We need to change our weight obsession

SHINE
Michelle Sun experienced a eating disorder two years ago. It was after she realized the severe life-threatening dangers of anorexia that she began to set her sights on recovering.
SHINE

As you walk down the streets of Shanghai, like in many metropolitan cities, it feels as though you have been thrown onto the runway of a fashion show. 

The debut look is an XS-sized shirt draped over a slight frame with slim wrists and slender thighs. In the finale look, the dress the model wears is oversized, her face gaunt. As you survey the women around you, you realize their bodies are as thin as the models you see on the glossy pages of Vogue magazine. Women so slim they could fit into the space between two cars that have been parked too close together. 

We live in a culture where slimness is convention. In it there is a saying that goes, “xiao niao yi ren,” meaning “little birds are lovely,” that directly connects the smallness and slimness of women to their attractiveness and likability. This saying was no stranger at my family gatherings. The first comments from my relatives would inevitably be about my appearance, how I looked “different,” — always alluding to how much weight I had lost or gained.

As a competitive figure skater, I was soaked in the extremes of this culture. Though I was once an open-minded and self-possessed young girl, my confidence was beaten out of me through being told that my slimness was integral to both my success in sport and in life. 

Crispy fried pork became my worst enemy, scales became my best friend. It became a game of hide and seek: I hid from shame and was forced to seek perfection. Immersed deeply in how much space I occupied, I began to desperately want to look like the women I saw on the streets of Shanghai. At first, being able to fit into size 00 jeans and being so unbelievably thin gave me comfort.

Michelle Sun experienced a severe eating disorder two years ago. It was after she realized the severe life-threatening dangers of anorexia that she began to set her sights on recovering. After recovery, she went to volunteer at an eating disorder resource center and conducted a research project about the prevalence of eating disorder in China.

Soon, though, I began to refocus on confidence and strength. I took on a daily routine that allowed me to steadily recover. Waking up in the morning, I would reassure myself of the things I was grateful for: my breath, my ability to feel air travel through my lungs and pump oxygen to my heart. I was grateful for being able to read a bedside book and think about life’s greatest questions. I was grateful for nature and its beauty and the calming breeze of autumn air. I was grateful for life, for the vibrancy my city provides me everyday. I also began expressing myself in a journal.

Every day, I would write about something that moved me. I did so to redirect myself from focusing too much on my appearance. None of this self-reflection would have been possible without first physically recovering. I met a doctor who ultimately saved my life. She provided the incentive to live well again. As I put on weight, I began to realize the same arms that were once bones draped by a thin layer of skin became the muscular arms that allowed me to give others warm hugs in a loving embrace. The same legs that were once so brittle and fragile became strong legs and allowed me to dance my heart out on stage. The same face that was once so strikingly pale became a full face that allowed me to smile from cheek to cheek. I taught myself that bodily strength was perfection and perfection was strength. 

Reclaiming my voice was no happily-ever-after matter. The issue still existed, if not in me then in the culture that enveloped me. This desire to be so unrealistically thin was still prevalent. By contrast, one of my peers grew more and more shy. She would be ashamed of seeing me because she did not want me to see the weight she put on. Another grew more and more slim, enough to remind me of what I had looked like before, only she was just never aware of it. I regained my voice but there was a whole community of women that still had not found theirs. The situation ignited an urge with me to take action. 

One year after my recovery, I was standing on a TEDx stage, ready to expose my vulnerable side, eager to share my story. I expressed my desire to inspire change to the traditional thought about beauty.

As I shared a list of six tips to loving yourself, I wanted to reach the hearts of individuals old and young. By going public about an issue so private and contained, I hoped to change my culture. I was giving voice to not just myself but also to the people around me. 

Two years after my recovery, I am now trying to find the root cause of the issue in China through research. Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to work with a professor at Wannan Medical University in Wuhu, Anhui Province. Inspired by a book that I was reading called “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, this cross-sectional study explored the prevalence of disordered eating and possible associated factors, including thought systems and familial backgrounds, in high school and college students in China. 

Michelle Sun is a competitive figure skater.

More than 400 students in Wuhu were tested. The survey comprised elements such as: sociodemographic data, the Eating Attitudes Test 26, the Myers Briggs Test, depressive and anxiety symptoms. Through my research, I was able to conclude that family relationships, social interactions, external stress levels have a correlation with disordered eating. 

Disordered eating is only one facet many face in teenage life. To resolve these issues, we have to reach the root cause. Students should pursue their passions and not be contained or bound by the supposed conventions of traditions. All it takes is education and awareness. And that can start today. 

Michelle Sun experienced a severe eating disorder two years ago. It was after she realized the severe life-threatening dangers of anorexia that she began to set her sights on recovering. After recovery, she went to volunteer at an eating disorder resource center and conducted a research project about the prevalence of eating disorder in China.



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