Where Do Asian Americans Fit in Fitness?

July 7, 2014

With the help of an old friend, I am embarking on my first health and fitness challenge next month.

I'm going to keep it real with you: health was generally not my focus before. My eating and fitness habits were mostly informed by the way I wanted my body to look. Any time I was winded after walking up a flight of stairs, or wasn't able to carry a heavy box, it was easy for me to dismiss it on the grounds that I was just unathletic and bookish.

When I did go to the gym, it was for one singular purpose: to somehow will myself a butt like J. Lo. I always hoped that any fat I gained would go straight to my bum, but my body just isn't built that way. The only criticism I ever got was from my aunts and uncles, who seemed to have a keen eye for whether or not I was eating enough or too much. Barring that, I have never felt much pressure or urgency to prioritize actual fitness or healthy eating. My concerns with my body were not in the name of health, but for looks.

Then I had kids.

I’ve been living with a new body — a loose and soft stomach from bearing my kids, breasts that are getting intimately acquainted with gravity, and a perpetually tired feeling — for six years now. I’m always somewhere between feeling sad and dissatisfied with what it can’t do and what it will never look like, and feeling proud of and empowered by what it has already done. But with all the other responsibilities I have now, looks aren't enough motivation to start cutting back on the rice and pasta. I know I could lose a few pounds, but I'm a girl who grew up in the United States, and I'm used to being forever dissatisfied with my looks.

But now I have these three sponges in my life, two kids and a husband who seem to absorb my eating and fitness habits more than I ever thought they could. It’s not just about the way my body looks; it’s about setting a healthy example for them to follow, and encouraging them to treat their bodies well. I would like to do this in ways that align with my bigger philosophies and politics on life -- I want to eat healthfully without crying into salads and rich white people food every day. I want to encourage healthy eating without encouraging disordered eating. I want my daughters to know that “healthy” can look like a lot of different things, but I’m finding it very difficult to discover what that is for me.

As part of the health challenge, I'm tasked with putting together a vision board, something I can look at that will inspire me on this journey to fitness. I included one of our wedding photos, an old pic of me wearing jeans that fit really well. I also put up one of my favorite pictures of my kids, to remind myself of the example I hoped to set for them. But it was really difficult to find a healthy model of fitness -- the best I could do were muscular moms and stock images of women meditating and waking up with smiles on their faces.

Here’s the thing: women of color, including Asian women, face a unique set of challenges when it comes to fitness and fitness inspiration. As in so many other areas of our lives, it’s especially difficult for us to find role models who look like us. The conversation surrounding women’s health and fitness not only sets skinny women as the standard (and co-signs the policing of bodies that don’t fit this standard), but particularly skinny white women. On a larger level, trying to find fitspiration as a woman of color mostly provides confirmation that it’s actually not great for your health (mental or otherwise) to be a POC in America. Beyond that, the current poster child of Asian American fitness, Maria Kang, is basically Tiger Mom repackaged in a sports bra and yoga pants.

When you Google “Asian American fitness,” the first page of hits are mostly troubling conversations about Asian American masculinity and sexual value. And do you know how difficult it is to find cultural cookbooks or recipe sites that are centered on healthy eating? I’ve found scattered ethnic recipes on Paleo-friendly or low-cal sites here and there, but never a site that helps you adapt the dishes of your childhood to healthier versions. Filipino cuisine in particular is pretty high in sodium, relies heavily on rice, and has many deep-fried dishes. The best discussion I’ve been able to find lately is this conversation on AsianTwoX. But check the front page of the subreddit made up mostly of Asian American women, and you’ll find at least three conversations all about body image.

The problem is, so much of the "fitspiration" out there is centered on looks and sexual value, pushing the idea that fat is the worst thing on the planet and that we should all strive to be skinny at any cost, which isn't my goal at all. Yeah, I want to lose the muffin top and be okay with wearing a normal bathing suit at the beach, but I'm not trying to reach pre-baby thigh-gap waif status. I'm a decade older and wiser, and I'm ready to love the body I already have. I don't want to waste any more time trying to turn it into something it isn't. It's actually more important to me to feel more energized and less stressed, to be physically stronger, and to provide the framework for healthful living at home -- and do so in a way that maintains and honors my family’s traditions.

I’m not a gourmand or all that well-versed in healthy eating, and the only thing I know to do right now is to stick with the stews (nilagang baka, anyone?), lay off the rice, and maybe go easy on the patis. So I want to know: What are some of the ways you have adapted your favorite Asian dishes in the name of health?


Theresa Celebran Jones


Theresa Celebran Jones was born and raised in Connecticut and has moved cross-country four times. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young daughters. She works full-time as a technical writer and is an MFA dropout. Her only other hobbies are reading, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and listening to hip hop. Clearly she has no social life.