“If you find yourself constantly trying to prove your worth to someone, you have already forgotten your value.”
Hovering over the porcelain toilet of our upstairs bathroom, I remember the feeling of cool ceramic against my fingertips. Rushing of water out of the sink faucet. Flushing the toilet. Hands scrubbed with soap. Teeth brushed and face washed. Finally, silence as I turned off the tap. It was a quick ritual – less than five minutes if I had to guess. A feeling of relief and shame taking over the empty space that the previous contents left in my stomach.
Food, family and culture are so delicately intertwined. For our household, it was no different. Most traditional Chinese families show their affection through food. It is a part of who we are. What is cooked, what is eaten, how we eat, who we invite to sit. Regardless, there was an unspoken rule: dinner was always eaten at the table. Together. No distractions. Just us, a meal, and the rawness of ourselves.
I would be ravenous after track practice, anxiously awaiting the feast that would be plated in the center of the dining table. Smells of home cooking were intoxicating. Usually, there would be soup on the stove, a vegetable dish, fish and maybe a meat dish. If you didn’t like something, tough luck. You didn’t eat. And you always had to have a little bit of everything. Table set. Clattering of porcelain bowls and serving plates. Tradition dictates that we wait until everyone scooped rice into their bowls and took their respective seats before digging in.
Chopsticks in hand, collectively saying sik fan (食飯 ). Our cue to eat.
Some days were normal and uneventful. We would recount our days, tell jokes and stories and clear the table together with the meal ending in a natural dissolution of the members of the table. Some were quieter if dad was working late or one of us had after school obligations or the rare occasions we were allowed to go out with our friends. Other days were a little different. A stale taste in the air. Food didn’t smell as appetizing. If mom was in a bad mood, we could all tell.
To say she scared me would be an understatement. I was terrified of her. She exudes the trademark characteristics of a woman who has had a hard life and made the most of it. Authoritative, fierce, opinionated, strong. Born under the zodiac of a tiger – literally, a Tiger Mom. Sometimes eye contact would be interpreted as defiance, grounds for mom to launch a series of scathing comments. Other days, an angry monologue would ensue as I forced myself to finish my food quickly, as if salvation from this moment was at the bottom of my bowl. I would feel a knot in my stomach and blockage in my chest, hoping that by making myself small and unseen, I’d avoid any conflict. That I would make it out unscathed.
“My food isn’t good enough?”
“I don’t have to cook for you, so ungrateful.”
“Why aren’t you eating? Don’t you know how good you have it. There are starving children!”
“Save some for everyone else. You shouldn’t eat so much.”
The days I decided to stand up for myself or engage would be even worse. Speaking up (or ‘back talking’ as our culture would call it) was a direct line to war. My brothers were probably recoiling in their seats, hoping I would shut up. I would oscillate between going without meals and mindlessly gorging on whatever we had. I felt all of the emotions that my parents felt – the stress, the need to ‘save face’. My parents’ business had closed. The recession was hard-hitting and employment was little to none. I was in high school, struggling to understand myself and exert my independence. If ‘Family’ was a class, it felt like I got a big fat ‘F’ on my report card. I felt so disconnected from everything and everyone.
When college came, my unhealthy consumption of food was accompanied with alcohol. I would eat and drink until I couldn’t. And when I couldn’t anymore, I would purge. I couldn’t tell if I was hungry or just consuming all of the emotions that I wouldn’t let myself feel. School was my safe haven. It was the only space I could exist without feeling like I had any real problems. Like if I pretended that everything was fine, it would all fall away. My need to protect this deep dark secret prevented me from trusting and sharing. If I spoke these words out loud, the spell that I had cast would break.
I struggled to appreciate who I was in the mirror. This body that I lived in was mine but also not mine. It was my mother’s. My father’s. It belonged to whoever’s opinions I believed. It was easier to believe that I was the root of my parents’ unhappiness. I was led to believe that my physical self was less important than schoolwork, grades and achieving the goals that were set for me. Being told how to dress, what was appropriate, what and how much to eat, or criticized for trying out any beauty routines. I was confused and clawing for a sense of reassurance. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that I had an eating disorder. If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have denied it.
I now know how important it is to share these stories with others, learning that the loneliness and isolation was a huge driver of my pain. It has taken years of learning that this body is mine to care for, not a vehicle for self harm or punishment. I am learning to study my breath, my skin, my fingers, my toes. Noticing how precious every cell of this being is. Understanding how grateful I am for my body to have carried me through all these years. I learned to be mindful of how I am feeling and taking care to feed my body kindly. Giving it what it needs. At first, it feels like sowing seeds in an infertile earth. Learning to cultivate tenderness for self esteem to grow in.
The most crucial shift is in perspective. Shifting my belief that self worth is within my own thoughts and opinions of myself. I choose to believe in my own goodness instead of the opinions of others. To condition yourself to believe that you are worthy, beautiful and good after years of being told otherwise. Absolution and forgiveness for others is integral to finally releasing the blame and guilt I hold for myself. I survived with all that I knew how. Now that I know more, I can truly appreciate it all.
If anyone is or knows someone who is struggling, know that there is love and compassion and help should you want it.