Asian Americans and Our Quest to be Thin

An essay on the complicated relationship between being skinny and being valued—and how to let it go

Words by Anne Wen

I used to laugh whenever my childhood friend mentioned her obsession with Stray Kids, the K-pop boy band formed through a reality TV show. Somehow, even I got sucked into the hype and ended up at a concert in Oakland Coliseum, with a ticket to watch the exact group I had once joked about. It was mid-July 2022, at the peak of summer, and in the middle of the arena, joined by a sizable dance crew, the group’s eight members performed a flashy show that was both chaotic and cocksure.

As one of the attendees, I couldn’t help but notice how K-pop as a genre was a mix of American pop, hip-hop, and dance music—a kaleidoscopic type of music that has since taken the world by storm. But even after the high-energy show, comparison truly became the thief of joy. I started wondering how much I should be eating, given the thin bodies of the K-pop stars. Did the idols eat any desserts? Were they eating dinners? Was the hot dog after the concert worth it when, like the K-pop idols share in “what I eat in a day” videos, their meals consist of vegetables and fruits? While I admit that K-pop idols don’t intend to promote body negativity, their pristine shaped bodies reinforce the message: Asian media promotes unrealistic body images, and while the images feel harmful in Asia, they feel particularly acute in America, where more than 40 percent of adults are obese.

Constant talks about body image

For years, teenagers and young adults have understandably worried about negative body image. The spread of K-pop and South Korea’s cosmetic industry, known as K-beauty, has developed into a global phenomenon for young men and women, who are exposed to pressures early on, and expected to conform to these standards of beauty. Boys and girls, similar to the K-pop idols they revere, are told to be leaner, taller, and fitter. Despite the stereotypical images of body disorders and diet complications common to girls, exacting beauty norms place enormous pressure on adolescents of all genders.

I’ve wondered if beauty and success go hand in hand, seemingly because the more pounds I shed, the more compliments I acquire.

As a Chinese American, I regularly talk about body image. One of the most common phrases I hear from family and friends is: “You’ve lost weight!” Or, “I haven’t seen you in a while and you’ve put on some weight.” The comments get me thinking about how much Asian American communities prioritize appearance. I’ve wondered if beauty and success go hand in hand, seemingly because the more pounds I shed, the more compliments I acquire. At the same time, it feels wrong to talk about body image when the American definition of fatness vastly differs from the Chinese.

Different definitions of ‘fat’ in Asia and America

The K-pop idols I respect, such as Stray Kids and Seventeen—another group that performed in Oakland over the summer—depict male figures fit and skinny from head to toe. As they walk onstage, I can’t help but internalize that their success is closely associated with a thin frame. The advertisements I watch on Asian media and my body image conversations at home do little to convince me that being fat, even slightly overweight, is acceptable in Asian American culture.

What’s more confusing is the different definitions of “fat” in the United States and China. Here, I can eat a McDonald’s Big Mac and french fries in the same sitting without any comment on my weight. But in China, if I were to order the same two items in one sitting, I'd seal the deal for an aunt to criticize me. Rarely do I hear conversations about body mass and sizes that vary based on health conditions. You’re skinny, or you’re not, and the thinner, always the better.

In the United States, the average person will not talk to me about my weight, in part because my weight doesn’t constitute the standard definition of overweight by American standards. But where thin by American standards is considered fat in Asia, that conversation is brought up, regardless of whether I bring up the topic. Research provides one reason for the different cultures: A 2017 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which focuses on economic progress, chronicled 40 percent of Americans with obesity, compared to 4.2 percent in Japan and 5.5 percent of adults in South Korea. The hallmark of an overweight body, researchers found, allowed immigrants to fit into American identity, according to a study published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Asian Americans who weighed more than their white counterparts in the same age range, were given more signals to be American, compared to their Asian peers who weighed less.

One in three young women in South Korea has undergone surgical procedures...The craze has fueled the country’s economy but also reminded consumers, people like me, that the perfect look can be altered.

Turn to plastic surgery, and you can see another example to find the “perfect” look. One in three young women in South Korea has undergone surgical procedures, according to a Gallup poll in 2015. The craze has fueled the country’s economy but also reminded consumers, people like me, that the perfect look can be altered. Even if I’m not born naturally beautiful, however I define that, a machine can fix my face or body. I’m encouraged to conform to the beauty standards of women across Asia, even though I study halfway across the world.

