• Bincheng Mao

(Op-Ed) We Need to Act to Prevent the Epidemic of Eating Disorders

Guest Contributor: Laura Han

Eating Disorders Spike During COVID-19, NYTimes

There is a seemingly invisible epidemic going on, and this time, it doesn’t start with a cough or any flu-like symptoms. This epidemic also does kill: one person every hour, to be exact [1]. It causes social isolation, self-hate, hair loss, and amenorrhea, but it’s constantly romanticized, normalized, and overlooked, fueled by the adoption of Eurocentric beauty standards.

It is the epidemic of eating disorders, also known as ED.

Case and point: during January 2021, the National Eating Disorders Association received 41% more help-line messages than in January 2020.[3] Given the anxiety and social isolation-induced by quarantine, “food [became] one thing that [people] feel like they can control in…a stressful, uncertain environment”.[4] Asian Americans have among the highest rates of ED across all races. Research by Chapel Hill indicates that Asian American college students purge and restrict significantly more often than their white and non-Asian POC counterparts.[5] Moreover, a study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders suggests that prevailing ED guidelines, developed from European females, cannot capture the full symptomology of ED in Asian Americans.[6] These blind spots can lead to underdiagnosis and make Asian Americans with clinically significant disorders appear less ill than their white counterparts.

The external, Eurocentric gaze directly impacts how AAPI feel about and in their bodies; internalizing Eurocentric beauty standards that necessitate thinness likely encourages disordered eating. For example, the “model minority” myth of the well-assimilated, middle-upper class Asian, demands perfection. Combined with the high-achieving, accomplishment-oriented culture of Asian families, the model minority myth can engender anxiety and maladaptive coping strategies like eating disorders.[7] Furthermore, medical professionals may write off symptoms of ED in Asian Americans, having already concluded that they, the model minority, probably did not / could not / should not experience the negative consequences of assimilation. [8] On the contrary, research finds that acculturative stress, or cultural shock resulting from malassimilation, predicts eating disorders.[9]

Additionally, exoticizing Asian women places a premium on thin, docile bodies that fit the delicate china doll mold. Julie Feng writes for The Body Is Not An Apology that racialized bodies cannot exist without for/because clauses, the “implicit addition of ‘Asian’”.[10] You’re fat, for an Asian. You’re skinny because you’re Asian. Western media further emphasizes this condition with provocative statements like, “You’re fat. Asians aren’t. Here’s why,” inevitably raising questions like “How come most Asian girls eat so much yet stay so skinny?”.[11] The construct Asian = skinny creates arbitrary pressures to become skinny enough to be Asian enough, alienating AAPI bodies from their own identity. So, make no mistake: there are thin Asians, thick Asians, flat Asians, curvy Asians, and just about everything in between.

Amidst the anti-Asian hate, choosing to love our bodies and the bodies of others, no matter the size and shape, also is a rebellion. It’s a choice to embrace our food, our people, and our culture unconditionally, without that adjunct for/because clause. If anything, the solidarity across the vast and diverse AAPI community during the pandemic illustrates our cultures’ resilience and love. Let’s draw on this strength to cherish every curve of our bodies as an affirmation of ourselves and our right to exist first and foremost as people, not as a mere category.

The opinions expressed in this op-ed represent the views of the author(s), and the publication of this piece alone is not ECC's endorsement of it.


[1] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/striped/report-economic-costs-of-eating-disorders/

[2] https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences [3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/well/mind/covid-eating-disorders.html

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evidence-based-living/202105/why-eating-di sorders-surged-through-covid-19

[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33307468/

[6] https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/eating-disorder/ethnic-minorities

[7] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01950/full

[8] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01950/full

[9] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01950/full

[10] https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/escaping-the-forbecause-qualifier-of-racial ized-bodies/

[11] https://hyphenmagazine.com/blog/2019/08/consuming-culture-food-and-shaping-asian-american-identity