I used to dread family gatherings—seeing family members for the first time in a long time, sharing a festive meal together where how much and what I ate was commented on, and feeling overly self-conscious about how I appeared to those around me.  When I share these stories about culture and weight gain with friends from different backgrounds, some say they can relate to these instances, while others find them unfathomable. 

Growing up as a second-generation Asian American, I’ve been exposed to both cultures. From an American perspective, weight gain oftentimes has a negative connotation, whereas in Asian cultures, it can sometimes be seen as a positive change. These cultural differences are problematic for not only myself, but also for those of all different ethnic backgrounds. By taking the time to reflect and become culturally aware of these differences, it becomes possible to look at body image, self-love, and personal acceptance in a universal light.

It's More Mental Than You Think

I used to go through absurd extremes whenever a relative commented on my body image or appearance after having not seen them for a long period of time. Phrases like “Oh, your face has gotten fuller!” or “She looks like she’s gained some weight!” would tempt me into that binge-restrict cycle, alter my self-confidence, and cause me to view food and exercise as rewards and punishment, respectively. As with any other disordered eating habit, how we perceive our outer appearance is a mental process that is dependent on our own self-perceptions and those around us. Although it is difficult to feel unaffected by harsh criticisms pertaining to our weight, diet culture, and body image, it is important to remember that our self worth is not defined by our outer appearance, or a number on the scale.

Different Cultures, Different Meanings

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It took me a long time to understand the meaning behind the phrase “Oh, you look like you’ve gained some weight!” from my own culture’s perspective. In Vietnamese culture, weight gain is interpreted as a sign of being in good health and prosperity. In Africa, the preference for a larger body size and its association with good health and wellbeing is a commonality. However, in American culture, weight gain is associated with obesity, and having a larger figure is often looked down upon. This just goes to show that culture and weight gain go hand in hand, and one term can affect the other. Nevertheless, no matter what your ethnic background is, it is important to be aware of these distinctions and embrace cultural relativism before making judgments about one's opinions. 

Focusing on the Inside is What Matters the Most

Similar to weight gain, weight loss is not always the enemy either. At the end of the day, if gaining weight and providing your body with the adequate amount of fuel is going to make you feel healthier, happier, and more energized, then there is nothing wrong with doing so. Similarly, if losing weight will make you feel better, then by all means go for it. Rather than focusing on our physical appearance, it is important to remind ourselves that improving our self-esteem does not always happen by altering our external attributes to match society's standards. It stems from our relationships with others, doing the things we love, and making connections with each other. 

Body image, food, and culture are heavily intertwined, and affect many parts of our lives. Whether or not you struggle with body positivity today, I hope you not only give yourself grace and compassion, but also become more aware of the cross-cultural differences around weight and body size.