ASIAN VOICES
05/08/2018 09:01 am ET Updated May 08, 2018

Asian Bodies That Proudly Defy An Archetype

“You barely see Asian-American bodies in media. But when you do, you only see perfect, skinny ones."
Illustration: Isabella Carapella/HuffPost photo: Gabriela Landazuri/HuffPost

Asian bodies have long been viewed through an Orientalist lens, which means our women are often viewed as feeble and delicate and our men as sexless and weak.

The way we perceive East Asian and Asian-American women relates, of course, to depictions in cultural artifacts like “Madame Butterfly,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” in which Asian women are dainty, small and, of course, “yellow.” And the most vivid example informing our view of Asian men is Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles.” He’s nerdy and othered, depicted as the punchline.

Buying into these images as the definitive Asian avatar has real-world effects. It can make Asian women who don’t fit an archetype feel they don’t measure up and make men impose self-limitations.

We photographed Asian Americans who defy any sort of stereotype ― they’re strong, “plushy” and proud ― and have bodies with a background story to tell. Some are refugees, some immigrants, some second generation. The men and women photographed below told us about how societal expectations, a desire to fit in, lack of representation, sexual objectification and a connection to culture via food all play into how they view their bodies. And they share their journey of how they arrived at a healthy relationship with the way they look.

  • “I had to unlearn comparing myself to skinny Asian girls. Now I truly love my body.” — Carol, 25
    We were Vietnamese refugees who relocated to Minnesota and then to California. I’m in academia now, and I understa
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    We were Vietnamese refugees who relocated to Minnesota and then to California. I’m in academia now, and I understand the systems and complexities and why these European and Western beauty standards are preferred. Now I can fully understand who I am. All this allows me to get in touch with who I am as a Vietnamese-American. My mom is petite. This is where I got the sense of patriarchy. It’s OK for Asian men to be bigger. But a woman can’t be bigger. I had to unlearn comparing myself to skinny Asian girls.

    Society in America is doing better as a whole to accept body positivity. My parents also opened up. They were born and raised in Vietnam. They don’t have the knowledge or the care to fully unpack their own beliefs. But you can understand why.

    Some of my friends would tell me to love myself and live my life. I never knew what that meant. Now I truly love my body. I exercise to feel stronger. There is a sense of glow and liberation.
  • “I get a lot of comments about being tall 'for an Asian guy.' In general, though, it took me a while to come to terms with my masculinity.” — Steve, 29
    I grew up in Michigan with 95 percent white people. My archetype for what you look like as an Asian is mostly based on TV sho
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I grew up in Michigan with 95 percent white people. My archetype for what you look like as an Asian is mostly based on TV shows — the hacker type who gets stuck in lockers. It wasn’t until high school I got my growth spurt. I get a lot of comments about being tall 'for an Asian guy.' It’s surprising for a lot of people. I’m adopted, and people on email will assume I’m Jewish. They meet me, and they’re surprised I’m a tall Asian guy.

    I’m an athlete as well, and I do parkour. There aren’t that many Asian parkour athletes in the States. There’s really maybe three or four in all of New York. I’ve really learned to identify with being a 6'1" Asian guy. On a dating profile, that’s the first thing that I put. People often have this assumption that I’m going to be short. Given Western culture, especially dating culture, those are very high values. The problem about having the privilege of being tall is that I have it inherently. I feel for people who are shorter. It’s not their fault. I guess it’s just my genetics and the way I was raised.

    I used to have horrible acne and even had it into adulthood. And actually, using [Korean] beauty products helped. I wasn’t down at first, but an ex-girlfriend got me into it. In general, though, it took me a while to come to terms with my masculinity.
  • “Being Asian and being BBW [a big beautiful woman] is a double fetish. People often think I’m an adult performer. Now I know I can work out and still be bigger, happy and strong.” — Kaguya, 28
    I was very destructive toward my body. By 15, I went through 10 different diets. I was putting myself on terrible diets and w
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I was very destructive toward my body. By 15, I went through 10 different diets. I was putting myself on terrible diets and was full of anxiety. It wasn’t a way to live. Now I know I can work out and still be bigger, happy and strong. One issue, though, is that there are no Asians in any plus-size campaigns. I didn’t see any representation. Being Asian and being BBW [a big beautiful woman] is a double fetish. People often think I’m an adult performer. Someone asked me once, “Which spa do you work at?” I said, “You really think I give happy endings?!” 

