For every moment of joy and love I had when she was sharing food with me, I was also plagued by comments about keeping my weight down. The general idea was to eat, but not too much.

Food is important in so many cultures. From family dinners to big Christmas lunches to simply offering your friend a snack when they visit your home, food can be used to express love in various ways.

While I was growing up, my mom expressed her love through food too. For her, this practice was rooted in her Chinese culture, which has a focus on food and the way we enjoy it.

An illustration of the author against a beige background surrounded by Chinese cultural foods and wrapped loosely in an exaggerated measuring tape without numbers.Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Brittany England

Traditional Chinese dishes passed down through the generations are just as delicious as fancy meals at restaurants in the city, so long as you are with your family and eating them together.

My mom and I regularly ate Chinese food together, enjoying the different flavors and ingredients more than my white father.

It was one of the few things that bonded us. In hindsight, it was apparent that she and I didn’t have the same interests or beliefs, and we were never close by any measure of the word. But we did enjoy food together, especially while watching absurd Chinese soap operas.

She would bring me dumplings or noodles at 3 a.m. when I was jet-lagged after flying home to Hong Kong from university near London or buy me chicken nuggets from McDonald’s if she happened to pass one on her way home because she knew they were my favorite meal from the fast-food chain.

She’d stock the fridge with Swiss roll cake and Yakult because I loved the simplicity of them, and cut up pieces of mango and melon for me while I was studying for my exams at 15.

Our house was always full of food, snacks, and soft drinks — anything you wanted, we probably had. I loved those small moments, when I could tell she loved me, cared for my well-being, and wanted to ensure that I wasn’t hungry or distracted from whatever I was doing because of it.

My mom was not necessarily a loving person, and she didn’t say “I love you” nearly as often as one might want or think is normal for a parent, but her joy in preparing food for me was enough.

This occurred outside of our home, too, as we congregated with our extended family in Chinese tea houses to eat an even wider variety of dim sum and later washed it down with fantastical desserts or bubble tea.

My mom regularly encouraged me to eat more, indulge in the food the way she did, and enjoy it with her. But this expression of love came with an opposing doctrine: Don’t eat too much.

— Michele Theil

My mom was obsessed with being skinny. As a young woman, she was beautiful and thin and even worked as a model for a few years before meeting my dad.

When I was a kid, she was already in her fifties and had gained a typical amount of weight for a woman of her age. But she wasn’t happy with her body, and she went to great lengths to ensure that I wouldn’t end up the same way.

Her worries were exacerbated by my dad being diagnosed with clinical obesity — both a contributor to and the result of several lifelong health issues.

The desire for thinness is also rooted in Chinese culture. Many Chinese girls and young women are naturally small in stature and therefore quite thin. Just walk into any clothing store in Hong Kong that doesn’t come from another country — you’ll be hard-pressed to find clothes bigger than a size 10.

This might sound old-fashioned, considering that much of society has moved toward a more inclusive weight standard. For example, tools like the body mass index (BMI) have been debunked as inaccurate or misleading.

But this line of thinking persists, even as size inclusivity becomes more mainstream.

Public health and cultural messaging still tightly link BMI and weight with overall health, often suggesting that a higher BMI contributes to negative health effects. However, the same can be true of weight or BMI that is too low.

In a September 2021 article for VICE, Viola Chou noted that Chinese women were falling prey to a “Thin Fad,” where the pressure to be thin actually threatens their mental and physical health.

A popular saying online stated that “Good girls don’t exceed 50 kg” (about 110 pounds), VICE reported.

My mom very much embodied that saying. For me to be skinny was a positive reflection on her and her parenting, even if she herself was not at what she would consider the “ideal weight.”

She would encourage my skinniness by commenting on how much food I was eating, how much weight I’d gained, and whether I “looked fat.” It didn’t matter to her whether I was at a typical weight for my age and height, just that I looked like the ideal skinny Chinese daughter she had always wanted.

For Lunar New Year, she would be ashamed to take me shopping for new clothing, which is a common tradition, because the traditional Chinese clothing (QiPao) I was meant to wear was not available in my size. I would have to get a QiPao specially made, tailored to my measurements, which was unacceptable to her.

As I grew older, the comments got more frequent, likely because she recognized that she would have less influence over what I ate and where I went as a teenager — and because she feared that I would become “stuck” at my natural size.

