Fetishized and Shamed—As an Asian American Woman, I'm Doubly Hurt By Body Standards
"One culture sees us as a purely sexual object while the other shames us for not conforming to traditional beauty standards."
I was 6-years-old when I became acutely aware of body standards for women. My older sister has always been quite athletic and muscular, much to my Chinese mother's despair. According to my mother, skinny is best: Skinny girls are healthy, skinny girls have self-control, skinny girls are the most desirable compared to all other girls. At the same time, my white childhood classmates were keenly aware of my smallness and constantly commented on how "little and cute" I was, like a doll they could tuck in their pockets. Growing up, this felt incredibly normal. Asian culture prizes thinness, but as I've gotten older in America, I've seen how my race engages with my gender—especially my body.
Asian American women are caught in a confusing tug of war between multiple phenomena regarding their bodies—historic beauty standards, Western stereotypes of Asian Americans, and traditional Asian shame culture. We are pressured to look pale and delicately emaciated, almost fragile. Historically, Asian and white culture have prized thinness as a beauty standard, but nowadays, despite white culture beginning to embrace body positivity and thickness, Asian culture is still heavily rooted in tradition and interdependence. This leads to an intensely ingrained feeling of shame when Asian American women do not conform to the physical expectations of waifish delicacy. At the same time, racist stereotypes, like the lotus blossom and the dragon lady, deep into the historical narrative of fetishizing Asian women's bodies and abstracting them as fantasies.
The historical origins of the fetishization of Asian American women traces as far back as the mid-1800s. China was in the midst of the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and a series of natural disasters—and across to the West, the United States was in the midst of a gold rush. The earliest Asian American migrant workers were male, and it wasn't long before Chinese gangs (called tongs) were formed and started trafficking young Chinese women to the United States to be sold into brothels or taken as war brides.
Many of these women had been poor and desperate, and were lured with promises of marriage and financial stability by traffickers, only to learn the truth once they reached the United States. By 1875, the United States passed the Page Act, which legalized banned laborers brought to the United States for "lewd and immoral purposes"—in other words, Asian women as a whole. "The 1875 Page Act barred 'oriental' women from entering the country, on the assumption that they were all potential or actual prostitutes or sex workers," explains Rebecca E. Carl, a history professor at New York University. Recent history has only reinforced this narrative of Asian women losing relevance beyond their bodies.
It's unsettling to see how the fetishistic narrative of Asian American women is normalized as a harmless joke within the film and television. Hollywood has had a long-standing fascination with Asian culture, often using it as an aesthetic to bolster whiteness—Anna May Wong shot to stardom with her roles in Piccadilly, The Toll of The Sea, and The Crimson City, typecasted solely as a sexually voracious and villainous dragon lady. The World of Suzie Wong romanticized the stereotype of the Asian prostitute and the white savior, as the delicate Suzie is made to be a red woman in need of saving. The Full Metal Jacket, "me so horny, me love you long time," line has been thrown at my face countless times, conjuring up the image of a tanned, skinny, barely literate Asian woman offering to sleep with men, positing her as childlike and powerless. And let's not forget Kim Anami's 2021 Kung Fu Vagina music video, which appropriated Asian culture as an aesthetic, used women of color as props, and through stereotypical portrayals of Asian women as hyper-sexual mystics, perpetuated rape culture.
I can't recall how many times men have found my race and body an intrinsic element of my allure as an adult. Older men ogle at my legging-clad thighs, before telling me that they don't normally sleep with Asian girls but that they'd make an exception for me (one even said this in front of his son). In college, boys leered at me, telling me that they were dying to get "every color of the rainbow."
A few guys I dated marveled over my large chest, some of them even going so far as to ask me if I was all-natural or if I had gotten plastic surgery. "No way those are real—you're Asian," one guy had snorted when I answered his question. He waggled his brows, as I gave him a thin-lipped fake smile while vowing to never breathe the same air as him again.
This fetishistic narrative engages destructively with Asian shame culture, which shapes how Asian American women are pressured to conform to a specific look. Unlike how Western culture largely values individualism, Asian culture is still traditionally interdependent. (An interdependent culture is one that focuses on how a single person fits in with a group and encourages cooperativeness, relating to others, and putting the collective group's needs above yourself.) To be independent and to stand out, instead of being interdependent and conforming to the group, is worse than shameful—it's considered wrong. This interdependent culture leads naturally into shame. The idea that there's a "right" way of behaving or looking implies a binary, and you're "wrong" if you don't look the "right" way.
I experienced the feeling of this shame growing up, especially with regards to my body. My mother constantly stressed over my participation in athletic teams, insisting that if I developed muscles I'd get fat as soon as I stopped exercising. My parents were extremely observant of the slightest shifts in my weight and were swift to tell me if my face was looking chubby. I still remember the sickening sting of shame that rolled through my stomach when my mother cut me off in the middle of recounting my day at school when I was 14: "Jennifer," she said gravely, mouth pursed with grim displeasure. "Your face is looking round."
The conversational whiplash had my brain stuttering to catch up. She regarded me with disappointed dismay, and although she didn't suggest anything more than to stop snacking, the message was received loud and clear. My appetite curdled at dinner—I couldn't bring myself to eat more than a few mouthfuls before excusing myself to go and study.
It's been difficult to grapple with all these forces as a fully aware adult. Even now, I sometimes stare down at a bowl of food and remember the one Thanksgiving when I ate nothing but boiled cabbage and mushrooms because my mother was so anxious over how fat I looked. I remember how my father once physically measured the circumference of my arm in comparison to his because he thought my arm looked too fat. I still fret that my breasts are out of proportion, that my butt is too flat, and that my thighs look like overstuffed sausages.
Body standards are inherently toxic, but through the historically racist and sexist lens of Asian American women, body standards can be especially destructive. When one culture sees us as a purely sexual object and the other shames us for not conforming, we internalize these demeaning messages of how unworthy we are of acceptance until we look a certain way. We are more than a fantasy and shouldn't feel held down by cultural shame—Asian American women should be able to love themselves unabashedly.
So, sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly bad about my body after someone made a comment on my weight or said something about happy endings, I'll stare silently at the mirror. I'll look at all the parts of my body: my toneless arms, my thick thighs, the swell of my tummy, my backside, my slight curves. "Oh, my God," I'll say aloud. "I'm so cute."
It's silly enough to make me laugh and it forces me to break negative thought patterns. It doesn't always make me feel better, but I'm taking back my power at that moment by actively choosing to love myself when I'm not feeling lovable. After spending so many years hating my body and feeling helpless in the face of the world's judgment, I'll take back all the power I can.