    I was the only Asian in school, and I think I did try to fit in with the white kids, but then I was made fun of for being Asian and being plushy. I always felt like an oddball. So now I’m the total rebel child in Korea. I have blond hair and tattoos. My mom said about my hair, “What is this? I did not sleep with a white man!”

    Now I’m in the cosmetology and photography world, and in the beginning, when I photographed myself, I would Photoshop myself. When I started my self-love body-positivity journey, I stopped that. By the way, body positivity is more geared toward fat women. Self-love, anyone can do. It became a little diluted on social media. The thing is that body-positivity friends say things like, "You’re perfect." The hardest but best part is to accept your insecurities and your flaws.
  • “I felt really proud of my darker skin. In the media, all you see is light-skinned Asians.” — Josephine, 34
    I grew up in the Bronx [in New York City]. I’m Filipina, and it happens in all cultures, but I really, really felt it i
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I grew up in the Bronx [in New York City]. I’m Filipina, and it happens in all cultures, but I really, really felt it in my culture: The first thing someone says is something about your weight.

    What I do want is a strong body. I don’t care if I’m skinny or fat. I no longer care what people think when they look at me. I’ve been so self-critical about everything — my life choices, the things I’m studying or working on. One day I just reached a point where I realized I’m being so hard on myself. I got to a dark place and realized I’m pretty much unhappy with everything. I’ve been going to therapy. It also helped that I had a supportive partner. He just accepted me for me.

    In the media, all you see is the light-skinned Asians. On the Filipino channels, they’re superslender, they bleach their skin. I don’t see any average or normal Filipinos. Being bombarded with those images adds to feeling bad about myself. I felt really proud of my darker skin. I got it from my dad’s side. I like that I’m brown. I don’t want to change that.

    You do end up feeling like you have to look like those people. They don’t look like me. My beauty standards ended up being like them — tall, white, slender, model type. It made me feel kind of hopeless. I can’t look like that. I’m darker and shorter. It would have been nice to see that growing up.
  • “I wasn’t tiny and petite, so I didn’t feel Asian enough. Well, I am, in fact, Asian.” — Tran, 34
    We came here after the Vietnam War when I was 7. We spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand, and when I got here, for some r
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    We came here after the Vietnam War when I was 7. We spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand, and when I got here, for some reason, people thought I looked mixed. They’d say things like, “You’re beefier because you’re mixed.” I was Asian, but I wasn’t tiny and petite, so I didn’t feel Asian enough. Initially people would say it’s a compliment and say things like, “You’re like white. You’re not Asian enough, but you should feel good about it.”

    Given that I’m loud, it just kind of reinforced all that. I dated almost exclusively Asians and had a boyfriend from 16 to 22. When I came to New York, it was a weird interaction with how girls interacted with me. I was already othered. Because I was bigger and athletic and had kind of a colorful personality and was bold, it turned a lot of people off but also piqued a lot of their interest. I felt very much like a novelty — an Asian but tall and with an ass. I was coasting on that ambiguity. I felt like with non-Asians, I was a gateway Asian. I was digestible. But it was still always strange because white people would ask why I had so many Asian friends. And I would say, “Well, I am, in fact, Asian.”
  • “Eating food — Asian food — was the only thing that connected me to Asian culture.” — Soronica, 26
    I don’t know where my body comes from. I think it has to do with food. Eating food — Asian food — was the o
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I don’t know where my body comes from. I think it has to do with food. Eating food — Asian food — was the only thing that connected me to Asian culture. I never let that go. I never pushed myself in the way I looked. I found more comfort in eating food and having a little bit of something to identify with being Asian. I love the Cambodian version of hot pot. I like the fact we all sit around and eat together and the wholesomeness of everyone eating it.

