Asian parenting and beauty ideals: The road to self-acceptance

Growing up, I didn’t resemble anyone in my family. 

I was scrawny and dark-skinned, making me an easy target for jokes or rude comments from my mother and late grandma. They would often remind me that I was “found in a dumpster” – an oft-repeated tale that quickly became an oral tradition during family meals.

After years of endless teasing that resulted in crying tantrums, my mother finally stopped telling that story (read: it was just a joke!). 

But puberty ushered in a new age of insecurities that established the foundation for my lack of self-esteem and confidence.

Endless critiques from my mother about my body (I was thin, but too thin) and unattractiveness made me realize that I’ll never be good enough for everyone.

Woman wearing white standing outside a building next to windows
The writer, Vivian Dang. Photo credit: Jennifer Bui

“You’re not beautiful at all”

One summer at a family friend’s barbeque, my mother introduced me and my sister to a few acquaintances. 

“Is this your oldest?” one woman asked my mother, gesturing towards my sister. “My, isn’t she beautiful!” 

Her eyes shifted over to me. She paused briefly before asking, “Is this your other daughter? Her skin is so dark, her eyes are tiny… she’s not beautiful at all.”

She started to laugh and my mother joined in, repeating that oft-mentioned dumpster story.

I felt a pang of hurt and embarrassment, but I allowed their cutting remarks to wash over me. 

At the age of nine, I didn’t understand what beautiful meant. I just knew I wasn’t it. 

Very quickly, family gatherings became a source of anxiety for me. 

My mom’s girlfriends would often dart their eyes back and forth, whispering or pointing towards me and my sister, wondering how genetics could’ve gone wrong. 

I often felt like I was put on display, like those awful sideshows that people used to pay money to see. 

When enough people tell you that you’re ugly, you believe it.

It’s an Asian mom thing

It wasn’t until university that I started to understand that these harsh critiques were considered normal in some Asian cultures. Asian mothers, in particular, criticize out of love and concern.

This fact was made clear to me at 19, when my mother pointed out how much weight I had gained. I was 110 pounds.

“Your stomach is so big!” she commented, as I walked into the kitchen wearing nothing but a sports bra and shorts. “It’s ugly and unattractive. You need to stop eating so much.”

I burned with rage and retorted back, “Would you prefer I had anorexia?”

“I’m just concerned,” she responded matter-of-factly. “If you continue to look like that, no man would ever want you.”

I threw my clean utensils in the sink. “Fine. I won’t eat then.”

When I talked to girlfriends about this later on, they offhandedly dismissed it — “it’s what Asian moms do — they mean well!”

But why is this something that we accept? Why do we normalize damaging comments about our body and physical appearance, simply because of our culture?

In an article for Everyday Feminism, writer Rachel Kuo notes, “From within the community, internalized sexism plays a key role in perpetuating the ideology that all Asian women are thin. We have to be thin to be attractive, and we have to be attractive to find a partner.”

Any time my mother made critiques about my body, I’d limit my portions to one small rice bowl during dinner. 

When my mother began to notice, I’d lie that I had already eaten at school. 

Sometimes, I’d stop eating altogether, only nourishing myself with the bare minimum to get through the day. 

It was an unhealthy habit that persisted throughout university. 

See also: Growing up between two ideals of beauty

An ongoing journey towards self-acceptance

Woman wearing white looking back at camera in front of stairwell
Photo credit: Jennifer Bui

For a long time, my internal struggle with self-acceptance felt lonesome and one-sided. 

If I vented to family friends, there was a lack of empathy because they had all experienced and gotten used to such harsh criticism — “ignore her” or “get over it” were common words of wisdom that didn’t sit well with me.

Despite numerous attempts to educate my mother about the pressures that women face and the serious health conditions that stem from it, she remained resolute in her mindset. 

As writer Hilary Hao indicates in The Daily Press, “…both the East and West reify the stereotype that Asian women are naturally slim. For those of us that don’t fit neatly into that norm and internalize it, we are made to feel like freaks of nature.”

At 27, I still struggle with this mindset that I’m not slender enough to be considered beautiful. 

Accepting myself first

I’ve been told by many people that I need to adopt a stronger mindset and approach my mother with more compassion.

I disagree—for the fact that the curves that I’ve welcomed will always be rejected when I’m at my mother’s house.

“You’ve gotten a little chubby,” she said to me recently, gesturing towards my face. “How much do you weigh now?” 

I flinched. Immediately, I felt 100 pounds heavier and touched my stomach in defense. 

Exasperated, I asked her why this mattered. 

“Your weight is my standard of comparison,” she responded. She continued to press me until I gave her a number. 

“When I was your age, I was a double zero,” she recalled fondly. 

“Well, I’m not a double zero,” I emphasized. “Would you prefer if I was 15 pounds lighter? Like when my clothes hung off of me, and I was depressed and unhealthy last year?” 

Without having to say it out loud, the memory sank in for both of us. 

She nodded, “You’re right, sorry.”

While I appreciated her apology, I knew that within a month, her critiques would come hurling back at me like a broken record. 

I realized then, the inescapable truth — my mother will never accept me for who I am. 

I’ll never be good enough for everyone and I’m learning to be okay with that — because my opinion is the only one that matters.

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