Unpacking Food Relationships
Our intern and clinical mental health counseling student Amanda will be discussing food relationships for Mental Health Monday this week! If you like this series, you can show your support to Amanda here.
“Have you eaten yet?” Many of us are intimately familiar with this question, understanding that it means much more than simply wondering if we’ve eaten recently. Food is a central part of many AAPI cultures, with many of our celebrations and gatherings revolving around the ritual of cooking and sharing a meal with family, friends, and community.
So, when we as AAPI come up against shame around food, whether that is through a hurtful “stinky lunch box” experience or unrealistic body standards, it can be especially painful. When we feel shame about food and, in turn, our bodies, we may also feel shame about our People, our culture, and the way we love each other.
These feelings of shame directly affect our physical, mental, and emotional health—studies have shown that Asian American women experience higher rates of disordered eating than other women of color. Additionally, Asian/Pacific Islander men may be at higher risk for developing eating disorders when compared to Black and White men. While disordered eating is complex and can be influenced by many factors, some of the difficulties we experience around food can be linked to diet culture.
What is diet culture? Diet culture describes cultural beliefs that prioritize appearance and body shape over wellbeing. Because of these beliefs, we may pursue fad diets that promise a certain body shape and incorrectly equate body size with health. There is no way to assess someone’s health by simply looking at their body size or weight. BMI, a measurement commonly used to gauge health through weight, was actually created for statistical purposes in the 19th century and was never meant to be used as a measure of individual health.
In the U.S., diet culture is also rooted in racism, specifically Anti-Black racism, with slimness historically being attributed to whiteness and the myth of racial superiority. It has since extended to apply to any culture outside of whiteness, including AAPI cultures, making navigating relationships with body, food, and self even more challenging. In fact, our cultural foods are often considered inherently “unhealthy” and in need of intervention.
There are many examples of non-AAPI chefs, business owners and medical professionals claiming that AAPI food must be changed in order to become “healthy,” implying that it is not inherently nutritious or nourishing. This demonization of our cultural foods is a form of forced assimilation and creates yet another barrier to us as AAPI seeking support for body image and food relationship concerns.
Sometimes pressures to eat or look a certain way are also put on us by those closest to us and/or from within our own cultures. This may look like unsolicited commentary on your weight or pressure to eat more food than you’re comfortable with. When faced with these pressures and stigmas at the internal, familial, and societal levels, it is no wonder that AAPI needing support for body image and disordered eating find it difficult to both reach out and receive quality care.
While harmful comments from family may cross our personal boundaries, we can also examine them with understanding and cultural context, keeping in mind generational trauma. Consider:
- Are these comments linked to anxiety around food waste? Making the most of what is available to us is an adaptive strategy that has helped our People survive through difficult periods of history. Eating all that is given to you may be equated with gratitude.
- Is eating a lot considered a compliment in your family? Many AAPI families may have gone through periods of food insecurity, so eating well can be an indication of health and abundance.
- Does your culture embrace body shapes and sizes outside of the dominant cultural norm? Some studies have found that Pacific Islanders consistently have higher body satisfaction than Asians, perhaps due to lower levels of cultural stigma and greater acceptance of larger bodies.
We have the power to change the narrative. How can we as AAPI redefine what beauty standards mean to us and reclaim our relationship with food? Here are some things we can keep in mind:
- Nuance is key. Understanding what your body needs to feel happy and healthy is more important than one-size-fits-all diet or body acceptance advice. People may need to eat in a certain way for a variety of reasons, whether due to religious beliefs or management of a chronic illness. What works for some may not work for you, and that is okay!
- Language is powerful. Be aware of how your words may be received, even if you mean them as a compliment. Unsolicited comments on someone’s weight, diet, or health may be hurtful to others, and can subconsciously shape the way you think about your body as well.
- Expand our definitions. Asian and Pacific Islander people of all genders struggle with their body image and relationship with food. We can question our biases and normalize honest, compassionate conversations about body image and food relationships.
- Embrace your heritage. Multiple studies suggest that positive ethnic identity is correlated with higher body image and lower rates of disordered eating. This is difficult to do in a society that sees us AAPI as perpetual foreigners, so loving yourself and your People is itself an act of liberation.
Affirmations for AAPI:
- You deserve to find joy and pleasure in your cultural foods, without guilt or shame.
- It is okay to have a complex relationship with your body. Learning to trust what it is telling you can be difficult when you’ve been taught to ignore it.
- Healing your relationship with your body and food can be difficult–know that your boundaries deserve to be respected.
- Our cultural foods have nourished our People for generations. They can nourish you, too.
- Lim, 2016
- Konstantinovsky, 2021
- Akoury et al., 2019
- Goel et al., 2022
- Tagle & Schneider, 2022
- Carlan, 2020
- Agnotti-Jones, 2019
- Tovar, 2022
- Latner et al., 2011
- Brewis et al., 1998
- Rodgers et al., 2018