    I used to throw up after some meals. I didn’t eat sometimes. And then I would binge-eat in the dark. I was really chunky when I was a teen and something like 5 feet, 1 inch and 170 pounds.

    I put it upon myself as my responsibility to understand my culture more — my grandpa was a teacher and was killed in the genocide in Cambodia, and I looked exactly like him — and that felt kind of good. It also made me realize the importance of education because they were trying to take it away from us. Exploring food, the way I look — all of this — has helped me understand who I am more. Growing up, I was really attracted to hip-hop culture. I related to that more. The only Asian people I saw were Lucy Liu and Brenda Song. It was hard to identify with being Asian because I never saw Asians on TV.
  • “I think initially I wanted to get muscular to overcome stereotypes, in a way.” — Tom, 32
    I was always active and athletic when I was young and played soccer and track. Now I do CrossFit and teach it too. But I was
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I was always active and athletic when I was young and played soccer and track. Now I do CrossFit and teach it too. But I was really skinny and short. Yeah, there is an Asian height thing. And I was a little more self-conscious. Just being skinny, scrawny and bony. It was just genetics because I came over here from Vietnam.

    I grew up with only white people, and I think initially I wanted to get muscular to overcome stereotypes, in a way. Now my goal is to perform well. At first it was cool to get muscular. Now I want to see how much weight I can lift based on performance rather than aesthetics. It’s good in a healthy way. Sure, it lets me walk into a room confidently. For me, fitness is about looking good and performance, but also it’s about teaching a healthy lifestyle.
  • “On one hand, you barely see Asian-American bodies in media. But when you do, you only see perfect, skinny ones. You kind of go into self-hatred, then self-care.” — Dawon, 25
    I moved to the Bronx from Korea when I was 8. I’ve always kind of been on the thicker side for an Asian woman
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I moved to the Bronx from Korea when I was 8. I’ve always kind of been on the thicker side for an Asian woman. I was into K-pop, where you see perfect body images, but I was also into the American magazines. In that sense, I didn’t relate. On one hand, you barely see Asian-American bodies in media. But when you do, you only see perfect, skinny ones. No diversity of images. Whereas I was wearing extra larges. 

    I work toward being healthy more than being skinny. You kind of go into self-hatred, then self-care. My parents are those really progressive Korean parents. They never pressured me to lose weight. I developed breasts and hips faster than other girls. So they understood how my body was different. Other Asian girls my age had a lot of negative talk about being skinny and being a certain size. They were already skinny. It was disturbing to see the kind of effects we can have on each other.

    For Asians, there’s an innate pressure to be skinny. When you think of Asian women, you don’t really think of voluminous women. You might think of small, weak women. I feel like it’s important there are different Asian women of different sizes.
  • “There’s extra pressure for perfection in the Asian community. But the healthiest relationship I’ve had with my body and myself was with my disability.” — Xian, 34
    Beauty is very conventional in our culture. My mom is from Shanghai, but she’s Taiwanese. And she’s gorgeous
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    Beauty is very conventional in our culture. My mom is from Shanghai, but she’s Taiwanese. And she’s gorgeous. That’s why I’m running workshops on self esteem. There was a lot of internal pressure on myself. I couldn’t believe I came out of these two beings. My mom was an art director. Warren Beatty is my dad’s doppelganger. I do think there’s extra pressure for perfection in the Asian community. That’s why we need to embrace authenticity. 

    My parents have always been supportive, in terms of my having cerebral palsy, and told me anything was possible. When I said I wanted to be a ballerina at age 6, they just got me ballerina costumes. They never said, “That’s not for you.” They let me have big big dreams.

