In 2009, I created a personal food blog/podcast called “The Actor’s Diet.” Whenever I told people, they’d automatically snicker, “So what exactly is the actor’s diet — cigarettes and coffee?”
And then I would tell them about my history with eating disorders. And then they would quickly change the subject.
Because eating disorders are uncomfortable to talk about, even though they’re so common. Growing up, I just figured my binge eating disorder was an every day part of life. I grew up in a family of overeaters and started using anorexia to balance my weight out as an adult, when I became an actress and fans/managers/family started making comments about my size and the softness of my appearance.
I wish I could pinpoint exactly what it was that caused this behavior — I spent years in therapy trying to figure it out, actually. Was it merely the pressure of being on camera? Trying to fit into the stereotype of being a skinny Asian woman who could eat whatever she wanted without gaining weight? I’m not sure. Growing up, the images I saw of other Asians in the media were of ass-kicking martial arts experts, or malnourished peasants. Or competitive eaters who weighed 1/3 of their opponents. I was none of those things. It felt like I was just someone who really loved food and couldn’t stop eating it. That there must be something wrong with me because I didn’t look like my brothers and sisters in entertainment. So I became obsessed with diets. It felt as simple as that.
I know it’s not that simple and I’m not here to tell you about how I discovered the cause of my eating disorders — of any AHA! moment that occurred — because the truth is, I never did quite figure it out. Even after years of therapy and blogging and podcasting. All I can tell you is that for many years, I struggled. And now, I don’t.
Below is a post I wrote over a decade ago, about what my eating disorder looked like. It has since been removed, because that blog no longer exists. I also read this story as a keynote speaker at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) conference, a year before I became a spokesperson for them in 2012.
I share it again now, because even though it’s been so long since I’ve struggled, I still hear from people on a regular basis that they are in the thick of it and need hope. I hope I can still be that person for you. January is usually the time we receive messages to start re-evaluating our relationships with our bodies. That relationship can change.
I binged probably once a week for most of my late-twenties. It started off as my “cheat day” — I was in the midst of my trying-every-diet-under-the-sun phase and I liked the idea of a full 16 hours of eating whatever I wanted. It soon became a habit I both dreaded and looked forward to.
I usually picked a day when my husband Abe was working, a time when I knew I’d be alone. I scheduled it so that I wouldn’t have anything the next day, either — that way I could be sick the following day “in peace.” I’d start off the morning half-heartedly trying to talk myself out of the planned binge, to fuel my body with a nice hearty breakfast. But the idea of “freedom” had been planted in my brain and I would find myself on the street an hour after eating, convincing myself I just needed “a little something.” Just like a drug addict. But a few hours later, I’d be stopping into other stores — often the only customer at 11am, scarfing down more and more meals. I’d pass by people on the street and wonder if they knew what a mess I was.
Back home I’d try to distract myself from whatever was in the kitchen by watching TV or playing video games. “How can I still want more?” I would wonder. But there it was — that bottomless pit feeling. Not hunger, but emptiness. I would finish whatever was easy to shove into my mouth. Ashamed that Abe would come home and know I binged, I would go back out to the supermarket to replace it.
While at the grocery store, I figured I might as well pick up some more stuff to “enjoy.” It was like the last supper — I prayed this would be my last binge and figured if I was going to go all out, I’d have to go ALL THE WAY. Wandering the aisles, I’d try to figure out what I wanted — that if I could never have it again, what would it be? For some people this may seem like a fun game — “What would your last meal be?” — but for me it was torture. Nothing was good enough — not even the items that had taunted me all week while I’d been dieting. I must’ve spent an hour walking around — removing packages from the snack aisle, putting them back. And of course, I would pick up whatever I needed to substitute back at the house.
I would accept at that point that I was going to fully binge. By this time, I’d already called Abe hours ago (probably before I went to the grocery store) to let him know I was feeling sick so he wouldn’t be surprised to find me sprawled on the couch, incapable of movement. I hated lying to him.
At the same time that it was scary for me — I knew I was out of control and feared this cycle would never stop — it was also extremely comforting. I always knew what a binge would feel like — before, during, and after. A few times the binges made me so sick that I involuntarily threw up — with food-poisoning-like symptoms for days — and I would vow to Abe and myself to never repeat the behavior again. But I would. This is when I began going to see my eating disorders specialist — it was the first step in admitting I had a serious problem that went beyond the occasional “indulgence” or “diet.”
Three years ago I took a year off from acting. I wanted to purposefully steer clear of an environment that focused so heavily on my looks. I decided I was going to stop dieting and counting calories, and that whatever I wound up looking like was okay, because my career didn’t count on it. Here’s what happened — I ate whatever I wanted, and stocked my house with all the foods I had denied myself for years. And I felt awful. I thought it was going to be terrific, but it wasn’t. I gained weight so rapidly that everyone thought I was pregnant. That’s when I realized that people weren’t going to stop making comments. And that I had to stop blaming my career for making me miserable — it wasn’t the ideals that Hollywood or my family or my race was putting on me that drove me to reach for a second or third cupcake — it was the fact that I didn’t trust myself or my body to figure out what I really, truly wanted.
I decided I would love myself no matter what I was feeling — negative or positive — no matter what size I was — “fat” or “skinny.” No matter what anyone else said. So when I returned to acting two years ago, I told my new representation that they could never ask me to lose or gain weight — that I had a long history of eating disorders, and that that choice would be entirely up to me. I bought new clothes for my body. I ignored any comments — good or bad. I stopped labeling food as “healthy” or “unhealthy.” And then something crazy happened. The novelty of being able to eat whatever I wanted diminished. I began to lose weight. Of course, the comments didn’t stop from everyone surrounding me — “You look great! You’re so skinny!” But I just ignored them. I ate what I wanted, and I stopped when I was full. I continued to see my eating disorders therapist and talked about things that had nothing to do with food. Over the course of a year, my body found its healthy and natural shape and size.
Like I said earlier, there wasn’t one day where I just “stopped” my eating disorder. One day I looked back and realized it had been a month since I thought about bingeing or restricting. Then it was half a year. Suddenly I was acknowledging my second and third anniversary. I’ve gotten through it with the help of my husband and my eating disorders specialist — but also through blogging. Both of my blogs have been instrumental in helping me figure out my relationship with food, allowing me to replace that obsessive mindset in a new way. It’s also helped me to communicate with my parents — I know they read my blog, so I feel like I’m being heard, even if I can’t tell them face-to-face.
Through feedback from readers, I’ve learned that recovery comes in all forms — that one size doesn’t fit all — and there really are no rules. Blogging about food and body image in a public forum definitely opens up me up to criticism — and learning how to look directly at those negative voices and trust my own has been the key to my recovery. I no longer allow my eating disorders to hold power over me — I’ve definitely overeaten many times since then, but I have not repeated any of the psychological behaviors that accompanied my eating disorder — like lying to my husband and myself. I still can’t quite believe that that was my life for so many years, that I have been able to shed this part of my life that I was convinced would never go away.
One of my degrees from Wesleyan University where I graduated in 1998 was in Women’s Studies, where we studied eating disorders, dissecting and theorizing and exploring the subject ad nauseam. I never believed I would have one. I truly hope that if any of you are currently struggling you know that recovery is possible. It may feel like two steps forward and ten steps back at times — but with support, treatment, and commitment to recovery — the guilt, the pain, the shame — the seemingly never ending struggle — does end. I can say that today with complete confidence and pride.