Belonging Nowhere: Struggles With Disordered Eating as a Visible Minority
Growing up as a first generation immigrant is complex. Your parents are adults who are relearning things they learned in childhood while simultaneously trying to keep you alive and teach you life lessons. On TV you see these perfect, straw-haired, pale-skinned kids, speaking English and eating mashed potatoes for dinner and you look down at your plate of rice and squid, while your mom is yelling at you in your mother tongue and you wonder why your life is so different.
You spend your first years at school in the suburbs of Calgary studying the kids around you and reporting back to your mother each day after school. Resenting her for not being quick enough to pick up on the right trends, the right food or the right jokes to tell when it’s your turn to talk. Eventually, after relentless pestering, she starts to buy the right juice boxes, make the right sandwiches and giving you and your sister money for clothes so you can go ahead and dress yourselves.
She puts you and your sister in dance because you convince her that that’s what everyone else is doing and you watch. From the margins you watch while the pink-cheeked girls and their skinny legs make friends. You watch these girls get kissed before you do. You watch these girls dress up as any Disney princess or Spice Girl they want while they always make you play Mulan or Scary Spice because you are the only minority in your grade 4 class.
In High School, you audition for and get accepted into a performing arts program that calls for 5-hour rehearsals after school and on weekends. Because you want to be that girl with pink cheeks and skinny legs more than anyone in the world, you start purging after meals. You are part of a community now. A community of girls where everyone is over-talented and underweight. Where you catch each other fasting and purging and you say nothing. Where the seamstress measures you for costumes and announces the measurements of every part of your body across the room to the person who is writing them down. You are 17 and you wince when they get to your thighs because they are another thing your mother gave to you that wasn’t right. You wish you could report to her that she got the wrong size and that she could give you the money to go and pick the right ones out yourself.
Your parents feed you plate after plate of this rich meat and rice that reminds you of where you come from but as soon as it goes in you, you reject it. Out of your mouth and into the toilet it goes so that neither you nor your body remembers that you tried to take it in at all.
You don’t belong in either place. Your mother tongue is now warped and your family laughs when you try to speak. As you walk on the street, strangers ask you questions like “Where are you from?” and when you say “Here.” and they say, “No where are you really from?” you know they just need an explanation forwhy you aren’t white. Why you aren’t that pink-cheeked girl with skinny legs.
You grow into a woman in the margins. Watching and analyzing and comparing and purging. Longing to be that kind of girl you think you need to be in order to be loved. You are challenged each time a new leading lady looks nothing like you. Each time they cast the same half-Asian actress to play some martial arts expert who is supposed to represent all of the females from your population. You fight against men trying to date you because they are “really into Asian girls.” Or people asking if you know their Filipina nanny. Or if you can read Chinese characters even though your last name is Carlos.
You get defensive and you get angry. You wish more than anything that you could have been born a different color. You purge and you over-exercise and you convince yourself that being 5’1” and 115lbs is unacceptable because, while you can’t be responsible for the color of your skin, you can be responsible for your weight.
You spend your life in this cycle of anger, resentment and self-rejection until you finally take yourself out of the prairies and into a city where you’re not the only girl who can play Mulan or Scary Spice. Where you start to see that it’s not only the pink cheeked, skinny-legged girls with friends, love and options.
Here, is where you finally start trying. Trying to value yourself for more than just the container you happened to arrive in. Trying by not weighing yourself at all when you used to weigh yourself every single day. By discovering that you can exercise for fun and not just to lose pounds, and learning that you love lifting weights because it turns out that you have super strength and deadlifting makes you feel unstoppable. By starting to look at food as fuel that nourishes and pleases. By learning that you are allowed to feed yourself when you are hungry and stop eating when you are full and that these actions do not define your worth as a woman. By going to therapy because you finally learn that your healing is more important than stigma or being “perfect”. By starting and maintaining friendships and relationships with honesty because you decide that you no longer want to be loved for someone you are not or someone you are pretending to be. Trying by learning to accept yourself as you are because you are tired of being your own oppressor. By believing that you deserve to receive love and finally beginning to give it to yourself.
Marbella Anne Carlos is a performance artist, arts educator and yoga teacher who contributes to NEDIC as an Education and Outreach Volunteer.