"It's not rude in Vietnamese culture to comment bluntly on other people's appearances."
For as long as I can remember, I have had issues with my body.
As a chubby child, I hid in the bathroom with snacks, eating them secretly so no one could reprimand me.
As a teenager, I grew beyond what I was raised to see as ideal. Though I recognise my privilege in never being what is generally considered "fat", to my family I was – the Perfect Vietnamese Girl is slim and flat chested, wearing the traditional áo dài with grace. My breasts grew large and low as soon as puberty hit, and I was born with a butt that wouldn't quit and certainly didn't fit into restrictive traditional clothing. Physically, I was "flawed" – and I was reminded constantly.
It's not rude in Vietnamese culture to comment bluntly on other people's appearances, so every family occasion was peppered with well-meaning comments about my weight from relatives and friends. They asked my parents how they "let" me get "that way". My mother projected her own insecurities onto me. My sisters used my weight as a weapon in arguments. I cried when my five-year-old cousin told me I was "cool, but a little bit fat". When I told them it hurt, they told me they were just trying to help – like I needed to be saved.
When I was 21, after years of gyms, personal training and diets, my mother told me that if I didn't "fix" it myself, she'd put me on Jenny Craig. Fuelled by a desire to avoid what I perceived as shame, I embarked on an obsessive regime, working out daily to Jillian Michaels' 30 Day Shred and swapping burgers for salads. Within a year, I lost 17kg.
Suddenly, I was a success story. I proudly wore the áo dài and everyone gushed. My mother went from telling me to eat less to asking if I was eating enough, concerned I was starving myself – no longer too fat, now bordering on too thin. My aunts constantly wanted to discuss my weight, as though being newly thin was my only interesting feature. The need for validation and pressure to stay "beautiful" took a toll on me, as I weighed myself compulsively every day, panicking if the numbers rose. Outwardly, I was the star of the show.
In 2014, I became single for the first time in six years. Dating suddenly became easier. Boys seemed to like me more, never mind that my personality stayed exactly the same. I was eating junk again, but my metabolism had sped up so my body was unaffected. A guy I was seeing told me he didn't respect fat people, as they were greedy and lazy. I told him I rarely exercised and ate whatever I wanted – why did that make me different? He told me it didn't matter because I wasn't fat. Repulsed by the double standard and wondering what he would've thought of me before, I began to understand thin privilege even more clearly.
With breakups also come breakdowns, though, and when the binge drinking started later that year, my metabolism crashed. I couldn't zip up my dresses. I couldn't eat junk without gaining weight anymore. Over a year, I crept back up to around the same weight I was before. I thought the world would end.
Right now, I'm the heaviest I've been in years – and I'm OK with it. I go to the gym and try to eat well, but I don't punish myself anymore. I'm sick of being held prisoner by numbers on scales and tags. I don't weigh myself at all; it's not a catastrophe if I have to take the bigger size. I've asked my family to refrain from commenting on my weight, either positively or negatively. I want to look in the mirror and see a happy, healthy woman looking back – and I want that reflection to be mine alone.
Growing up continually being told that "fat = bad" and "thin = good", I wanted to shrink myself to become "perfect". These days, I am grateful for my body and the space it occupies, from my stretch marks to my not-so-perky breasts. Whenever I catch a negative thought, I remind myself of the decades this body has endured – how it's carried me through hell and back and never faltered, no matter what size it was.
Having see-sawed from chubby to thin and back again, I've realised others will always find ways to criticise your body. There is no such thing as perfection. The words of others mean much less to me now than how I feel about myself – I'm prioritising my health and happiness, whatever shape that may take. In the face of often crushing familial and societal expectations, I defiantly vow to love and protect my own body, exactly as it is.