    But the healthiest relationship I’ve had with my body and myself was with my disability. My parents made me believe in myself. This was one area I knew I could define for myself. No matter how other people saw it, I’ve always seen the positives of it. My disability was treated as just a practical consideration. The priority was me growing and being as happy a person as possible.
  • “Sometimes randomly people will call me Yao Ming or Jeremy Lin. I don’t resemble either of them. We’re just tall Asians.” — Wan Yue, 40
    I’m 6 feet, 4 inches, and it actually feels special to be tall. When I see another tall Asian, we nod in recognition of
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I’m 6 feet, 4 inches, and it actually feels special to be tall. When I see another tall Asian, we nod in recognition of each other. Sometimes randomly people will call me Yao Ming or Jeremy Lin. I don’t resemble either of them. We’re just tall Asians. I laugh it off though and say, “Oh, I’m actually taller than him.”

    Other ways it affects my life: Well, with dating, it’s interesting. The reality is that I face an uphill battle if I’m trying to date a Caucasian woman. Some white women simply don’t see you because you’re Asian. So yeah, height can kind of be an advantage. Or when I email with people and meet them, they say, “You’re a lot taller in person.” They have a mental expectation that you don’t expect an Asian guy to be tall.

    I don’t like to be the center of attention generally, but I have gotten comfortable with the height thing being an advantage. I’ve actually been mugged several times in Ridgewood [New York] when I was younger growing up. Now that I’m tall, the thing is, if somebody’s going to try to rob somebody, they’re not going to try to rob the big guy.
  • “It’s OK that I’ve been close to weighing 200 pounds — and also close to weighing 100 pounds.” — Louise, 36
    It’s OK that I’ve been close to weighing 200 pounds — and also close to weighing 100 pounds. I st
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    It’s OK that I’ve been close to weighing 200 pounds — and also close to weighing 100 pounds. I started grad school at the smallest I’d been and graduated the largest I’d ever been. I was also really damn happy when I graduated. I had no confidence, so I almost dropped out my first year. I didn’t feel I deserved to take up space. I tried to be an actor before, and it just didn’t pan out. A lot of it was a lot of feedback like, “You’re Asian. We don’t want to cast someone who looks like you. You don’t fit the mold of the sexy dragon lady. We don't know what to do with you.” As I kept going, something clicked my second year and third year where I was like, “OK, I’m going to just do what makes me happy. I’m going to stop worrying about how my body works.” At my largest, I was a size 18. I told myself that I can still be beautiful. I can still do all the things I want to do.

    I was, like, a size 2, and then when I left school, I had put on between 90 and 100 pounds. It was a slow creep. When I lost the weight, it was because I got sick, but I mourned the weight. I went from 200 to 140 pounds really, really fast. I didn’t know how to fill the space anymore. I mourned the fat. I had an association to be fat and happy.

    There’s no fat, beautiful, body-proud Asian touchstone. When I was growing up, I loved Margaret Cho. I still love her. But I was like, “You can’t be like that. She's the unicorn.” There are cutouts of what Asian women get to be — the compliant Asian, the good-girl Asian, the edgy Asian. And it does have to do with your body and how you look. I’ve never felt like I fit into one of those.

    But I guess my big revelation was that I’m allowed to occupy space and I’m allowed to be the designer of the space I occupy.
  • “To some degree, belonging to as many stereotypes as possible helps break them down.” — Greg, 53
    My parents are Chinese immigrants and settled in upstate New York. When you’re a short Asian kid, physical stature can
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    My parents are Chinese immigrants and settled in upstate New York. When you’re a short Asian kid, physical stature can be a form of protection and make you less of a victim. I don’t know if that was motivation to go into military and pursue law enforcement later on. I don’t know how much I’m defying a stereotype. To some degree belonging to as many stereotypes as possible helps break them down. I’m a typical Asian kid with physics degree, but I also went into the FBI. And yeah, I also do jujitsu competitions.

    I was having a conversation with my wife, and when we started dating, she told her friends she was dating some Chinese guy, and they asked if I was nerdy. And she said, “No, he’s kind of jacked.” They just assumed I’m nerdy guy. I mean, to some degree, they’re right.

    I can’t speak for all Asians, but I remember graduation day at the FBI academy, and I was with my dad, who’s very Old World, and he said he didn't see too many other Chinese boys there. I don’t want to say some of it is self-imposed, but in that instant, some of that revealed a mindset to me. 

