body image beautiful bodies

This is a very vulnerable topic for me, one that I’ve been putting off writing for a while. I’ve struggled with my weight and body image ever since I can remember.

I was born an average weight, but was always overweight from then on. I think people fall into only one of 2 categories: Live to Eat or Eat to Live. You either love food, or you don’t. You either can always eat, or you can’t when your body isn’t hungry.

As a Live to Eat, I apparently loved the taste of food and ate whenever I was fed. And being raised initially by my grandma with undiagnosed diabetes, that ended up being a lot. She fed me whenever she was hungry, which was at least 4 times a day.

So by the time I was shipped over from China to the U.S. to meet my parents, I was already 50 pounds at age 2.5 years old. Yikes!

I continued to love food and ate whenever it was available. I loved junk food and had a hard time stopping. My family happily showered me with food to show their love. It’s just a natural part of many cultures, especially Chinese.

Fat in children is typically lovable. Oh they’re so cute! You can pinch those adorably chubby cheeks! I even fell prey to it myself when my sister was born 12 years later, and I couldn’t leave her cheeks alone.

(Side note: obesity rates are rising in the U.S., especially starting in childhood. Many parents think children will just grow out of it, but that’s not always the case. There are higher rates of high blood pressure and other obesity-related illnesses in children! Early intervention is so important, so please discuss this with your pediatricians!!)

It stops being cute though, when you hit a certain age. Suddenly the positive comments turned a complete 180 to harsh and critical remarks about my body, with so many extrapolations about who I was as a person.

Society tends to judge larger-bodied people, making assumptions such as they are lazy, lack self-control or discipline, or are somehow inferior to others with smaller bodies. (This is so wrong; we don’t know the full story. Some people have genetic or metabolic issues that predominantly determines their body sizes, despite their very best efforts.)

I was frequently called fat, lazy, ugly, and that I needed to “control yourself better,” “just eat less” or “exercise more.” I HATED exercise! I was sedentary most of my life until that point. I was into drawing, reading, or watching tv all day. I grumbled when I was forced to go for a walk or try out for the tennis team in high school.

My parents tried getting me a bike, a pool in our yard, took us ice skating and skiing. Later on I tried to trick myself into exercising too, getting a trampoline, pogo stick, skateboard, you name it, we probably have tried it. It’s in our genes to put on weight easily, so we were all very conscious of it.

I’m not sure exactly when I started caring about my weight and body image, but it was probably around middle school, when I hit puberty. It was definitely for the all the wrong reasons. I internalized all those comments and started to believe that I was ugly, fat, and worthless…unless I could lose 15 pounds.

body image middle school
Awkward me at age 12, braces and all

I was 5’4.5″ and 150 pounds, right at the borderline of overweight BMI (Body Mass Index) of 25, so not terrible. But I hated the way I looked in clothes, especially my broad shoulders and short legs. I became my own worst critic. “Ew look at this arm flab. My thighs are touching, that’s so gross! My belly is HUGE!!”

I became obsessive with calorie-counting, researching diets, nutrition, and exercise. I thankfully found Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) (a rhythm video game where you stomp on a dance pad with 4 arrows) at age 15, which helped me lose those 15 pounds, but then it still wasn’t enough.

So many other negative beliefs cropped up regarding my body, so insidiously that I couldn’t tell they were happening. “I’m fat, ugly, and awkward, and that’s why I barely have any friends…why my parents love my sister more…why I can’t find a boyfriend, or even a person who would like me in that way.”

I hated my body’s changes when going through puberty. I hid my new breasts with large T-shirts and slouching for the longest time. I didn’t feel in control of myself, which made me loathe myself even more.

I tried to take back control to the extreme in senior year of high school, when I now in hindsight can see that I developed anorexic tendencies. I somehow found someone who liked me (what?!) and entered my first romantic relationship, but he weighed about 10 pounds less than I did.

I was so ashamed of that, since I had it in my head that the woman needs to be smaller and daintier than the man (one of many toxic gender stereotypes), so I cracked down on my diet and exercise habits even more.

I’d skip breakfast, have one apple and some baby carrots for lunch, and then a small scoop of whatever my family cooked for dinner. While going to 2 hours of badminton team practice a day and 2 hours of DDR afterwards. The dance pad even tracked calories, and I could easily rack up 1000 calories burned from jumping excessively.

It became an obsession. Since I’m larger boned and it was only for a few months, I never got down to looking sickly bony. My lowest weight was 123 pounds and I could never drop below that. I barely had any muscle, I was cold all the time, and my menstrual cycles stopped. (When your periods stop, that’s a surefire sign of malnutrition.) I was frankly surprised I never fainted, especially with all the running around I did with my club activities.

