Never Good Enough: Asian American Women and Body Dysphoria

By: Alana Mirikitani

(Jennifer, ANTM)

What do you think of when you see thin Asian women? Do you assume their bodies are naturally that shape, or do you think they’ve had to work hard to achieve their weight? Here’s a scenario: You see two women running, one White and one Asian. One has an eating disorder, so, which one is it? Regardless of what answer comes to mind, a common stereotype for Asian women is the idea that they’re made to be naturally skinny. So, you, most likely than not, were thinking that the White women in this scenario had an eating disorder. But what if I told you that there are more Asian American women with eating disorders in comparison to White women? If you are an Asian woman, you may relate, if not, you might want to consider the damage that can occur due to this stereotype. Many Asian American women feel the pressure from a multitude of sources to keep their bodies thin. As a result, many young Asian American women are developing poor self esteem and eating disorders. So why is it that these women aren’t satisfied with their natural bodies? How does race play its role in body dysphoria among Asian Americans? How do these socio-cultural pressures affect Asian American women and their level of body satisfaction?

(Victoria’s Secret Ad)

There are many contributing factors to their negative self-body images. Just look in any magazine; see your body type? Believe it or not, the image above was actually an ad for Victoria’s Secret. It’s idea of the “Perfect Body” sparked a lot of controversy. American media portrays an ideal body shape for all women, but what makes it worse is the inability for Asian American women to fit that standard of beauty. The ideal body type for women often becomes internalized as the one portrayed in the media. While we’re talking media, let’s take a moment to realize that only 1 to 3 percent of Asian American women make up what we see on television on a day to day basis. When we see these women on television, a lot of their characters are either hypersexualized, or made to be seen as not attractive at all. Here are some common roles: geisha, dragon lady, prostitute, villain, nurse, etc. Sound familiar? When Asian Women are represented, it is rarely and incorrectly. This gives society an improper image and expectation for Asian American women. The pressure that follows Asian Americans due to these stereotypes is even more important to highlight.

(Real Geisha)   (American portrayal)

White women in media are often seen as the model for what most women want to emulate. For Asian American women, achieving this appearance is near impossible. So, these women become dissatisfied with themselves, and continue to internalize their angst towards their inability to achieve this ideal body type. Most people would assume that women who appear thin are satisfied with their bodies. However, a lot of the time, the internalization of their dissatisfaction has continued and made their own image become something negative. Take an example from a study by Phan & Tylka that states, “…pressure for thinness leads women to directly experience shame toward their bodies and lower self esteem because these pressures encourage women to conclude that their…appearance in particular are unsatisfactory”(Phan 37). This goes back to that internalization, that the natural body is supposed to mimic those seen in magazines. To achieve the impossible, many Asian American women, engage in harmful eating behaviors to change their body weight and size. Some examples are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Unfortunately, most women aren’t ever satisfied, even after partaking in some harmful methods. Body dysphoria becomes a vicious cycle, without an end in sight.

So pressure from the media is real, whether it is conscious or subconscious. But there is another pressure we should take into consideration: ethnic pressure. What is ethnic pressure? It can easily be explained as the pressures that reside within a specific ethnic group. For example, the pressure for Asian Americans to fit the model minority standards. This is also something impossible to achieve, and completely fictitious. So, how does the Model Minority Myth fit into the degradation of Asian American body image among women? A common misconception of Asian American women, is that they have good mental health due to the Model Minority Myth. The opposite has been proven to be true; many Asian American women have poor mental health. So, the pressure of this myth for Asian Americans to be the perfect ‘model citizens’, has caused these women to internalize, or withhold any negative body image opinions. Asian American women are also expected to have healthy lifestyle habits to go along with their model citizen role. A lot of Asian American women give into the Model Minority Myth in order to assimilate. Basically, if you’re Asian, you’re unassimilable, but if you follow the common stereotypes, at least you’ll be acknowledged as part of society.

