Not One More | Equip

February 14, 2023

Eating Disorder Recovery as an Asian American

First and foremost, I am writing from the perspective as a young adult Asian American who is in recovery from an eating disorder. I understand that everyone’s experience is unique to their own life circumstances, and I am simply sharing my personal journey. I hope that there will be a few who are able to resonate with my story or even expand their understanding of eating disorders in minority groups.

Growing up in an Asian-American household and pred#ominantly Asian community, I never heard my family speak about the importance of emotional well-being or the possibility of one of us battling mental struggles. Even among my friends and peers, the topic of mental health was never brought up. Sharing that you were struggling emotionally or mentally was oftentimes deemed “weak.” I learned from a young age that it was frowned upon to share emotions, and best to keep quiet and obey.

Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely fortunate to have parents who provided everything I needed and more growing up, and that is not something I take for granted. However, it would be a lie to say that the emotional environment of my childhood didn’t play a part in my relationship with food and my body.

Asian culture, like many others, relies heavily on food as a central component of social gatherings. Because it is a collectivist culture, food tends to be served in a “family-style” manner, in which everyone shares among the larger dishes placed in the center of the table. As fun as these gatherings can be, the emotion I most remember coming up was fear.

My growing and changing body would always be the first topic of conversation that aunties I hadn’t seen in months would resort to.They would comment on my weight, my face, my skin—whatever else they found needing their critiques. This physical commentary tended to be followed by questions about how I was performing at school in comparison to others. On the surface, these types of conversations can appear harmless, but to my young and impressionable mind, they told me that life was a zero-sum game and I needed to come out on top or I would be subjected to harsh disapproval.

With the “family-style” of eating, everyone could see how much and what I was eating, and as an already self-conscious “chubby” kid, I couldn’t help but feel all eyes were on me. The anxiety that came from eating with others coupled with the judgemental comments was a complete double whammy. I couldn’t help but carry their words heavily in my heart. If the adults in my life only cared to comment on what I looked like and my academic achievements, then that’s what mattered the most, right?

With these comments alongside the pressure to adhere to the East Asian beauty standards and expectations of staying in a small and petite body, my dieting began. It started off as cutting certain foods, but before long it spiraled into a full-blown eating disorder. What I thought I had control of soon controlled me. My journey to find treatment was a delayed one, due to lack of awareness about mental health issues, but once my parents understood what was happening, they acted swiftly. With their limitless efforts, I was able to get the support I desperately needed to save my life.

I want to emphasize that no one and not one thing is to blame for my eating disorder, but these factors were important to consider, especially as I continued my journey of recovery. I was lucky enough to have a family that was willing to learn and unlearn together. Through many trials and hardships, we were able to nurture a supportive environment for my treatment by acknowledging harder truths and setting boundaries to prioritize mental health.

Now that I am in a strong place in my recovery, I want everyone to know that finding the balance between adhering to your culture and being true to your individual identity in recovery is tricky. Yet it is a worthwhile journey—I know because it is one I traveled. I hope that with more diversity and inclusion efforts, people of all races and ethnicities can get the support they need and not one more person has to struggle in the dark.

Vanessa Do is an Equip Certified Peer Mentor, where she works with patients in treatment for their eating disorders. As someone with lived experience with her own eating disorder and recovery, she is passionate about the importance of continuing making strides in mental healthcare and breaking down the taboos of these important conversations. Her dream is to live in an eating disorder free world and for everyone to live their fullest life.

Equip is the leading virtual, evidence-based eating disorder treatment program on a mission to ensure that everyone with an eating disorder has access to treatment that works. Equip’s care model builds upon Family-Based Treatment (FBT) with a dedicated five-person care team including a therapist, dietitian, medical provider, peer mentor, and family mentor. Learn more about Equip here.