Seeking the Perfect Body

Hyphen’s publisher recounts her struggle to face down the pressure to be thin

August 16, 2010

Lisa Lee celebrates her 14th birthday in 1998 with some cake in the face. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Lee)

"No solids after 6 p.m."
"No liquids after 7 p.m."
"No rice or noodles."
"No fried foods."
"No dairy."
"No soda."

Apparently, "no" is a key theme at the weight loss spa my mother and I frequent.

At 6 a.m., half-awake, I hobble to the kitchen to scarf down my breakfast: a tiny bowl of granola and leftover fruit.

For lunch, I wolf down half a ham sandwich, in which a bit of meat is dwarfed by a forest of leafy greens. No mayo; no mustard; no dressing. I chase it down with a shot of orange juice.

Dinner is whatever I can squeeze in before 6. Usually, I get sauteed vegetables that have been drenched in boiling water so as to strip them of all sauce, grease and goodness.

At age 18, when my primary goal was to become as beautiful as I could be, I followed this regimen for 90 days. Going far beyond food, the regimen also included cleansing, meditation and pep talks about how a new svelte body would match my beautiful face.

The weight-loss spa in Taipei, Taiwan, was a world where I could “fix” myself, namely by transforming my appearance to match my inner beauty. Once my body is perfect, improving the rest of me will be cake, I thought, optimistically shelving my old fear that I'd never be a size six. The truth, as I would realize much later, is that no quick-fix diet could change me, inside or outside. But in that moment, I doggedly pushed forward.

I climb into bed exhausted and hungry. My stomach growls. I can only dream about my next meal.

In the spa, I wear a beige frock and choke down a green powder that will supposedly cleanse my system and make me thin. I try to wash it down with water, but this only makes the powder lumpy and difficult to swallow. My tired gaze meets that of another young woman. We both look quickly away.

Moments later, I am lying on a table in a dark room. Strange male hands press my stomach, massaging the flesh as if it were dough. I grind my jaw together as more force is exerted, but I endure the pain. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as my parents have always said. Silently, I wonder if I’m kidding myself. No diet has worked before; why should it work this time? Still, I retain an inkling of hope.

The next day, the spa’s weight machine reports that I have lost four pounds. I feel watchful eyes scrutinize me and hear congratulatory words. Later in the dressing room, I smile as I stroke my bruised, flabby stomach, tracing my fingers up and down the light indigo marks. The magic has worked. I steel myself for the next treatment.

I remember the moment when the wonder started, when my mother and I sat in the office of a mama-san type who described the treatments that would change my life. My mother, who had been a size zero as a young adult, listened intently. She was thrilled by the notion that her oldest daughter, who had inherited her wit and her ethics, might look more like the women on Chinese variety shows and hence build a stronger sense of self-worth.

For three months, she’d sacrifice her credit card to this cause. And I’d follow along, if only because I no longer wanted to look “big-boned,” as my mother described me (or “healthy,” as my aunts and uncles politely framed it).

As a child, my parents had never fretted about my weight — they cared only that I stayed well and active. But by age 8, I was quite aware that I was bigger than most kids on the playground. And I have memories from seventh grade of wondering why it was a struggle to pull my knee-high socks over my oversized calves while my friends’ socks fell loosely about their ankles. I remember a cute boy I liked calling me “thunder thighs” during a dodgeball game.

Over the years, I became tired of not fitting into jeans the way most of my peers did. In fact, for a long time I didn’t wear jeans — it was too painful to confront the fact that I was a size 10, not a size six like the small and dainty girls I thought I should look like.

A month into the program, my weight loss has begun to plateau. I am wiped down in ginger essence, embalmed in plastic wrap and thrown into a sauna. My skin burns everywhere. I try to shut out the pain by visualizing extra water expelled from my body.

A day later, I am hooked up to an electric machine designed to shock my muscles into burning calories. I cringe as the dial is turned up and briefly worry about brain damage, but my fear dissipates when I am told that 30 minutes on this machine is like working out for two hours.

For 30 more days, I continued to starve and sweat my body into submission. I wanted to be thin, beautiful — everything that everyone covets. I wanted to make my mother happy.