Another factor related to ethnic pressure, can be seen when looking at common Asian American beliefs. Among many Asian American women, there is a cultural belief that their body image reflects significant others around them. This is an example of collectivism, which puts pressure on a person to act and appear in a way that doesn’t reflect poorly on family and people close to them. Here’s a scenario: You’re seen as fat, and now your fatness is directly related to your parent because they raised you. Or, your fatness is directly related to your significant other because they are dating you. Put yourself in this situation. This would add considerable amounts of pressure as well when it comes to upholding a good image for the sake of others around you, right?

Speaking about others around you, how about parental relationships as a contributing factor to body dissatisfaction? Well in a study done by Haudek, Rorty, and Henker, they conclude, “Low maternal warmth seemed to affect both Asian and Caucasian women’s attitudes about eating, dieting, shape, and weight…” (Haudek 431). So, the mother’s amount of warmth, or lack thereof, could affect the self-opinion. Although the study says it also affected Caucasians, it was worse for Asian American women because they showed a greater desire for thinness than the Caucasian women. Asian American women also perceived both of their parents were less caring than those of the Caucasian women. This can lead to more than just eating disorders, because it ends up affecting the overall mental health of Asian American women. As I explained earlier, the internalization of the dissatisfaction can lead to poor self-esteem. We can now see, that a common reason things are internalized among Asian American women can be their relationships with their mothers.

While it is important to talk about why Asian American women have high levels of body dysphoria, it is even more important to point out the results that follow. It is only natural for someone with a low self-esteem to be more susceptible to the pressures of body image to change their opinions about themselves. Well, with a study conducted on Asian American women, this prediction was held to be true. However, something interesting occurred during this study. Self-esteem didn’t seem to change the fact that these women were still likely to engage in bad eating patterns. Just because their high self-esteem didn’t allow the pressures to alter their opinion on their self-image, doesn’t mean that they were completely unaffected by these pressures. Women with high self-esteem, and low self-esteem, equally engaged in patterns of disordered eating. What is this a result of? Well, when these women see results from their eating disorder, their self-esteem can be heightened. Here’s an example: A woman decides she’s going to starve herself, and after a few days she loses weight. The satisfaction comes within the result of not eating. So now, disordered eating becomes a step in the positive direction towards that impossible body image they want to achieve.

So, what can we take from this? Race does have an impact on the self-images of Asian American women, in more ways than one. Media, society, and even family can all hold certain pressures on these women to appear a certain way. These contributing factors can lead to poor mental health and eating disorders as well. It is important to understand that the stereotypes and expectations that are put on Asian American women can have a negative impact to their physical and mental health. It is also important to bring the lack of Asian American women in the media to light and discuss how it sets an unfair image of beauty that these women cannot achieve: Whiteness. Do sociocultural pressures affect Asian American women body satisfaction negatively? Is body dysphoria among Asian American women affected by race? Absolutely.


Works Cited:

Phan, Tatum, and Tracy L Tylka. “Exploring a model and moderators of disordered eating with

Asian American college women.” Journal of counseling psychology 53.1 (2006):36-47.


Kaw, Eugenia. “Steven Polgar Prize Essay (1991). Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian

American Women and Cosmetic Surgery.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

Hunter, Margaret. “The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and

Inequality.” Sociology Compass. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 03 July 2007. Web. 25

Mar. 2017.

Haudek, Catherine, Marcia Rorty, and Barbara Henker. “The role of ethnicity and parental

bonding in the eating and weight concerns of Asian‐American and caucasian college

women.” International Journal of Eating Disorders. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 04 May

  1. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

Mintz, Laurie B., and Susan Kashubeck. “Body Image and Disordered Eating Among Asian

American and Caucasian College Students.” Body Image and Disordered Eating Among

Asian American and Caucasian College Students – Jun 24, 2016. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.


One thought on “Never Good Enough: Asian American Women and Body Dysphoria

Add yours

  1. I didn’t realize how much pressure is placed upon asian women to be skinny. Sometimes there can be biological disadvantages for some people yet they are all expected to meet society’s expectations. If they don’t then they get blamed for it.


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