Wendy's Story: What You See Isn’t Always What you Get- On Body Image and Being Biracial
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Image: Supplied, Credit to Maple & Roo Photography
We all know that body image is an issue, especially for women but when you’re biracial it can have additional challenges.
My mother is Chinese and my father is Caucasian. Some would call me Eurasian or Hapa, a slang Hawaiian term for biracial White Asians that’s become common.
In Chinese culture, appearance is viewed differently from the West. You are on view and therefore your body is open to scrutiny, especially amongst family. It’s blunt and to the point, not really that much different from commenting on the weather. This can be extra hard if you’re biracial because everything about how you look is different, so there’s always something to comment on - and as family it’s seen as their right to do so.
Family gatherings with my Chinese relatives were a mix of smiles and laughs, but also sneers from my mother as she criticized my “Westernness” - too difficult, too skinny, too naughty, too bad, hair too long, hair too short, too stupid, too this, too that, too whatever. Nothing was ever right. You are never right. Without ever a thought to how I might feel because that didn’t matter. I was at the bottom of the totem pole so to speak – the Confucius one. First and foremost, a white girl - excluded and never Chinese enough. I could never win. I felt ugly, awkward and ostracized.
The Confucius model is one of hierarchy, which still exists today. Everyone has their place. Elders are at the top and children are at the bottom. As the youngest, especially as a girl I was at the very bottom. Children are part of the whole to serve the family. Individualism isn’t really viewed as important like it is in the West.
For me it was a culture clash of being treated one way at home but treated and told something else at school and by my peers. There’s bound to be confusion, especially if you don’t fully understand why you’re being treated a certain way. Someone who is multicultural but not necessarily multiracial may have a similar experience, but as a biracial person you do stick out more so comments are often more likely. If you’re raised under this Confucius model by one parent yet excluded in other ways because of your “whiteness” without understanding why, it’s difficult. It wasn’t until I eventually went to Uni and studied Asian Studies that I really started to understand this. Another theory I discovered was that in ancient times parents would say their child was 'ugly and no good' so evil spirits wouldn’t be interested in taking them - a way to keep them safe. It made me feel a bit better knowing that.
Amongst Western people my mother always has a super sweet smile and would be extra kind. She wouldn’t say those things in front of them. They would be appalled and she knew it but amongst Chinese, mocking me was expected, almost encouraged. Fortunately, after a while most of my relatives didn’t partake and would even stick up for me sometimes.
It’s not to say my mother isn’t that sweet and kind person as well. She’s that person too. We are all complex beings. It’s not to say that she doesn’t love me either. She does - in her own way. Never any “I love you’s” though (1). Affection and love is given via food, and there was always lots of food coming my way. Taking time to make my favourite dish, giving me the best prawn or best piece of fish (whether I wanted it or not). She did give bedtime snuggles - she used to sniff me all over affectionately searching for that baby smell. It made me laugh and she took plenty of photos of me when I as little. Regardless of what she said, she did think I was cute.
While that was happening at one end of the scale on the other end, even though I am very white passing, I experienced bullying with “ching chong” taunts at primary school.
That combined with being so much smaller made me feel intimidated by the other kids. All that made for a pretty self-conscious little girl. Confidence was definitely not my strong point.
I inherited a small frame from my Mom’s side. I was especially tiny when I was young and by far the smallest in my class. My Dad tried to pay me to gain weight because he was embarrassed about how I looked. He thought people might think I wasn’t being fed properly or something. Some people would say I was fortunate to have that problem, and perhaps to some degree I was, but ultimately I could never win.
Fast forward to years later when my Son was born - it went the other way. I was laughed at by my half-sister (originally from Hong Kong) for not losing weight fast enough, even though at the time I weighed all of 55 kgs. Although it wasn’t meant to be mean – it was just an observation, it still annoyed me. We are more able to talk about things now though, which helps.
More recently I had a video call with my family. My mother’s only comment to me was “Oh your face is fat now. Yeah, you’re getting fat.” She could’ve just as easily been talking about how dark round clouds were rolling in and it looked like rain but she wasn’t - she was talking about my face. On the odd occasion I do get a sunny day though.