Me in my prom dress. I finally looked average, not large. Slim, even. But I didn’t love myself any more. It’s a myth that you’ll suddenly start loving your body once you hit a certain goal. I see now that I had to learn to love my body FIRST, unconditionally.

In freshman year of college, I got into martial arts for 1 year, which helped build some muscle back. But I still had a difficult relationship with food, eating only salads with egg whites, avoiding fat like the plague, and feeling hungry and deprived all the time.

I allowed myself to come back up to a healthy 135 pounds since I was no longer in that toxic relationship for comparison. I felt good in my clothes, but it was all so tentative. It still took extreme discipline to maintain my strict diet and exercise habits, and if I slacked for a few days, it’d really show. My body clearly wasn’t happy at that weight and was fighting me the whole time.

This is what the dance mats of DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) look like!

And my relationship with food only got worse as the years went on. Before I knew it, I was using food as comfort for any negative emotion that came up. Instead of addressing problems squarely, I’d pretend they didn’t bother me and vent by shoveling large amounts of food away in secret, especially sweets.

Without my family to control what I kept in my living space, or perhaps because I missed them, I hoarded snacks. I’d be fine when a housemate was home, but I didn’t trust myself when I was alone with food.

I had never felt so out of control of myself. I’d eat until my stomach bulged and I felt sick, but I never allowed myself to throw up, since that would have definitely put me into the true Eating Disorder zone, and of course my pride couldn’t allow that.

I had come from an Asian cultural background of minimization, never showing weakness, and suppressing all negative, unpleasant, or embarrassing things about us. Be strong even if it kills you. Deal with your problems alone. Don’t be a burden to others.

In hindsight, I now see that I had Binge Eating Disorder, or possibly even Non-Purging Bulimia since I often compensated for binges with hours of exercise.

It all became too overwhelming though and I gave up on the exercise, and my weight climbed to over 170 pounds in junior year, though probably more, since after that, I didn’t dare to step on scales again for a while.

Me, age 20, at my heaviest. I was so ashamed to be in photos. I learned to duck behind others and tilt my head downwards to try to compensate.

I honestly didn’t know exactly when or how I was able to climb out of that hole. Since we Asians never admit weakness or that we need help, I never asked for help. I tried to deal with it myself, with self-help books or asking others in roundabout ways. I refused to ever consider a therapist. I didn’t think it was so bad that I needed one. I journaled my feelings, which did help me overeat less and use food as a crutch less.

I got a lot out of joining my college’s FemSex workshop in senior spring semester, meeting an intimate group of mostly women, with whom I could share some things I had never talked about with anyone.

I realized how much of myself I was hiding from the world because I was ashamed, guilty, or fearful, such as my disordered eating, distrustful views about love, hurt feelings from friendship betrayals, and sexuality. It was the first time I felt true support, compassion, and PERMISSION to be exactly as I was, flaws and all. I left wanting to help others just as FemSex helped me.

In medical school and residency, I focused on the work, but my body image, weight, and self-love battles still raged on. I used food as a study aid as I found I couldn’t concentrate as well without munching on something. I tried substituting healthy snacks and ended up turning my skin yellow from overeating carrots!

Though that strategy was able to control my weight, I still had a very disordered relationship with food, so it wasn’t really an improvement. I felt like I tried everything under the sun, but my weight continued to yo-yo. I had heard that yo-yo dieting just messes up one’s metabolism even more, so I fell deeper and deeper into despair.

It honestly wasn’t until I hit my lowest point, during residency in 2016, that I finally got a handle on my relationship with food. It was the first time I had entertained leaving medicine seriously, since I finally had the courage to admit that I wouldn’t have chosen it for myself, and that it’s okay to make my own decisions. That it wasn’t too late to take control and responsibility for my own life. That it was okay to not be a people-pleaser anymore.

With less of those negative feelings of cognitive dissonance, and renewed hope about my future, the urge to binge lessened as well. I was more in touch with my feelings and problems, and I was finally doing something about them.

I also made exercise more of a priority. It helped to curb my appetite and improve my self-control, but more importantly, it helped me feel good and want to care for my body.

I started to focus on how exercise made me feel, not how it made me look.
When I felt good, I naturally made healthier eating choices. I also learned to love and appreciate my body for all it could do. I had good flexibility and great endurance; I was able to play rigorous sports for 4 hours easily, which I hadn’t realized was such a rarity or strength. I loved badminton, tennis, ultimate frisbee, and dancing, and would lose track of time doing them.

It was no longer about calorie tracking. I took a more intuitive approach to a healthy body, finally allowing myself to eat whatever I wanted, though in moderation. Without “forbidden foods,” I stopped feeling deprived and stopped having food dominate my brain.