    I think to some degree, there’s a self-limiting mentality. You grow up to be engineers and doctors. From that generation first coming over to the U.S., the most tangible thing you can produce is to achieve this and you are qualified, despite what anyone says. But I get it. My parents came over in late ’50s and were escaping communist China.
  • “Now I really like the fact I have vitiligo because I feel like it makes me unique.” — Lailinda, 19
    I have vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that happens when there’s a failure in the immune system, and it results in
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I have vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that happens when there’s a failure in the immune system, and it results in depigmentation of the skin. Asians like to have pale, perfect skin. Some of my relatives would blame my parents or me that we didn’t take care of my skin. It was implied my family wasn’t raising me well. They were acting like it was food or activities and as a result, that happened. 

    The first couple of years, I would always notice it. But now I really like the fact I have vitiligo because I feel like it makes me unique, and I can’t imagine myself without it. It’s something I find special and I like about myself.
  • “Both Asian people and American people don’t think I fit in. Your life is a collection of things you’ve personally seen. I’m a visual representation of that.” — Chris, 34
    I grew up in both Toronto and the Bay Area. My friends were diverse. About half were Asian. People always think I’m par
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I grew up in both Toronto and the Bay Area. My friends were diverse. About half were Asian. People always think I’m part black or part Hispanic or ask if I’m some kind of jungly Asian because I look different. Both Asian people and American people don’t think I fit in. The only place is Hawaii where I fit in. I fit the profile — darker skin, more tribal looking.

    With my hair, I just experimented a lot. I’d always dye it or braid it. I’d shave it or whatever. When I was young, I really liked Korn. I grew up playing in bands. You always want to look unique. You want to look distinct as a performer. I played bass in a metal band. 

    People would ask, “Why do you gravitate toward black or white culture so much?” But what am I supposed to look at? What else is out there? There are no Asians on TV. Your life is a collection of things you’ve personally seen. I’m a visual representation of that.
  • “People think Filipinos are the exotic Asian — sexy islanders. I wasn’t that. And I feel like I was the only one OK with that.” — Jennifer, 34
    I grew up in Orange County, and I was a teenager when the show “The O.C.” was big. Everyone was tall and skinny a
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    I grew up in Orange County, and I was a teenager when the show “The O.C.” was big. Everyone was tall and skinny and blue eyes. I was one of seven Asians. I was overweight and darker. I had bad acne. And I had all these things that weren’t attractive. I was going to school with beautiful girls, and it shaped me. So I had to work on my personality and humor. I didn’t date because my parents are hard-core Filipino. Guys didn’t like me. I felt I wasn’t attractive in the way they wanted me to be. I was their friend and confidante. I had a good personality, and I was the funny one because I wasn’t attractive. I wasn’t what guys were looking for because they were all tall and blue eyed.

    I was the only one with a training bra in third or fourth grade. I developed too fast, and my mom made me tone it down so I didn’t look too sexy. My mom was always scared it would hypersexualize me.

    People think Filipinos are the exotic Asian — sexy islanders. I wasn’t that. And I feel like I was the only one OK with that, eventually. It’s just different when you’re not. I tried to dye my hair blond. I wore light contacts. I got all the haircuts like what I saw in the magazines. It wasn’t my look. I’m sorry I don’t look like a little doll!
  • “Before, I felt like I’m coping with having this body. Now I’m embracing it.” — Erica, 26
    My whole family loved to feed me. Asian culture shows love with food. My grandmother would feed me like crazy because I&rsquo
    Gabriela Landazuri Saltos/HuffPost
    My whole family loved to feed me. Asian culture shows love with food. My grandmother would feed me like crazy because I’m the youngest. I got bigger and bigger and bigger. It was so conflicting.

    I went through extreme teenage angst in middle school through high school. I wanted to be cool and wear clothes my classmates were wearing. It was so hard to figure out what I’m doing in terms of my body. I’m a lawyer, so I have to go to court all the time, and I’m dealing with it by not following fashion trends and focusing on what looks good on my body. Before, I felt like I’m coping with having this body. Now I’m embracing it and making my body work for me and live harmoniously.
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