Anorexia for an Asian American: A Recovery Story

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Bammer image Asian man at laptop
22 Jason Deng Recovery Profile

Jason Deng

I was 11 years old when I started struggling with my first eating disorder. I did not know what anorexia was, nor did I know that the pinching of skin folds between my fingers, under my arms, and on my stomach, was symptomatic. I did not know that it wasn’t healthy to obsess over my reflection in car windows or to hunch over to keep my waist “tucked in.” I thought it was normal. But I wasn’t always this way. A once-expansive childhood had, somehow, collapsed into a labyrinth of dietary rituals and superstitions. By the time I escaped it all years later, I had been anorexic long enough to want nothing of it, and so I repressed the thoughts and feelings that had trapped me. It took just as long—years of introspection and reflection—to pinpoint how I even got stuck in the first place.

It began, in part, due to my upbringing. I know that eating disorders are caused by a complex network of factors, and parents do not “cause” eating disorders.  I also know that my upbringing shaped my relationship with food and with myself. My parents have always done their best to raise me with a strong work ethic. I was taught from a young age that “hard work” and that alone was what separated the wheat from the chaff. Of course, other factors—like privilege—play a role, but I did not know that. After all, it was only with hard work that both of my parents were the first in their families to go to college and the first to “make it” to America. It was only with hard work that after multiple moves, we settled in a home that friends have described as a “mansion.” And it was only with hard work that I, in turn, could possibly push my way to the top of my class.

Often, it was mom who pushed me to excel—to a fault. I recall times when I’d get an “A” on an exam, only to be rebuked for not scoring higher than a classmate. Or when after I’d finished my homework and was playing video games, she’d exclaim, “You still play games? You should study!” Another time, dad threatened to break my Game Boy Advance in half if I did not stop playing. I took these teachings to heart and clawed my way through school.

Unfortunately, this hypercompetitive attitude extended to not only academics, but also body image. When my best friend started losing weight after joining the swim team, I couldn’t help but compare myself to him even though I’d never been chubby myself. His success was my failure, and if I didn’t lose weight too, then I couldn’t be happy.

I started dieting. With little understanding of how nutrition worked, I limited my food intake based on gut instinct and superstition. I’d skip breakfast and lunch, thinking that it’d help, then add them back in a week later when it became too difficult to maintain. I insisted that my parents change the condiment in my lunch sandwiches to cut back on fat. When that didn’t work, I switched to an all-cereal diet, confident that the vitamins and minerals would stimulate weight loss.

Even worse than the fickle swing-dieting were the rituals. Mornings began with inspections in the mirror: pinching the skin on my stomach, underarms, and face; fussing over clothes that no longer seemed to fit; criticizing myself for eating “so much” the night before. Walking to school meant beating myself up over my reflection in car windows, and eating meals with others meant overeating, then hovering over the toilet trying to throw up. At my worst, my eating disorder spiraled into outright paranoia. Day and night, I thought people were trying to undermine my weight loss by offering me food. When weight loss stalled, I was sure that it was because people were “stealing” my progress to lose weight themselves.

Throughout all of this, I felt little support from my parents. They didn’t understand what I was going through—there was no rhyme or reason to my actions—and frankly, I didn’t either. Nobody ever taught me what eating disorders were, and as a result, I couldn’t explain why I was feeling so guilty and bad. Unable to express myself, I’d spend entire afternoons crying. Even after I was finally diagnosed with depression and anorexia, I still had trouble feeling supported. My mom and dad, as well as my grandma who lives with us, were raised in China where food was scarce. Though it’d been a long time since any of them had worried about food shortages, I grew up with stories about how when they were young, they had to count the grains of rice in their bowl. A meal wasn’t over until every last grain was gone, they’d say.