It’s so crazy how that shift made all the difference. Of course I’m not perfect; I still relapse here and there. But I don’t beat myself up for indulging or skipping a workout anymore. I just take the next day as a fresh start and a new chance to take care of my body.

Having more self-love naturally led to wanting to do things that are good for me, mind, body, and spirit. Since I’m more in tune with my body, I’m able to eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full, and exercise when my body craves movement.

Nowadays I end up exercising about twice a week for 1-2 hours each time, not excessively. I still can and love doing more, but it depends on the situation. If a sports game is going on for a while, I love challenging and pushing myself. I love that having a healthy body means I can enjoy a long hike, a full day of sightseeing on foot, and many other benefits.

I also overindulge in food on occasion, such as at a buffet or a really good meal, but it’s a conscious decision to enjoy it, since I trust myself that I will naturally re-balance later by not wanting to eat as much at a future meal or having extra energy during exercise.

If I do emotionally eat, I’m able to catch myself, and stop long before the discomfort of my stomach signals me to pay attention. I haven’t stuffed myself (without meaning to) in years. And I no longer stuff my feelings down. I now recognize them as valid and deserving of being expressed.

I try to address my problems head-on. I still pick my battles, and I change what I can and accept and make peace with what I cannot. I feel empowered now to live life my way.

I am way more forgiving of myself in general now, since I’ve realized it’s okay to make mistakes. I am only human and while it’s good to have high standards for myself, I will truly destroy myself if I continue pursuing perfection. As long as I’m making progress and trying my best, I can’t ask for anything more.

Me in 2020. No more angling head down or worrying how my body appears on camera

I admit that it’s been difficult finding exercise I enjoy when I was a traveling nomad, and currently during COVID-19 lockdown. My favorite forms of exercise are social. I have always hated running, traditional workout routines/videos, and many other solo sports. I’m not as healthy as I could be when I have to completely self-motivate. While on the road, I tried thinking of creative ways to exercise, such as leading a Zumba meetup.

My weight has still fluctuated, but not as much as before, perhaps just within the same 10 pound range. There is also water weight, which is a natural fluctuation of about 5 pounds.

I do believe we each have a body weight “set point” that our bodies naturally like to return to, that is the weight we are most effortlessly able to maintain. Mine is around 150 pounds, which, although is still around borderline overweight according to BMI, I don’t worry about anymore.

I don’t think BMI is the best tool, even though we healthcare workers use it so much. It doesn’t account for different body types, muscle mass, and the fact that it’s better health-wise to be overweight but exercising regularly than skinny and sedentary.

I know I probably have more leg muscle mass than most women, and my body is able to do all the things I want it to do. I am so grateful to have all my senses, my coordination, and my endurance.

Instead of focusing on the number on the scale or what parts of my body I don’t like, I now focus on what I do appreciate. I can honestly say that I have learned to love all of me and there isn’t a part I hate anymore or would change if given the option.

I’m proud of my calf muscles and how they allow me to jump!

I occasionally still catch myself looking disapprovingly at how an outfit fits on me, but I now know it says more about the clothing than about me, since not all clothing is suited for every body.

I’ve learned that there are so many different body types out there. Each is unique, and beautiful in its own way. There are also SO many different standards for beauty, depending on which country, culture, or time period you’re in.

I hate that society and the media feed us all these images of how we “should” look. Both men and women, but especially for women. How we look does not determine ANYTHING about who we are, our intelligence, our discipline, our worth, or our lovability.`

Our souls are beautiful and deserving of everything good in life, no matter what kind of containers they are housed in. No more of the “I don’t deserve X” or “I can’t be happy until Y, until my body is a certain way, I make Z amount of money, or I jump through this hoop.”

I know SO many people suffer from emotional eating and body shame. I hope sharing my story will help you feel empowered to own up to yours too and start taking steps to heal!!

It’s a long, tough, journey, but I’m here for you!! If you’d like any 1-on-1 help, I’d love to chat with you!! Please message me or schedule a call with me here.

My medical background in primary care can help me guide you with concrete physical health tips for nutrition and exercise, but I believe a lot of struggles with weight are linked to emotions.

I want everyone to know how beautiful they are and love themselves and their bodies, no matter what!!

Always rooting for you!! <3


5 Responses

  1. I think you look great! Your weight is normal. Society has an abnormal idea of how real people look.

  2. Having read this I believed it was really informative. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this content together. I once again find myself personally spending way too much time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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Who am I?
Hi! I'm Dr. Toni, a carTOONIst. I empower, educate and advocate for women and minorities through my art and coaching, while traveling nomadically. I help others also follow our hearts and live true to themselves, no matter what others say!
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