Op-ed: Defining my body without cultural standards

People who have albums filled with childhood photos make me jealous. While I like reminiscing and looking through old photos, I only have a few old pictures of myself. My mom used to take a lot of pictures of me, but I started avoiding them at around eight years old. Though this avoidance might still confuse my mother, I know exactly what caused it. 

I was a feeble child, but after elementary school began I started to grow healthier and gain weight. However, I didn’t realize this weight gain until my uncles and aunties started calling me fat. It was a hard time for me. I felt isolated at school, wore oversized clothes, and bore my relatives’ ridicule—all because of my weight. As a result, my confidence dropped. I became irritable and sensitive about my weight. I avoided mirrors and taking pictures at all costs. I still remember the bitterness of standing in the dressing room trying to fit into pretty clothes that weren’t designed for “fatties” like me. I thought I didn’t deserve pretty things.

Looking back at the few pictures of myself, I realize I was “chubby,” not “fat.” Yet in China, the country where I grew up, looking stereotypically “beautiful” entails adhering to a strict set of physical characteristics—pale skin, thick and smooth hair, big round eyes, double eyelids, a pointy nose, and especially a thin body shape. Because I didn’t have a thin enough body shape to abide to Chinese beauty standards, I started to believe I was ugly.

This terrible outlook consumed me until junior high, when I decided to lose weight. I created a diet plan where I skipped breakfast and only ate two tomatoes for dinner. My mom, worried about my health, tried to stop my dieting by telling me I wasn’t fat at all. I didn’t believe her. “She tells me that because she is my mom, not because I’m thin and not fat,” I told myself.

This unhealthy lifestyle led to hypoglycemia, a low blood sugar level, and even passing out.

But issues with weight and body image also affected many of my female friends. One of my best friends became critical of her weight after a judge for a broadcast journalism competition called her fat. Since then, she becomes sensitive and fasts when she thinks people are calling her “fat” or even “chubby.” As a result, she experiences chronic headaches and stomachaches from skipping meals.

When I decided to study in the U.S., I thought my self-esteem might improve because my friends and I assumed Western beauty standards were less rigid. We felt that Western society doesn’t generally care about body shape since there are actors of all kinds of shapes in television and film.

As I expected, Western culture did have positive effects on my self-esteem. In China, we are not used to complimenting others frequently. In the U.S., people compliment my outfits, makeup, hair color, and almost everything else about me. Some might find it superficial, but I enjoy the confidence boost. I now dare to wear tighter clothes and stand in front of cameras—I’m gradually accepting myself.

Despite my growing confidence towards my body, I found myself falling into another endless loop of shame. After I came to the U.S., I started following the rules of the West. My most drastic change happened on Instagram. I tend to post more pictures taken by others because doing that makes me look “cool.” I avoid posting things that are too “Chinese”—filtered selfies and screenshots of random memes. I don’t double-post, and I try not to post a lot. I always think I can post whatever I want on my account, but I can’t stop telling myself to follow these rules.

The fact that I’m trying to adhere to these standards, even if I hate them, confuses me. I now want to have tanner skin, plumper lips, bigger eyes, and still, a thinner frame—a mixture of Chinese and Western beauty standards. It upsets me that I present myself differently to match up with a culture separate from my own, instead of truly being myself.

Sometimes when I look at myself in the mirror, all dressed up, I tend to think that I wear tight clothes because others do so. I can’t tell if I’m enjoying myself or enjoying the little successes of integrating into Western culture.

After all, I still care about how others think of me and am still trying to gain others’ acceptance by assimilating into them. Most people tend to care about how others view them more than they care about how they view themselves. It takes a lot of effort to ignore judgment from others. I would be better off and more confident if people were nicer to me when I was younger, just as my friend would be healthier if the judge had withheld their comments about her body shape.

A few weeks ago, I was in Emerson’s Health and Wellness Center when I found two scales with handwritten messages promoting self-confidence and body positivity scrawled across them. These words moved me so much because it seemed like someone finally realized the importance of self-appreciation. I wish I had scales like these at eight years old, and I wish someone would have told me, “You are more than just a number.”

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