How we’re taught to commodify beauty

As an East Asian woman accustomed to the objectification of women, I see a more damaging trend. From K-pop to K-beauty, Asian beauty industries capitalize on the commodification of women and force an already saturated market to monetize the insecurities of young customers. The beauty routines standard among image-conscious women and men—which is to say, most teenagers and adults in their 20s—have set up different types of social perceptions. People look at a man differently if he takes care of his skin, similar to how a woman is perceived more fondly if her skinniness conforms to Asian standards.

“If you’re not as popular, you should lose weight,” my aunt told me.

“If you have to buy new clothing in different sizes, just don’t eat,” another aunt said. “In the eyes of guys, brains matter less than your weight.”

Women, particularly Asian American girls like me, are pushing back. We constantly hear the term “weight loss” and “diet” thrown around, so much so that protests have erupted in South Korea and Japan against the harsher beauty standards women face. When women are omitted from political and economic leadership, they’re judged based on their appearance and not competence. The social pressure to have a small, heart-shaped face remains stronger than ever, especially with pressure from mothers on their Asian American children.

To improve your chances of finding a partner, Chinese culture expects young men and women to bear strong professional skills and great looks. The looks, of course, don’t end with genetics. Men can use complicated skin care regimens with products that boast anti-aging and skin toning benefits. Women can try plastic surgery for a facelift or a nose raise.

Asian American men find themselves inexperienced to look for a partner compared to their white counterparts, according to a 2015 study.

While dating is hard everywhere, Asian American men have it particularly hard. Research pulled from the Facebook dating app, Are You Interested, by the publication Quartz, found that white men and Asian American women are among the most favored dates online. Asian American men find themselves inexperienced to look for a partner compared to their white counterparts, according to a 2015 study. In a digital age driven by Instagram and filters, the desire to look and then become photogenic has consumed the lives of young Asian Americans.

Temporary end to conversations about body image

One silver lining of the pandemic was that it temporarily ended discussions about body image. In perennial quests to change their bodies, young men and women were forced to think less about their physical appearance and more about a dire global virus. Gone were the regular talks about diets; gone, too, were frets about the attire of the day. In the pandemic, I just hoped that folks survived the coronavirus.

That’s been extremely liberating for me, someone whose body fat boiled down to being an average Chinese American girl. I can only imagine that for women with physical disabilities and constant comments about their bodies, this stretch of staying at home freed them.

Obviously, conversations about body image and social standards do not end with a pandemic. But they provide breathing room. I once joked with friends that Zoom’s focus on the face granted me peace. The idea that I didn’t have to worry about how the rest of my body looked surprised me.

I know I shouldn’t think about body image too much; logically, I should reject these thoughts. But still the comments, spoken or unspoken, remain. So I am in the process of coming to terms with my body and embracing freedom from my clothing drawers. And I am happily wearing the same hoodie and loose fitting pants, again and again.

How do you reconcile being skinny and healthy, beautiful and accepted, all at the same time?

I’m lucky to be alive and to have a healthy body and to have attended fun concerts. I’m not unaware of the privilege to be healthy. I also can’t wait to jump, travel, and talk to extended family in China, where much of the country remains closed to foreigners. But I will expect the unfortunate and oftentimes ill-timed comments about body image present in Asian American families. For I’m aware that the feeling of not being conscious about weight is rare, and the confidence promoted by an American education stands at a crossroads with Chinese culture. How do you reconcile being skinny and healthy, beautiful and accepted, all at the same time?

I wish I could say that writing this piece granted me eternal liberation from the fat-shaming god. But that’s far from the truth. I’m still not ready to forgo thoughts about my weight. I still think about the K-pop idols like the members of Stray Kids and Seventeen, whose near-perfect physiques have created unrealistic standards. I still hear comments about body image, regardless of what I choose to speak about with older aunts and uncles. But at least I can try, in constant pursuit, to be more body-less. While engaging in conversations, like the protests we have seen against harsh beauty standards in South Korea, I offer myself and other Asian American young adults in the same boat, the chance to be heard. In freeing others and showing them that they’re not alone, I’m freeing myself from the stresses of body image.

Published on February 23, 2023

Words by Anne Wen

Born and raised on Guam, Anne Wen covers news about college students, Asian American communities, and a vastly overlooked part of the world, the Pacific. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, The Guardian, HuffPost, and Business Insider.