What little girl doesn’t grow up wanting to be exactly like her mother? I was certainly no exception to that rule. I wanted to talk like my mom, I wanted to dress like my mom, I wanted to cook like my mom, I even wanted to chew gum like my mom.
Unfortunately, though my mother gave me so much, she couldn’t give to me the one thing I wanted most of all. More than anything in all the world —I wanted to look like my mom.
My mother is a sparrow.
She was 87 lbs—when she was nine months pregnant with me. All her life, she has struggled with low cholesterol, low blood pressure, and being underweight—which, in my mind, is what always allowed her to fly around from PTA meetings, to the hospital (where she was a nurse for over three decades), church meetings, recitals, birthday parties, and field trips with impossible grace. When I try and describe my mother, I often think of this old photo of us—she is sitting on the bed with me (I must have been maybe 2 years old) in a cloud of yellow silk. Sunlight is pouring in from somewhere, so that you can just see the silhouette of her shallow breasts, the dime-sized scar on her shoulder from the smallpox vaccine she got when she was little. Her pale face is tilted towards me, while I am doing my best imitation of a beach-ball squatting on her bed.
I grew up taking after a dumpling much more than a bird. I have broad shoulders, a heavy jaw, thighs that look a great deal more like tree trunks than branches, and an atypically large ass (as my grandmother enjoyed reminding me at every opportunity). I was 12 years old the day I outgrew my mother’s hand-me-down bras, and it was then that I knew I’d passed the point of no return: I would never, ever look like my mother.
Instead, I would always be the Big One.
Whether or not it is a stereotype, the vast majority of Korean women I know are quite a bit smaller than I am. This, of course, started with my mother–the tiniest of all of them–but extended to my aunts, my cousins, my girlfriends, even the women I’d see at the Korean grocery store. All of these women would hit the panic button and crash diet the minute the scale tipped over 105 lbs, while for me, the notion of weighing 105 lbs was unfathomable–even at 5’1″. For as long as I can remember, I have been weighed in the eyes of all these small Asian women who have actually earned the right to be called “petite.” And, I have been ashamed of my failure to be one of them my entire fucking life.
Throughout junior high and high school, I “got by” on brains and talent and I was “skinny enough” to occasionally earn the “pretty” tag when introduced to my parents’ friends or colleagues, but was much more often introduced as the “smart one” (i.e., 우리 똑똑한 딸). For as long as I could remember, my mother was always getting after me about shedding “just 10 pounds” so that I could be “perfect.” I don’t think she knew that those “just 10 pounds” forced a wedge between us. I buried the distance that sprang up between me and my mother deep into a crack that closed up like a tender wound in my chest.
It never healed.
Against my mother’s advice, I married the first man I ever loved. Though my mother’s voice was fierce, her bones were hollow and even she lacked the strength to extract my heart from the trouble that was my marriage. She watched, year after year, as I stifled the voice that had been my birthright in favor of eating my pain. Literally. I was a not-overweight college freshman (5’1″ and around 125 lbs) when I met my ex-husband in 1997. Fast forward 12 years to 2009—by which time I had swaddled both my mind and body in the tantalizing perfume of inertia—and weighed an astonishing 187 lbs. By this time, the “advice” from my parents was not limited to “just the last 10 pounds.” They counseled against visiting my relatives in Korea, for fear I would be too embarassed by my size. They suggested I decline a slice of my own birthday cake because I was “getting too fat.” And my grandmother, God love her, would mutter, “ayooo, somehow your ass has grown even bigger…,” every Christmas.
[Don’t get me wrong. I do not say these things to criticize my family. As most of us Korean girls know, this is, to the “First Generation,” a perverse mechanism for showing “love.” An effort to protect us from the far less forgiving scrutiny of society at large. As is often the case when our parents or loved ones fuck up, “they meant well.”]
My mother is a very proud woman — particularly when it comes to men. She thus found it hard to watch her only daughter staying with a man who didn’t treat her well. After each explosive fight with my ex-husband, I would show up at my mother’s doorstep (for the 100th time), my face red with tears. I didn’t have to say anything—I never did. She merely opened the door and would say,
She would sit me down on her peach leather couch with a warm cup of coffee between her small hands and we would have the same conversation we’d had a dozen times already.
“Why do you keep going back?”