In the end, I shed 20 pounds. My mother was ecstatic; I was even happier. To maintain my sleek new image (and to shed more pounds), I continued to eat next to nothing, popped diet pills and avoided going out with friends so I wouldn’t have to explain my food choices. When asked why I ate so little, I typically lied and said that I had already eaten. My friends became suspicious, and once they even attempted an intervention. But I laughed and told them they were crazy to think I had issues with food. I was in deep denial.

My newly improved self and its corresponding lifestyle didn’t last long. After three months, my diet pills ran out and I began gorging on brownies. I regained the weight I had lost — and more. I began to suffer insomnia. My new look involved wearing a long-sleeved shirt layered beneath another loose T-shirt to hide my bulges.

Only now, years later, am I finally able to come clean with the scariness of it all.

I see now that I was chasing a dream that wasn’t mine or even my parents’. When playfully blaming boyfriends for making us women feel this way, they have retorted that no one is forcing us at gunpoint to be skinny. Insensitive, I know, but accurate. I don’t know who to blame for creating this illusion, and naming a scapegoat wouldn’t serve much purpose. All I know is that at one point, this dream became everything I wanted.

I pursued a thin image that was supposed to exude confidence, control and ultimately beauty. For many years, I was ashamed of my inability to embody this image. Now my shame stems from knowing that this desire to be skinny conflicts with the person I want to be — a woman who wants to demonstrate that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty.

And yet, despite knowing this, I look at photos of me from that time and can't help wishing for a split second, or maybe longer, that I could look like that now — for the compliments, for the envious and admiring glances, and perhaps for the superfluous feeling that I appear to have it all.



Lisa Lee is Hyphen’s publisher. Do you have a story to tell? Submit a First Person.

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Lisa Lee


Lisa Lee works in User Operations at Facebook, and has more than five years of nonprofit experience in marketing and communications for multicultural arts and cultural organizations.



Thanks for writing this! beautiful job.
Negative body image is not an accident nor something that should come down to an issue of individual responsibility.  It is the force utilized by industries making incredible profits and has become thoroughly ingrained in our society. In college, I did an activity where we asked people to "throw-away" an aspect of their negative body self-image because statistically people with negative body image enjoy sex less.  People would come to the table, write down a negative thing they thought of their body that they didn't want to keep thinking, and threw it in a box to get rid of it forever.  Obviously nothing is that simple, but people felt relief after throwing the papers away.  Some cards were about losing weight, having a different kind of hair, having lighter or darker skin, not being able to build huge muscles, but the one I will never forget is "I wish I didn't look Asian."
Lisa,  Thank you for writing this story. I understand exactly where you're coming from -- and I feel it's worse for Asian women, as we're not only stereotypically size twos and threes, but also have those terrible magazines with celebrities telling us their height, weight, and impossible bust-waist-hip sizes (3-size?). I was bulimic for 4 years --- it was seriously like an addiction --- before I gradually quit. Now I'm at an ideal weight and have a good figure, but you know what? I've also never been able to indulge in a cupcake or ice cream for the last 10 years. The fear of pleasure through eating also bleeds into the fear of pleasure in love and risk-taking adventures. Please keep your voluptuous figure, and don't worry about that girl in the picture. She looks good on the outside, but on the inside there are controls and restrictions like a straightjacket. 

I really appreciate it, and thank you for the words of encouragement. God knows that it's hard, and it's never really a battle that's "won"...

Thank you for writing this. As an Asian Canadian, I struggle with trying to embody the ideals of 2 cultures: one to be curvy with butt and hips and long long legs; the other to be super willowy and thin.  As such, I am neither being too short and "thin" yet not thin enough for Asian standards.  Watching Asian shows and reading magazines only makes this worse.  How are we to know what is the correct standard to follow, and should we even BE trying to follow a standard?
This was fantastic! I have never struggled with weight, but I really appreciated this.  I went to Hong Kong a few years ago, and even as a pretty petite Asian woman, I felt bulky. I am glad you wrote this; it's inspiring.
Thanks for your honesty and your courage to tell this story like it is. It seems impossible in this world to have a "normal" relationship with our bodies and food, but stories like yours definitely help.  I also wrote about my jarring experience visiting Korea after growing up in Canada (, though it was nowhere as dramatic as your experience. It's good to know that there are other Asian-American/Canadians out there who feel the double standard of our hyphenated worlds. 