I’ve learned to accept and ignore the comments to a certain degree, but it still stings when you haven’t seen your Mama in ages and all she has to say to you is your face looks fat. Then turns to your Cantonese speaking relatives to make further insulting comments about you. Looking straight at you as if you’re not there.
I didn’t love my body or much of anything about myself for a very long time. I still don’t, but have learned to appreciate myself, my differences, and where life has taken me.
I still can’t take a compliment for the life of me though. It doesn’t feel true. Something is always lurking in me that says “What’s the catch? When’s the insult coming? They can’t possible mean that”. Those voices and comments became the way I viewed and spoke to myself. I had my own internal bully following me around. That bully still speaks to me. If and when I let it, it brings me down. It’s been especially hard during this lockdown period. I’m home all the time and can’t enjoy doing the things I normally would to pull me out. Things like getting out in nature, and my photography work. Speaking to myself kindly is difficult but if I practice I get better at it and feel better.
When I was born the doctor said “I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw it with my own eyes”. I used to wonder if a geneticist would come along one day and take me away to do studies on me because I didn’t look the way I was supposed to. I used to stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom staring at my face, my eyes, and my skin with nothing on my mind accept “Who are you? Why are you here? Where did you come from?”. Time would get away from me. I would stand there until I could hardly even see my face anymore.
“What are you?” A question most biracial people grapple with. That dreaded choice of boxes that would come up on forms. Which race? But only allow you to tick one box. I hated that box. Sometimes the rebel in me would tick both White and Chinese but mostly I just chose white because I wasn’t accepted as anything else – not by Chinese people and not by white people. Not by anyone really but “being white” didn’t make me feel like I belonged because it wasn’t my choice. It was never my choice and not once did I tick it with confidence – each tick was a small stab in the heart. I am both and wanted to be both – a whole person. I wanted to fit into my own family.
In 8th grade I was in home economics class and was given a worksheet where we had a certain number of points. We could choose to be beautiful but not so smart or not as beautiful but really smart etc. There was a lot wrong there. What struck me first was what was considered beautiful - black hair was worth less and blond hair was worth more. Not to mention the fact that you couldn’t be both beautiful and smart. I felt the butterflies in my stomach rise as I thought of my mom’s beautiful black hair and asked the teacher why is black hair worth less? She looked at me oddly smiling as if she didn’t understand the question. I didn’t really get an answer - it just is. I filled it out - smart with black hair and left class with spinning emotions. I really liked the teacher so I was confused and angry. She was a nice lady but just had no idea how racist that was. A teacher. This is how misogyny and white supremacy works. It feeds our unconscious biases. It’s ingrained in us.
I acknowledge my whiteness comes with benefits and privilege. My mom made choices based on that as well. She thought life would be easier for me if I was a straightforward “white person”. To say I appreciate that though would be wrong. I’d rather live in a world where there was no such thing as white privilege. A fair world where we’re all treated equally. A world where my mom didn’t feel like she needed to deprive me of my language and my culture to fit into a white world.
Later in life I tried to address some of these issues with a psychiatrist. When I said I struggled with my identity, that I was Chinese as well, he literally laughed at me shaking his head saying “No, you’re not.”. Fortunately, now there are mental health professionals that are better than that and even specialise in racial identity. Research is still limited though. It’s mostly by white people for white people.
