Asian Cranes

My mother is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, and as her ugly duckling daughter, trying to look like her tore me apart.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Jasmine Wang

Trigger warning: mentions of eating disorders

I stopped eating in March of 2021, and all of a sudden, I was nine years old again, sitting on the floor of my living room with a stack of old magazines and staring at the pages graced by the teenage version of my mother, who was smiling gently and stunningly in a manner I could never replicate. The pictures of her held what I could have looked like if I had won the genetic lottery—if I had inherited my mother’s doe eyes, goose-egg face shape, and slim build instead of my father’s blocky figure and strong features. My mother was a crane girl: graceful and pretty. But if I were a bird, I would be some sort of strange duckling. People who look like me don’t have a place in the world of beautiful cranes, and so, I desperately prayed to look less like myself and more like my mother and all of the other picture-perfect, stick-thin, delicate Eastern Asian crane women that flooded TV shows, movies, and music.

The summer before sixth grade, I traveled home to Taiwan. I don’t remember much about the trip, save for the dressing room, where, to the abject horror of the store’s employees who all wore a size M at most, I couldn’t tug a size XL dress over my 10-year-old chubbiness. I feared I would tear it, so I quickly gave up; immediately, the employee rushed to inspect it for damage and with a narrow tone, smiled and suggested I visit a different shop. Nothing in a store meant for cranes would fit on a body like mine. When we left the store, my little sister and mother each held intricately embroidered silk dresses that, even in the largest size, I could never squeeze into. As we walked home, my sister said, almost absentmindedly, that she was glad she wasn’t fat like me, and I tried to make myself as small as I felt. My mother recounted this story to my grandmother over dinner, who joked that perhaps I should skip this bowl of rice as I quietly fiddled with my chopsticks. Later that night, I peered at my body in the bathroom mirror and picked apart my glaringly obvious flaws. I tried to forcefully empty my stomach and free myself from my body’s chokehold; I clawed at and stretched my skin until it broke, leaving angry red and purple lines across me.

When I returned to New York, I watched my mom step onto a scale and frown before deciding not to eat for the rest of the day. In true duckling fashion, I followed in her footsteps; together, we traded out carbohydrates for vegetables, avoided eating after 4:00 p.m., and routinely recorded our weights. The desire to be skinny is a rabbit hole. My mother jokingly told me about Asian celebrities who taped images of even thinner women to the refrigerator door as a form of meal control, so when I was 11, I changed my computer’s lock screen into women who looked the way I wish I did. At age 12, I discovered diets created by celebrities—like the IU diet that consisted of a daily allowance of an apple, sweet potato, and protein shake—and tried to copy them, ignoring my resulting frailty in exchange for a few lost pounds. When I was 13, my mother offered to let me try Japanese appetite suppressants, and I grew addicted. I took twice the recommended amount for adults and pretended the side effects of severe nausea and body weakness were just the effects of a bad day. When desperation is given the chance to grow, it’s easy to go too far. My friends and family grew concerned, my blood pressure dipped dangerously low, and I wildly swung between calorie binges and calorie deficits as I attempted to fold myself paper-thin.

But ducks can’t become cranes, no matter how much they try. Being conventionally beautiful in Eastern Asia is a privilege that extends to only a few girls. Even those who fit the beauty ideal can easily have that status rescinded if they gain weight, tan, or wrinkle. Comments like “Aiya, too dark” or “Aiya, you’ve gained weight” form insecurities and foster vain efforts to change. Thin becomes a need to be thinner, small becomes a need to be smaller, and quietly, entire generations of birds starve themselves to death.

I often wonder who’s to blame for my self-scrutiny and fear of eating. It’s easy to blame my parents or grandparents, to place that weight on their frequent remarks and expectations, but I recognize that they too are victims of the toxicity of Eastern Asian beauty standards. They’ve been subjected to the same beauty expectations that I have been. I see that when my grandmother tries incredibly unrealistic diets or when my mother breaks down over calories and the permanency of self-hatred becomes clear. In every way, my treatment of my body is learned from their examples.

In Eastern Asia, beauty is confined to a very specific definition. From it thrives a lucrative business of beauty products for pale skin and double eyelids and appetite suppressants for weight loss. There is an entire marketplace built off insecurities passed on through generations. It becomes easy to deflect self-hatred onto others—for people like my family to see their ugliness in myself and treat me as such—and it becomes so much more difficult to resent them or mention my suffering to them as a result. I feel guilty sharing my bitterness, so I swallow it whole and promise myself to unlearn their ideas.

This is not a perfectly happy story. I don’t have a sweet ending where I love myself and my body completely because my relationship with food is, and for a long time likely will be, a difficult one. I still limit myself to 1,000 calories a day. I still struggle with letting go of the pills that substituted meals for years. I still think of myself as little more than the duckling I was when I was nine. And I still will never be a crane girl.

But slowly, I hope I’ll begin to appreciate being “alive” more than I dream about being “thin.” In my dream fantasies, all birds are remembered, sitting among the beautiful and feeling full rather than empty for the first time. In that world, silk dresses with zippers that don’t go completely over wide hips and pillowing stomachs don’t exist, and I stop thinking about my body in terms of the circumference of my waist or the number of pounds I weigh. There, nine-year-olds don’t learn to hate their bodies from their parents, 15-year-olds eat more than just hard-boiled eggs for weeks on end, and living is more than the bare minimum of nutrients needed to survive. I’ll accept that there is more than the binary of cranes and ducklings in the world; it is my faith that one day, I will move past every ingrained hatred about myself I have. There’s still a world for people who treat themselves as recklessly as I do. In that world, one day I will see my body and stretch my wings, and rather than suffocate in my own skin, I will finally breathe.