Thank you for sharing your story. One thing that I failed to point out is indeed the double standard in our hyphenated worlds. Here I may be a size medium, or a size 10, but in Taiwan/China, I'm XL. My aunt looks at my and insists on buying me jackets that are XL. I get approached at the farmer's market out there telling me that I need to purchase certain products that will make me lose weight. It's almost as if a woman's is nothing if she doesn't have the body. Speaking from my personal experiences of spending time in Taiwan, women there still have some catching up to do. I mean, women everywhere can stand a little taller, but women in East Asian especially conform to specific gender roles that consist of obsessing over your body. If that's your only asset, and it's what people value you on, then of course we can't see past it.

Lisa, Enjoyed your interview today and you brought up many good points of discussion on the current female Asian body image. I agree that it is a difficult challenge to maintain a svelte body image fueled by fashion and culture. I think the contemorary Asian women today strives to be more like the Michelle Yeoh James Bond character than being frail. You bring up a keen point that I had not thought of concerning the lean silouette of the Asian male. I, however, believe the Asian male image is driven by fashion, similar to the sleek look of the European male counterpart. Asian women do not want to look fat next to a lean Asian male. This is a difficult image dynamic to sustain. Being slender and thin is more often a subliminal equation of refinement...honed down to any lack of excess more than anything else. Think "Audrey Hepburn," who epitomizes the essence of elegance. I think that's what women all over the world strive for...elegance, more than "perfection." You bring up an important discussion and I would love to hear more of your thoughts.

I've never thought about my wanting to lose weight as the search for elegance. I think that would be giving too much credit to the high-fashion industry. For a lot of people that I know, weight is almost something that's like the last "gate" to happiness. I have the brains, I have the job, I have all of this and now, if only I can fit into these skinny jeans! But seriously, for years I thought of myself as someone who pretty much had everything that I needed, except a great body (and the ability to cook). I certainly wish that the contemporary Asian American women no longer seek to be frail and small but rather loud, proud, and confident. We're getting there, but it seems like the older generation are trying to pull us back. Maybe weight for Asian Americans have more to do with generational differences?

Thank  you for this subject. I thought I was the only one struggling with my weight!!! Asian culture is funny like this.. when my friend's mom saw me at a funeral the first thing she said "you look skinny!" (this was a while ago) It was not Hi, how are you, you look good. She commented on my weight, not anything else. Asians have been trying to get roles on TV and movies for years. The only Asians are "skinny" and/ or fit. I don't think the public will ever see a "fat" Asian on the screen. I do think part of why Asians are smaller is the transportation culture in Asian countries. Most people walk to their destinations after a train or taxi ride. Here in the U.S. we get into our cars then get to the place pretty much at the front door. Plus they share their food, family style. Here we get big and our own portions. Am I possibily on the right track? so many variables!
thanks for sharing your story. do you know of any nonprofits that are addressing eating disorders in asian americans?
As an Asian American male that appreciates his curvy asian sisters, it was heartening to hear this segment on NPR; hopefully this is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue that will result in embracing the beauty of Asian women of all shapes and sizes.
thanks for sharing this story. i'm a size 0/2 and never thought I was fat until my mother-in-law started pinching my fat (in front of people) and making comments about my weight. i guess she wanted me to return to my size 00 that I was seven years ago. it doesn't matter that i was very unhealthy then - just as long as i was scary thin, i guess. she still makes comments. i try to ignore her but hurts just the same. people are nuts.
There are lots of young girls out there who are suffering the same situation. I guess the early you discover your worth, the early you realize that life is not about looks. You were given that type of body because God wanted you to be like that. Doing drastic changes in your body is like insulting the handiwork of your creator. I hope that you are okay right now. It takes a right perspective to appreciate your body. I am Asian-African, i have also my own issues on my color and curly hair ( during childhood but as I grow old i realize that it's only me that have this feature and i should be proud of this. My future children will also share the same features, why change it? LOL.