I recently came across Lynn Chen’s blog Thick Dumpling Skin and was captivated. The site is a “community for Asian Americans to share and discuss our unhealthy quest, past and present, for the ‘perfect’ body. Our struggles with food & body image are not merely about will power, they are social, cultural and familial.”
With a little more research, I learned that Chen is an L.A.-based actress known for her roles in “Silicon Valley,” “Saving Face,” “All My Children,” “Law & Order” and others. She is also the brains behind popular food and lifestyle blog The Actor’s Diet and is a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
With a resume like that, I was thrilled to hop on the phone and talk about her journey to loving her body.
What were your experiences with your body and food as a child?
I was naturally slim as a kid; people used to tease me by calling me Skeletor. I tried so hard to put on weight. I remember sitting in front of friends, eating a box of Entenmann’s, saying, “look at me!” I would come home so full and my Mom would have cooked dinner. She would expect me to eat it, so I’d sit down and eat another dinner. As a kid, I’d feel sick quite often. I never vomited, but I always had stomach problems. Soon, food became my constant source of companionship. It was how I soothed myself. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had an eating disorder. I was bingeing.
Why didn’t you think of it as an eating disorder?
I was a women’s studies major in college. Studying eating disorders was part of feminist theory, but at the time–in the late ’90s—people only talked about bulimia and anorexia, and I had neither of those. Eating disorders were considered a white woman’s problem. No one was talking about how race and culture played into those things back then. It was all about rich white women wanting to control their lives because they were super ambitious.
Did you struggle in college?
I kind of rebelled. I gained weight and was proud of my body. Becoming a feminist made me think that I should love my body the way it was. My family would say things about me gaining weight, and I’d tell them that if they kept talking to me like that, they’d give me an eating disorder. I would eat more because I was so angry about it.
From that place of self-approval, how did you become an activist for body acceptance?
Well, that approval didn’t last long. Everything changed in 2004 when two things happened: I was cast in a soap opera and looked at the other women in the show and realized they were way smaller than me; and I was about to get a career-changing role in “Saving Face,” and the producers told me I had to lose weight to look like a ballet dancer in the film.
I worked with a trainer and a holistic health counselor and lost weight. But I still hadn’t come to terms with my binge eating disorder. I’d lose weight and then stress would hit, and I’d binge. I’d have to “super diet” to undo any damage associated with my binge. This became my life for many years, even after the movie was finished shooting. I knew it was wrong the whole time. I kept thinking it was so anti-feminist of me, it was against everything I stand for, but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop bingeing and therefore couldn’t stop dieting.
I’m so sorry to hear this. What did bingeing look like to you at the time?
It became my best friend. My once, twice, three-times-per-week best friend. It turned into sabotage. I would book something and think I was a fraud, so I thought I might as well eat a tub of ice cream to feel better about my situation. I was seeing a nutritionist, a hypnotherapist, I was having my meals delivered. I was seeing an eating disorder specialist and nothing was working. I’d go a week, two weeks, one month between binges and always relapse. I eat my Mom’s food to please her. I felt helpless and out of control. It was always about control.
When was the moment this started to change?
It was June 2009 when I launched my blog, The Actor’s Diet. I wanted to get pregnant and knew I had to leave an industry where looks are the most important thing, so I took a break from acting. I wanted to heal my body, so I leaned into binge eating. I bought all the snacks I forbid myself to eat. I had them in the house. I bought new clothes when the other clothes didn’t fit. Initially I gained weight because I was no longer depriving myself, but over time I learned portion size, learned to know when I was full—something hard to do at first.
Did this new way of being help you?
It did. Over the next two years, I was unable to get pregnant and decided not to have a child after all. But through it, I came to a new peace with food and made the conscious decision not to label food as good, bad, junk, clean. I just wanted food to be food. I released all guilt and shame.
How did the blog play into this?
I started it with a friend and—this was back in the days when people blogged about everything they ate—so we did the same. Through that, I realized I had never talked to my family about this stuff. Writing on the blog was a way of communicating with them. It opened up the dialogue about food. For them, it was acknowledging that my problem with food runs deep and spans decades. When I’d come home, my Mom would put food on my plate and I’d say, “Don’t do that. Just believe me. I know how much my body needs.”
If they gave me shit, they knew I’d blog about it.
It worked! It was amazing, actually. They stopped judging me when it came to food and let me do my own thing. It was the same with my husband. He stopped trying to stop me from bingeing. He let go of judgment.
How did Thick Dumpling Skin come about?
I started it because of how many letters I would receive from Asian American women who shared my story about feeling guilt for not eating Mom’s food. This issue runs deep. In Chinese culture, people don’t ask you how you are when they see you. They ask you what you’ve eaten.
You are expected to eat what is in front of you, but at the same time, you’re expected to be tiny, especially as a woman. You know how you feel on Thanksgiving? That’s how you feel every time you get together in a Chinese household. Eating disorders are widespread in the Asian community, and no one talks about it, especially within the community of first-generation Asian Americans.
What does your relationship to your body and food look like now?
I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease a few months ago and now realize that that is my new normal. On the Internet, I’m known as the woman who eats cake for breakfast and is OK with it. But now my relationship to food has changed once again. I know now that some foods will make me very sick and can’t have them. People say they’re sorry I can’t eat pie, but you know what? I’m not sorry. For the last eight or nine years, I’ve eaten every iteration of food you could imagine and I know how life changing it can be. I don’t feel deprived.
Today I feel super energized and my gut health is great. Nothing revolves around food anymore. If I go to an event, I’ll eat beforehand. At a recent gala, I brought my own snacks. It was fun.
What advice can you offer other women struggling with body acceptance and/or eating disorders?
I can only speak to what has worked for me. I used to journal a lot and that helped. For me, I just don’t judge what I’m eating anymore. It is a mental shift. I generally enjoy my life without guilt. I go to movies a whole bunch. I treat myself to a massage once per month. I don’t torture myself over the things I really want, and it tends to balance itself out.