I distinctly remember standing in front of a full-length mirror during one of my parents’ trips to London, where I now live, and saying that I liked the way I looked that day. My mom looked me up and down, scoffed, and said, “You shouldn’t be proud of that belly.”

Another time, I sent a photo of myself and a friend during a university awards ceremony because I wanted to let my mom know I had won an outstanding achievement award. All she said was, “You’ve gained weight in your face. Stop eating.”

By this point, I was 20 years old, but it didn’t hurt any less than it had when I was 10. For every moment of joy and love I had when she was giving or sharing food with me, I was also plagued by comments about keeping my weight down. The general idea was to eat, but not too much.

It was an inherent paradox — the two notions about food were at odds with each other. How was I supposed to enjoy the food in front of me when I was made to feel bad for even taking one bite?

— Michele Theil

I remain confused by how those two key aspects of Chinese culture were able to come together for my mom. One emphasized eating joyfully, fully, and in abundance, while the other placed huge importance on being skinny and staying that way — even if it meant starving myself.

My mom always said that she would make these comments about my eating habits and my weight out of love. She explained that she had to be the one to tell me that I was fat and needed to eat less because no one else would be as honest with me as she would, because she’s my mom and she cares about my well-being.

But it was never about my well-being. She never took me to the doctor’s office to ensure that I was healthy or to see if I was eating abnormally or if I had an underlying issue that might affect my weight.

None of that mattered to her, even as my dad and other people in her life would say that I looked fine, or even good, and that I was eating an appropriate amount for a growing person.

I never felt like it was out of love, either. Every comment, no matter how underhanded or direct, would be like a stab to my heart. It hurt to hear that my mother, the woman who is supposed to champion me and love me no matter what, had a clear bias toward my being skinny.

It was never clear to me whether her love would be withheld if I really was as fat as she imagined me to be.

The way she treated me and her obsession with being skinny has been a major factor in ruining my relationship with food for several years. It is something that I’ve worked hard to overcome, but it’s still a constant presence in my life — especially in my low moments.

To this day, I think about the comments I mentioned above and the millions of others that could fill a “Wolf Hall”-length book.

When I was 15, I was driven, in part by her views, to dieting and anorexia-adjacent content on Tumblr. For a while, I was obsessed with being skinny, obtaining a thigh gap, and eating less.

For at least a year, I refused to eat most carbs, choosing instead to eat salad for lunch every day at school and smoothies for dinner. I was very skinny then, but it was detrimental to my mental health — not to mention that I lost all love and enjoyment for the food I’d grown up with.

I’ve come a long way since then, but my relationship with food will never be what it was. I feel guilty when I eat three meals in a day instead of two, because I usually skip breakfast, and I am ashamed when I pop into McDonald’s for some fries after a long day.

Though I have a designated “snack cupboard” in my home, it is very sparse and usually frequented only by my partner rather than by me.

I hear my mom’s comments when I want to indulge in a pizza or a cupcake, and I’m disappointed that it takes a lot more out of me to be able to put these thoughts out of my mind and enjoy what I’m eating than it did before.

My relationship with my mom is not great, either. There are lots of reasons for this that have nothing to do with her fatphobic and hurtful comments about my body, but those comments were not insignificant in my decision to set strict boundaries with her and cease all communication.

Her comments were not only due to her obsession with being skinny but also because she desired to exert a level of control over me that was easier to do if I had lower self-esteem.

I am thankful for my friends and for what I’ve learned about our bodies, fatphobia, and food in the years since, because without them I would still be subjecting myself to her comments to this day.

Heads up

Trying to “do it right” when it comes to nutrition may feel tempting, but it can backfire. If you are preoccupied with food or your weight, feel guilt surrounding your food choices, or routinely engage in restrictive diets, consider reaching out for support. These behaviors may indicate a disordered relationship with food or an eating disorder.

Disordered eating and eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender identity, race, age, socioeconomic status, or other identities.

They can be caused by any combination of biological, social, cultural, and environmental factors — not just by exposure to diet culture.

Feel empowered to talk with a qualified healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, if you’re struggling.

You can also chat, call, or text anonymously with trained volunteers at the National Eating Disorders Association helpline for free or explore the organization’s free and low cost resources.

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