At first, I think it was a genuine question. But after years of the same question, it was hard for my mother to hide the contempt in her words. One evening in 2010, I showed up at her doorstep at 2 in the morning in my pajamas, barefoot, and with my dog panting in my arms. I told her, “This time, I don’t think I can go back. I’m getting a divorce.” I will never forget the response of my 87 lb. mother (loosely translated into English):
“If he shows his face here, I am going to beat the shit out of him.”
I did go back. Physically, my body returned to our house, but something turned in me that night. I gave up on my marriage that night. And somewhere, buried deep inside of me, I hoped I could one day [soon] make my mother proud by actually leaving and not going back.
Eventually, in March 2013, 16 years after falling in love, I left my husband and our 2400 square foot townhouse in a sleepy suburb for a tiny apartment in the city. By that time, I had convinced myself that my skin had grown thick enough to deal with the humiliation of the dreaded “when are you due?” comment by strangers in the elevator or watching my mother laugh behind her slim hands when someone gasped, “Well, how did someone your size give birth to her?” I had grown quite adept at avoiding the camera lens (including my own) and using my ever-expanding girth as a built-in forcefield against social interaction of any kind (despite my sister-in-law’s relentless matchmaking prowess). Truth is, I had a lot on my plate—unpacking 16 years of my life into a much smaller space, a stack of divorce papers, a job that demanded as much from me as ever, and, of course, french fries.
In January 2014, I decided it was finally time to do something about my weight. It was definitely not the first time I’d resolved to lose weight (I had tried just about every “diet” known to man, including low fat, low carb, Paleo, Zone, Weight Watchers, and liposuction), but it would be the first time I’d attempt to do so the “healthy way,” as my shrink suggested. I picked up a copy of James Duigan’s Clean & Lean Diet—which was way more accessible than “lo-carb” or “lo-fat” or “lo-cal” and ordered Tony Horton’s Power90 (the P90x for geriatrics) DVDs. The official kick-off date for Project “The New Me” was on Monday, January 13, 2014.
I’d like to tell you that the fat just melted right off. But, the truth is the truth is the truth: there is no trick to losing fat. Eat right and exercise. As with virtually everything else in my life, I’d grown quite chummy with the extra padding, and contrary to what one might believe, there was a fair bit of bitter mixed in with the sweet every time another inch disappeared. A wise Unni of mine once posted on her Facebook, “Confidence is a hard earned thing.” I felt wholly unprepared for the Confidence my new body would bring; but, I had learned a thing or two from digging through the debris from my marriage—it’s better to move forward into a dark future than stay put in the bright and washed out background of the past.
Day 90 came and went. I took my obligatory 90-day side-by-side and got a bunch of notes on my Instagram account. I got bored with Tony Horton’s Power90 and started running along the lakeshore (my second apartment building was right on Lake Michigan). My face shrank. My body started to “ripple” instead of “jiggle.” My girlfriend told me “This is different from the last time you lost weight. You look strong.” My mother told me, often, “You look great!! Keep up the good work!” Every morning, I would run my hand along my obliques and marvel at meeting muscles with whom I’d never been acquainted. For the first time in my life, I decided that I would risk skin cancer by “laying out” at the pool and, for the first time in my life, a man I didn’t know asked me how often I went to the gym, since “it’s obvious you work out a lot.”
These are the “highs” and wouldn’t it be great if I could tell you that there were/are no “lows.” After losing more than 60 lbs, I was addicted to the “highs,” to seeing another pound melt away, feeling another pair of “goal jeans” slide over my hips. And with all of the joy that came with running past another milestone, it became all too easy for me to equate my weight with my worth.
As with any high… ultimately, I came crashing down. And it was anything but pretty.
The weight loss slowed to a snail’s pace. Despite being told by my friends, my cousins, and my mom that I really needed to “quit dieting,” I was constantly chasing after just “those last 10 lbs.” But, inevitably, those last 10 lbs grew ever more elusive as I got smaller. After over a year of restrictive eating and more and more cardio, my metabolism had cratered.
Of course, the only rational solution (to me) was to eat less and run more. By August 2015, I was eating between 300-800 calories a day and running 30+ miles per week. On Sundays, after starving all week, I would binge on donuts, fried foods, and greasy sandwiches — often in the dark, close to midnight, when no one was around and I could hide my shame. On Mondays, I would “fast” as a penalty for my Sunday indulgences.
