know, when I came back and started college. I mean so, college is a very, very social place in eating is very social. You know, and I was living in the dorms, you know, living this average, you know, American college life and, you know, all of my hall mates, like we would go eat breakfast together, lunch, dinner and all of that stuff. And this was when I started realizing that this sort of lifestyle that I had kept up in Taiwan, is not something that I could maintain here.

So first of all, going through that was really tough, watching everyone else eat and then, you know, having people constantly ask me, you know, oh, don't you want to try some of this? Or, you know, or you're not eating very much. Like, what's going on? And when I realized that it was really starting to take a toll on me, was when - I remember I was looking at the deserts in the dining hall and looking at the brownies and thinking to myself, I better eat two or three of these right now, because I am not going to be able to eat it again.

So just having that really weird irrational thought, it was almost like I've lost control of like my appetite and also like the way I think about food. It was like I need to eat these. I need to eat all of this right now because I need to, you know starve myself in the next like 24 hours or something like that. And that's when I realized that, okay, something is not really right here.

MARTIN: So how did you achieve some equilibrium here? How did you finally get to a place where you were not just ashamed, but that you were willing to talk about it and hopefully live more sensibly?

Ms. LEE: It definitely took a while. I mean I never told anybody about this whole spa from hell experience until I wrote this piece for Hyphen. And part of the reason is because I don't know if I've ever reached that point. I feel like it's like a constant battle and I'm still working on it, I mean, even now. I feel like more recently I've come to accept that any time that you try to repress what it is that you eat, you have to see it as a lifestyle change in order for things to really stick.

If youre cutting out any, for example, fried foods or carbs, if youre just doing it so you can lose a couple of pounds, it's going to come back and just bite you twice as hard as before. And what you're going to end up doing is losing control of your appetite and, sort of, binge eating.

So first of all, coming to accept that and reconcile with that. And if I really wanted to sort of change the way my body looks, it has to be essentially a lifestyle change. You know, I have to exercise and all of that stuff.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think might make this better? As weve discussed, many women from all kinds of backgrounds are struggling with these issues. I mean Oprah, you know, famously has struggled with weight fluctuations and -man, if she's not successful, I dont know who is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And from, you know, other backgrounds, like for example, Margaret Cho, the comedian, has talked about the fact that when she was starring in a sitcom she was in tremendous pressure to be thin, even though her persona was kind of every girl. But once she got that sitcom, she was pressured to do a lot of the extreme things that you were doing. And she said she was miserable, so she finally just said, you know what? The heck with it. I'll go back and do standup and do I want - live the way I want to.

So there are all kinds of people who are famous who have struggled with this. And I wonder what you think it will take for girls not to feel the way you felt?

Ms. LEE: You know, I went through this experience by myself. I personally wanted to feel this way, and I think it's like a really blurry line between wanting to feel healthy versus wanting to feel overtly skinny and beautiful. So I think it's really going to take a generation of women to start doing that and setting examples and being role models to their sisters, to their kids, and really talking about weight in a very sort of healthy perspective for, you know, the next generation of younger women to not get the two mixed up.

MARTIN: Lisa Lee is publisher of Hyphen magazine. She was kind enough to join us from member station KALW in San Francisco.

Lisa Lee, thanks so much for joining us and Happy New Year to you.

Ms. LEE: Thank you so much for having me and a Happy New Year to you too.

MARTIN: And to see before after photos of Lisa Lee, go to npr.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of music)

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