That was a problem because I refused to eat rice, arguing that it was just empty carbs. My grandma, who due to her experience growing up has always required that everyone eat a bowl of rice at dinner, thought this was heresy. When she noticed that I wasn’t putting much food on my plate, she’d go ahead and put food on my plate for me. If I then refused that food, she’d consider it an affront to her cooking, and then she’d guilt me into eating it anyway. And if I tried to avoid this trouble by skipping dinner, my parents would give me hell for being disrespectful. My family couldn’t understand that anorexia had warped my view of food so that it seemed like poison, not sustenance, and they pressured me to eat when I did not want to. As my family continued to pressure me to eat more, my relationship with food worsened. The summer after I finished 8th grade I would be hospitalized for depression and anorexia for the first time.

Now, I must note that if it sounds like my parents and grandma are terrible people, they are not. I love them dearly. After all, they are only human and they only did as they knew; had I been in their shoes, I cannot guarantee I would’ve done better. While the “growing pains” I struggled with seemed insurmountable, I would not be where I am today without my parents’ continued guidance.

I wouldn’t recover fully from my eating disorder until around my senior year of high school, around six years after I first began struggling with it. Part of what made recovering hard for me was that anorexia is thought of as a “woman’s disease.” Society tells us that men are supposed to not care about how they look. If they do care, then they’re accused of being “weak” and “sensitive.” Even after I realized that I was anorexic and had a legitimate medical condition, I kept it to myself to save face. Unfortunately, this only perpetuated the problem by isolating me from my friends, cutting me off from my support networks. Additionally, as an Asian-American male I already felt inferior to my peers. When society, media, and even other Asians tell you that Asian men are unattractive and undesirable to any women outside their race, you internalize it. To make matters worse, I was shorter than most of the other boys in my grade, another blow to my self-esteem in a society that tends to equate height with masculinity and power. Together, these factors prevented me from developing a positive body image and hindered my recovery.

What ultimately helped me recover was having a confidant with whom I felt comfortable sharing anything. For me, this was a close friend whom I’d known since childhood and who’d also had an eating disorder. I had a professional therapist too, but while that helped I couldn’t talk to my therapist whenever I wanted, only once or twice a week at most. Having that close friend helped me open up and talk about my eating disorder—a critical step in my overall recovery. I would not be able to advocate for mental health and eating disorder awareness were it not for his patience and love.

Another part of what made recovery possible for me was having an exercise buddy, another close friend. My senior year, I started lifting weights daily after school with him, a move that helped me embark on a journey for overall health and fitness, not just weight loss. With time, this helped me change my mindset: eating was no longer a toxin that would make me fat, but a tool that helped me get stronger. I learned about nutrition and proper dieting, no longer engaged in fickle swing-dieting, and eventually was able to stop scrutinizing my reflection in every mirror.

There were stumbling points along the way, for sure. Recovery wasn’t a straightforward walk, but a winding, meandering, stumbling hike. With my newfound passion for lifting, anorexia evolved into “bigorexia,” or muscle dysmorphia, an obsessive preoccupation with becoming more muscular [Ed. Note: muscle dysmorphia is a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder, recognized in the DSM-5 as an obsessive-compulsive disorder]. This is a problem that affects more people, mostly men, each day, in large part due to media’s equation of masculinity with muscularity. A quick look at the evolution of the Superman movies (from the original 1948 film all the way to last year’s Batman v. Superman) confirms this, with each successive Superman becoming more muscular. No longer satisfied with being “average,” people are turning to supplements and drugs to look superhuman—just like their superhero role models. This is something I still wrestle with to this day.

Anorexia, bulimia, bigorexia—eating disorders are no joke. Because we don’t talk about them, people often don’t realize the toll they can take on an individual’s life. Part of this is due to stigma, a problem that continues to plague all mental health disorders, but particularly “exotic” ones like eating disorders and schizophrenia. We need to break down this stigma and get the conversation going so that people, old and young, can get the support that they need to recover.

Jason is a fourth-year biology pre-med at the University of Chicago with a passion for mental and physical health advocacy. Outside of class, he co-leads a physical health student group, trains peer supporters to create a more connected campus, and sits as a student representative on his school’s wellness advisory board.

This story is part of the Marginalized Voices Project. Learn more