I was terrified that my new boyfriend would dump me for being too fat. As the number on the scale refused to budge, even though I was the lightest I had ever been as an adult, I was convinced that it was only a matter of time before I grew prohibitively unattractive. Out of desperation, I would go on sprees of eating nothing but 3 truffles or 3 biscotti a day, while downing laxatives for breakfast and dinner. My hair started to fall out; I broke out into a rash that became difficult to hide; and I was freezing all the time, from the inside out. I started carrying a little cash with me on my runs, because I was worried I might pass out.
One sunny afternoon, after weighing myself for the 17th time that day and seeing the same damn number I did the day before, I started to cry. A lot.
Not the pretty crying, the kind my mother was so good at, with one hand over her mouth and tears rolling down her frail face, but gross hiccuping sobs, my body squatting over the scale until I started seeing stars from the lack of oxygen. And food. I called my therapist — the one who had helped me through my divorce — and wailed into the phone,
“You don’t understand, Colette. I’m too fat.
I’ll never be skinny enough. I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never be good enough for him!”
I think there — right there — was my rock bottom. I equated being “fat” with being “unworthy.” And not just unworthy in general, but “unworthy” to be loved — by my parents, by my boyfriend, by anyone.
It’s been 20 months since that panicked call to Colette. I wish I could tell you that over the past 20 months, I stopped caring about my weight. The God’s honest truth is, I am still obsessed with my body. Not a day goes by where I haven’t thought about whether I’m skinny enough, slid my hands over my hips wishing I could dissolve them with my touch, compared my body to the women I see on the street, calculated the number of calories in my breakfast. Just the other night, I dreamt that while changing in front of my mother, she sighed and shook her head in unsurprised disappointment and commented, “You’ve gained weight again.” It took me several hours into my day to realize that it had been just a dream.
However, over the past 20 months, I’ve been seeing a therapist who specializes in “disordered eating.” I’ve thrown away my scale; I trained for and completed my first half marathon; I started a food blog, of all things; I traded in all my designer handbags for race bibs and my fancy shoes for running shoes. Although I still count calories, I now try to make sure I’m eating enough, and once I did that, well whaddya know — the urge to binge on donuts and french fries suddenly disappeared by itself.
But, of all the changes in my life in the past 20 months,
the most disruptive has been my choice to go vegan.
Every vegan I’ve ever spoken to has gone out of their ways to extol the many virtues of adopting a plant based diet.
I’m not “every vegan.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are some very important “benefits” to going vegan for someone who has a fairly dysfunctional relationship with food. For me, going vegan has served as an excellent “crutch” as I hobble around a gastronomic landscape without the “low calorie” or “low carb” guard rails. Put simply, it’s easier for me to justify eating more because I know, in the back of my mind, that I’m actually still eating a lot less than the “average Jo.” Do the math — I would have to eat half a dozen servings of chickpeas to equal 2 small pieces of fried chicken or 3 blocks of tofu for one steak. Not only that, I can readily satisfy my pernicious appetite for alpha bitch control with every single vegan bite, since I am now restricting far more foods than I ever have.
But, however many articles you read about people who have successfully used veganism to “recover” from an eating disorder, in my mind, it’s still a crutch, and a crutch, by its very definition, should be “transitory,” as in — not permanent. Does that mean I’m going to stop being vegan now? No. But it does mean that I can’t keep using veganism as a way to avoid walking around on my own two legs. Put another way, it means that I can’t hide behind a diet consisting of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and moral platitudes from facing the hardest thing I will ever do.
“Loving yourself will be the hardest thing you will ever do,” my food therapist, Rachel, warned me on my first visit. I almost walked out. I did not sign up for therapy so that I could learn how to “love myself.” Although I would not have admitted it at the time, I signed up for therapy in order to strategize a more sustainable method for losing fat. If these sessions were going to be devoted to hippie-dippy-love-yourself-bullshit, they would be short-lived.
Which is what I said to her, in the most diplomatic way possible.
She smiled patiently. And repeated,
“Loving yourself will be the hardest thing you will ever do.”
And, just in case I missed it, she said once more,
“Loving yourself will be the hardest thing you will ever do.”
