Henrique Felix/Unsplash
Source: Henrique Felix/Unsplash

With the rise in affluence among many Asian countries and access to western ideals of beauty, it’s no wonder eating disorders have grown significantly in the past few decades among Asians and Asian-Americans.

K-Pop entertainers and other Asian actors, singers, and celebrities conforming to this ideal form of beauty have catapulted South Korea into the world’s leading plastic surgery with more procedures than Brazil or the U.S. per capita.  The most popular include double eye-lid surgery which adds another fold to those born with single eyelids and rhinoplasty to make noses pointier.

In Japan, the obsession to have women look “kawaii”, the Japanese word for “cute” is evident as the ideal presented to young, Japanese girls is found in manga, comics, and all things related to Kawaii culture. 

Dr. Hiroyuki Suematsu, a professor of clinical psychology at Nagoya University, says Japan’s Anorexia Nervosa rate is 10 times higher than it was 30 years ago. There were no reported cases of bulimia 40 years ago. Today, it’s the country’s biggest eating disorder problem.

When it comes to the cultural roots of the behaviors, Asian-American women may be even more susceptible due to trying to find their voice in the U.S. amidst Asian cultural customs demanding conformity.

One eating disorder client stated, “For me, my identity as the eldest child of immigrants has everything to do with my eating disorder,” she said. “Bulimia is about control. I control the amount of food I consume. I control the amount of food I purge. I abused [my eating habits] to cope with feelings I couldn’t express because of cultural differences in my family.”

The desire for autonomy and independence among immigrant Asian children in America is oftentimes drowned out by centuries-old Confucius views of hierarchy and patriarchy.  In other words, to go against parental or family wishes can be deemed culturally shameful and damning.  One way to suppress these feelings of shame, desire, and authenticity is to engage in an eating disorder (or other addictive/compulsive behaviors).

To add to the complexity, food is a large part of relationship dynamics in Asian cultures.  Food not only feeds and nourishes but is used to unite, celebrate, and be connected.  Greetings that single out one's appearance (i.e. gaining weight, losing weight, food, and health) o taboo in America is commonplace among traditional Asians.  In Chinese culture, a relative can openly say, "Hey, it looks like you gained weight!" or "Hey, it looks like you lost weight!" as a means to start a conversation or dialogue either about one's overall health or a means to share one's care for another (i.e. I care so much about you that I'm paying attention to how you look from the last time I saw you).  

But these observations can also be misinterpreted in a culture that relies heavily on food instead of words to communicate love.  "Eat, eat" or the feeling you must eat someone's food to show your appreciation of their love or care can play into one's eating disorder if that's the only means to show this level of gratitude toward only.

In short, not only do Asians put themselves at risk for an eating disorder due to the exposure of Western standards of beauty but traditional Eastern values of abiding by cultural conformity, honor, and collectivism add a distinct layer of challenge that must also be addressed to help this population.

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