TW: body image, eating disorder
There is a misconception that Asian women are naturally thin because of their genetics. And while genetics certainly plays a role in a person’s body composition, the truth of the matter is that eating disorders are common in many Asian countries (and in Asian diasporas). Thailand is no exception to this rule, with extreme thinness and pale skin as the standard of beauty for women.
I was 11 years old when I started to notice that my body was changing. My hair grew thicker, my breasts and hips became larger, and my weight had gone up a bit. Initially, I was excited because I was finally becoming a “real woman”. I fantasised about all the grown-up clothes I would wear and imagined myself walking confidently to my future job or social event.
However, the initial excitement soon wore off as I suddenly found myself facing a barrage of negative comments about my changing body. Before puberty, I couldn’t remember anyone talking about any of my body parts. All of a sudden, family members, friends, and even random strangers were telling me that I was fat.
I started to feel insecure and frequently compared my body to other people. Being half Thai and half white in Bangkok also put me at a disadvantage as I was slightly bigger and shaped differently from most of my peers, who had thigh gaps and pale skin.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how tiny my peers were compared to me, and all I wanted to do was hide.
Sometimes I did receive compliments about my appearance, like for my Western nose and double eyelids. However, for every positive comment about my appearance, I would hear ten negative comments, especially about my weight.
My family encouraged my eating disorder
While I already struggled with feelings of inadequacy in comparison to the other girls at my school, it was in my own home where my appearance became a constant source of insecurity. Almost daily, my parents and one of my siblings would make disparaging comments about the way I looked. They would talk about how thick my thighs were and how unusually large my butt was compared to everyone else. Another relative would also make uncomfortable comments about how pointy my breasts were and how no one would want to date me because of it.
It also didn’t help that my mom was very thin too, which left me to compare myself to her as well. Even though she grew up malnourished in the most impoverished region of Thailand and stood only 147 centimetres tall, I couldn’t help but feel inferior to her.
A toxic part of me even sometimes was jealous that she “got to starve” and be that thin.
Both my parents projected their own eating disorders and their intense fear of weight gain onto my siblings and me, but especially on me. We had to follow their strict diet of “healthy foods” and the following were strictly forbidden in our household: sweets, fried foods, coffee, tea, sweet drinks, cheese, and fatty meats.
However, while my parents restricted certain types of food, they still believed in eating a large volume (but only of “healthy” foods!). Every meal at dinner was accompanied by a gigantic bowl of salad (no dressing!) that was almost comparable to my own head in size. If we didn’t finish the entire bowl and the rest of the food, we were not allowed to leave the dinner table. Even if we sat there until 22:00 on a school night, crying that we were full, my parents wouldn’t budge.
If I was ever caught eating a bag of chips or drinking milk tea, my parents would say, “How can you put that garbage into your body? Do you know how much processed sugar is in that?” To make things worse, my father always singled me out for the way I ate, calling me a pig and “not lady-like” if I ever ate quickly or with my mouth slightly open. I noticed he never did this to my brother.
Learning from friends
My best friend in middle school once asked me what my weight was, out of nowhere. I didn’t understand why it was any of her business but she kept pressuring me to tell her. I didn’t want to disappoint my friend so I told her how much I weighed. She was shocked by the number I told her and she told me that I didn’t look that heavy and that she would kill herself if she weighed as much as me.
At school, I would overhear my friends talking about their diets constantly. One of my close friends even proudly boasted that she only ate one meal a day, to which our other friends commended her for her strength and determination. Another friend regularly used anti-poison medication because her modelling agency called her fat.
I eventually realised that my friends were suffering from eating disorders and that they weren’t the only Thai girls who were suffering from them.
Seeing the extreme measures my friends took to lose weight didn’t discourage my own eating disorder, however. My struggle with anorexia began when I started hiding food in my napkin when no one was looking – only to toss it in the toilet later. I also tried to make myself bulimic, but I wasn’t any good at it so I stuck with skipping meals.
I also became obsessed with tracking calories and doing excessive amounts of cardio. I played volleyball, went to gym class, and ran four times a week in the heat. At age 12, I cut out sugar, processed foods, fried foods, and any drink that wasn’t water. While my siblings still ate those forbidden foods in secret, I called myself brave for not giving in to temptation.
When I was at my lowest point (and weight), my classmates and friends would say how good I looked and would ask me about my exercise routine and diet. My family also stopped making negative comments about my appearance, which further fuelled my disorder.
After spending the majority of my teenage years passing out on the street, getting admitted to emergency rooms, and crying myself to sleep, I finally started to get better when I was 21 after moving to the Netherlands and moving in with my boyfriend. Throughout my journey of recovery, I’ve leaned into the process of gaining weight and self-acceptance and I am much more happy now.
The influence of collectivism
I have asked myself a million times, what drives people to continuously seek and point out perceived physical flaws and imperfections in women? Is there some kind of pleasure in putting a woman down? Do we as a society view being fat as the worst thing that could happen to a person?
Maybe some people in Thailand believe that by commenting on a woman’s body, they are being helpful or supportive in some way.
Or perhaps they are not aware of the effects that their comments can have on a person’s mental health and simply talk about someone’s body the same way as they would talk about the weather.
Additionally, Thailand is a collectivistic culture that places a high value on collective well-being, emphasizing the importance of the group over the individual. It’s possible that, in this type of system, a woman’s appearance does not concern only herself, but also the group. If this is true, however, it means that a woman’s body does not belong to her, it belongs to them.
Written by Nicole Ogden.
Nicole Ogden is a Thai/American expat who moved to the Netherlands from Thailand in 2018. She works as an editor for a media company based in Amsterdam.
Illustrated by Nóra Toth.
Nóra is a freelance digital designer and illustrator based in Budapest. After finishing her studies at the Secondary School of Visual Arts, she graduated from ELTE and later studied digital graphic design at METU, and recently completed an illustration masters at MOME. Her illustration work takes inspiration from everyday moments, interesting characters, or city life, and her style is easily recognisable by its playfulness, sense of humour, vivid colours, bold shapes and emotionally engaging visual storytelling. Feel free to contact her via Instagram or email.