Maybe repeating the phrase three times somehow guaranteed that it would come true. Because however hard I try, whatever maneuverings I employ, I always manage to come back to ground zero, where I must continue to tell myself,
You are more than the number on your scale,
the number on the back of your jeans,
the number on the top right corner of the treadmill, or
the number at the bottom of your food diary.
Sometimes, it’s hard to describe what love looks like — I recall sitting in the bathtub with my mother when I was nine years old. She had spent the past hour scrubbing me down within an inch of my life. Even then at just nine years old, I knew that I was rounder and more padded than I should be. Looking down at my belly, I asked myself, again, how it was possible that a bird like her could give birth to something like me. We watched as the bathwater circled our bodies and all the dark flecks of 때 (exfoliated skin) drained, and while toweling me off, Omma jokes,
“I’ll bet you lost 10 lbs from that bath!”
At first, I laugh at my mother’s joke. But then, my nine-year old self looks up through baby eyelashes, still trembling with bathwater, and wonders wistfully,
“Really? Do you really think I lost weight from the bath?”
My heart breaks a little when I think of this.
I tell myself that this fleeting heartbreak is what love looks like.
Rachel reassures me over and over again, “Anthony loves you for more than your body. He loves your brain.”
For a long time, this only meant that I would continue to be introduced as the “smart one,” as some sort of implicit consolation for the fact that I was fat and ugly. Over the past 6 months, though, since going vegan, my attitude about food — and by extrapolation, my body — has shifted.
I think most people — me included — eat because we like the taste of certain foods. My mouth waters at the sight of kimchi and chocolate cake. And for a long time, the smell of bacon affected me the same way it affects the majority of red-blooded Americans. I used to tell people, my last meal on earth would consist of Korean style pork belly, rice, and miso soup.
But, like many of you, I have a difficult time coping with overt and senseless cruelty to anyone — friends, family, even strangers on the street. I get particularly upset when people are mean to the elderly, children, and, of course, animals. The notion that such meanness exists against the defenseless is profoundly frightening to me.
Now, with every bite of food I take, it’s no longer just a calculation of calories, carbs, and fat v. its utility at satisfying hunger and taste. While that calculation occurs, I am also reminded — with every bite — that I’m actually doing something good, something really and unquestionably good. Good for my body, good for the earth, good for the animals I’ve always adored.
This choice for compassion, together with all the choices I’ve ever made and will continue to make — these are the things that determine my worth. Not my bikini-unready bod.
When my mother was just a toddler, my grandparents whisked her out of their home in North Korea and literally carried her to what is now South Korea. She spent most of her childhood living off the charity of the village they settled in, digging through the dirt on her hands and knees for left over crops and sweet potatoes. She excelled at school even when her parents never had enough money for books, uniforms, or shoes. After my grandmother buried three little babies in an attempt to have a son, my mother assumed that role for herself, learning how to take care of the family farm under my grandfather’s careful instruction. She immigrated to the United States with no job, barely any money, and unable to speak English with the hope of improving not just her own fortune, but that of all those back home in Korea. She worked her ass off as a nurse and climbed the ranks to ultimately become the Director of the Emergency Department at a hospital in Chicago. She raised two kids who’ve never smoked or done any drugs, ever, and who both spoke perfect American English. And, even with all this, she finds time to write and publish her poetry, practice her calligraphy, and sing in the church choir.
I catalogue the choices I’ve made over the past decade to bring me where I am.
The time I slept on my office floor in my suit because I knew I would have to get back to work in just a few hours.
The time I ran .75 miles along the lakeshore path after not working out for over 3 years.
The time I picked up a camera and snapped a photo of my mother’s hands hugging a cup of tea.
The time I wrote a poem about my mother, about her hands, a cup of tea, Lake Michigan, and the quiet sorrow I inherited from her.
The time I wrote a blog about why I love Korean food and why I won’t let going vegan stop me from eating kimchi.
The time I kissed my dog, Daisy, on her back, after leaving her at my mother’s, where she is happier and healthier.
The time I scratched a man’s back, because my nails were long and his skin was soft, and we were both desperate for any semblance of joy to combat our despair.
The time I drove a car packed with 16 years of my life in the trunk towards the city;
telling my mother for the very last time,
“this time, I’m not going back.”
I realize, now, that I’ve been thinking of it all wrong. it’s not about shrinking into my mother’s skin. No.
All this time, I’ve been trying to grow into it.