After that, on the rare occasions when I have tried to speak about the difficulties of being biracial or multicultural openly people have looked at me strangely “Oh, you’re white though” or “There are lots of mixed race people around now – it’s not a big deal. You shouldn’t worry about it.” As if they’re some kind of expert on the topic, it’s a nonissue or somehow simply because there are a lot more biracial people around that makes a difference? That one really gets me. There are more single race people around than mixed race – yet racism is still an issue. A pretty big one, I’d say. Somehow with mixed race even though you’re a minority the challenges aren’t really acknowledged. Instead you’re forced to choose a side or people choose your race for you as if that solves the problem. Sarah Gaither Ph.D. Social Psychologist at Duke University captures it this way: ”Multiracials face the highest rate of exclusion of any group. They're never black enough, white enough, Asian enough, Latino enough.”(2)
Multiracial and multicultural families have a beautiful gift they can give to their children, but along with it comes challenges. For the most part, these days people are much more interested in wanting their children to understand different cultures, language and backgrounds than when I was a child. However, it’s so important to watch how we speak to our children. Never assume you know how it feels to be them. Parents of biracial children are not experts on being biracial just because they have children that are. If you’re not biracial yourself then you don’t know. Only they know. They are the expert on what it feels like. Listen to them. Explore it with them. Diana Sanchez, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey says: In order to raise self-assured multiracial kids, you'll want to leave the answer to the “Who Am I, Anyway?” question up to the individual child, "Foster your children's identity autonomy, the idea that they choose their own identity however they want, whenever they want.” It’s when children feel pressured to conform to others' expectations about who they are that their confidence erodes. (3)
I think exposing children to both cultures equally and showing interest and respect for each other’s culture is also extremely important. I found it hard as my parents always fought - it was a lot of this culture is better than that going on, and various misunderstandings - both ways, which wasn’t nice. Because of this I felt stuck in the middle. I didn’t feel like a “bridge” between two races and cultures. It felt more like a war zone. A lot of their frustration was taken out on me as well, causing a lifetime of shame and anguish. That was more to do with their personalities than anything else though.
Try not to assume race based on appearance. If a child looks more like one race than the other don’t treat them more one way than the other. Be conscious of it because it’s easy to do. You may find relatives do it without realising - don’t let your children be excluded just because of the way they look. It’s very painful. They are both races equally. Within those cultures there will be different ways of speaking about body image as well. Watch that your children don’t become gawked at or shunned because of how they look. Being different brings people to openly comment, which as we know can leave lasting negative effects.
Things are changing. We as people and parents need to be on the good side of the change.
Wendy Stiles has a bachelor’s degree in Humanities, a minor in Asian Studies and Diploma of Applied Photography. She currently works as a professional photographer in Melbourne.
From Body Confident Mums Researchers: What the Research Says…
I love Wendy’s story – as I learned a lot about how being biracial might effect identity and body image. This story also reflects how women are using their experiences to actively disrupt the intergenerational transmission of body image issues to their children, which is what we are all about at BCM!
There is actually very little research on body image in biracial people. Researchers tend to ask about cultural background, but use this for classification purposes, and rarely quantify the proportion of the sample who are biracial or multiracial- we are the perpetuators of the 'choose one box' anxiety! I will definitely reframe that question the next time we run a survey!
However, there is a lot of research around the influence of mothers on their daughter’s body image. Researchers now know that
- Mothers with a more positive body image themselves report being more capable of role modelling body appreciation to their children (4)
- When mothers make more critical comments about their own appearance, it makes daughters more likely to report poor body image and engage in dieting behaviour (5)
- A study of young people in Singapore found that negative body-related comments from their mothers predicted body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in young women (6)
- A study of middle schoolers in the USA found that maternal teasing predicted depression (7)
Many people find writing their own story, and reading the stories of others, to be helpful in improving their mental health. If you would like to share your own story of motherhood, identity, and body image, please contact us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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(1) I Love Yous Are for White People: A Memoir by Lac Su
(2) Sarah Gaither Ph.D. Social Psychologist at Duke University. Quoted in Psychology Today
(4) Damiano, S. R., Yager, Z., Prichard, I., & Hart, L. M. (2019). Leading by example: Development of a maternal modelling of positive body image scale and relationships to body image attitudes. Body Image, 29, 132-139.
(5) Handford, C. M., Rapee, R. M., & Fardouly, J. (2018). The influence of maternal modeling on body image concerns and eating disturbances in preadolescent girls. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 100, 17-23.
(6) Chng, S. C., & Fassnacht, D. B. (2016). Parental comments: Relationship with gender, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating in Asian young adults. Body Image, 16, 93-99.
(7) Keery, H., Boutelle, K., Van Den Berg, P., & Thompson, J. K. (2005). The impact of appearance-related teasing by family members. Journal of Adolescent Health, 37(2), 120-127.