Envy feels a lot like binging—the more you give into it, the worse you feel.
My mother perches her small frame on the tiny seat in the corner of the dressing room. I feel a little uncomfortable taking off my clothes in front of her. It’s been many years since we’ve gone clothes shopping together, and my body has changed. My hips are curvier, my abdomen soft and round. Still, we’ve done this many times before, ever since I was a child sitting in the corner while she tried on one beautifully printed dress after another, never worried that the store wouldn’t have enough choices for her petite frame.
There is a photograph I love of my mother and me, taken right before my parents split up. It’s my birthday, as evidenced by my pink party dress and the frilly cone-shaped hat on my head. I’m standing on a chair facing my mother, our arms resting on each other’s shoulders, and we are looking at each other. Although we are in profile and I can only see part of our faces, it’s clear that we are appraising each other with love and without judgment. We both wear our hair long and straight, almost to our waists, hers black, mine golden brown. It is one of the few photos I have where I feel like we look alike. As I grew older and taller, and my body became thicker and less graceful, I hardly ever felt that way again.
As a younger woman, my mother was stunning, the picture of feminine grace, with a slender waist and glowing skin. After my parents’ divorce was final, I spent my awkward middle-school years watching my mother move through the world as a single woman. I helped get her dressed for dates with a kind of awe, zipping up her size four dresses and plucking her heels out of her closet; all the while I knew that no boy ever looked at me the way I saw men look at her. I didn’t know then that male attention was not always welcome. Back then, my desire to be desired was steeped in fairytales.
It didn’t help that my half-white American body seemed to make my mother uncomfortable too. She loved to cook and derived great satisfaction from feeding me. She made pans of lasagna and porridge and spring rolls, a mélange of Vietnamese and American cuisine. And yet, she couldn’t seem to fathom that my appetite was larger than hers, or that her daughter had grown taller and wider than her before the end of elementary school.
Her spring rolls were always my favorite thing to eat—filled with meat, noodles, and vegetables, fried to a golden brown, and served with tangy fish sauce. I helped my mother make the rolls from a young age. These were my favorite times with her, when we’d spend the day together, side by side, and they grew more precious and few as the years went on.
When the spring rolls were done frying, my mother would pile them up on a platter, and I could hardly wait to consume them. She would always have one or two rolls and then stop, claiming she was full. I would keep going, eating seven or eight at a time. She would grow visibly agitated the more I ate. Sometimes she would say, “You don’t want to get a belly,” or “You want to find a husband someday.” Sometimes she took my plate away before I was even finished.
By the time I got to college, my family life was deeply fractured. My brother had been sent to a boarding school for troubled teens, which we frequently visited for family therapy sessions. My father was consumed with his care, content to file me away as the successful child, the one he didn’t have to worry about.
My mother and I argued frequently during this time, mostly because I chafed under her criticism and demanding nature. I was never respectful enough for her, never demure or acquiescent enough. She disliked my manners and thought I ate too much, like my father. Above all, I was not Vietnamese enough. Our conflicts were often rooted in our cultural differences—I would never know scarcity and want the way my mother had known it back in Vietnam. To me, it simply felt like judgment and lack of love. We grew apart to the point of estrangement many times. When I try to conjure any memory of her during my college years, I can’t. She just wasn’t there, and I didn’t much care.
Like many college students, at the time I ate whatever I could get on the cheap: thick bagels with cream cheese, heaping mounds of kung pao chicken, greasy, late-night New York–style pizza. I don’t know the date or time when it first occurred to me that I could eat what I wanted and throw it up, but I know it was dark and quiet. I know no one was around. I know that, as satisfying as it was to eat, it was even more satisfying to make all of it go away—the food, the anxiety, the self-doubt, the jealousy—at least for a while.
Envy feels a lot like binging—the more you give in to it, the worse you feel. When I looked at my mother, there was a nagging sense that her body, taut and small, just seemed to fit her, whereas I often had this dysphoric discomfort with my body, a feeling that I took up too much space in the world simply because I wasn’t thin enough. Objectively, I knew my body size was completely normal, but I was hardly objective.
In college, my friends and I would laughingly sing along to the 2 Live Crew song “Me So Horny.” The song takes its crude refrain from a scene in the film Full Metal Jacket, in which a Vietnamese prostitute exists solely for the white male soldiers’ pleasure. I sang the song and laughed at the lyrics without giving any thought to how it connected to my mother’s lived experience as an Asian woman, or my own as a white-passing half-Asian one.
For both of us, the world too often demanded that we both stay as small as possible, and I was unwittingly caught up in that dynamic. This is something that could have connected us, if I had realized it sooner.
I knew that Asian women’s bodies are often sexually fetishized, but I didn’t realize then that with my envy of my mother’s seemingly perfect body, the one that I would never have, I was doing something similar. To me, my mother’s lithe, lean body was something to long for, an object to be attained. We were both subject to society’s unrealistic expectations of women, and we both subjected each other to those expectations. (I belatedly looked up the woman who played the prostitute: a British actress named Papillon Soo, whose role is listed as “Da Nang Hooker” in IMDB. Having spoken French with my mother, who is fluent in the language, I remember that papillon means butterfly. Soo deserved a name in the film, and she deserved better than to be a punchline in a song.)
We were both subject to society’s unrealistic expectations of women, and we both subjected each other to those expectations.
Like the soldiers in the film, my own father had delighted in the women he met serving in Southeast Asia. Working in intelligence, he traveled between the military base in Okinawa and various parts of South Vietnam. He dated Vietnamese women in both places and boasted about them in letters home to his dad and sister, letters that I own, now that my father, aunt, and grandfather have all passed on. In one letter, my father prided himself on not taking advantage of the Vietnamese sex workers he encountered regularly, despite being surrounded by soldiers who did.
Instead, he went on old-fashioned dates, and my mother was one of my father’s most frequent companions. He used to tell me how he was attracted to her clear-eyed beauty, her flirtatiousness, and her intelligence. In her letters to him, my mother temporarily changed her Vietnamese given name to Rosette, a coquettish and diminutive version of a sensuous, fragrant flower. To my father, she was an innocent blossom to be plucked and taken home. “I want to get things settled in my life,” he wrote in one letter, as his tour in Vietnam and Okinawa drew to a close. Within months, my parents were married.
I know, because he told me, that my father wanted my mother to be a good, sweet, sensual wife, like Asian women were supposed to be. She was all those things, but she was also not, and the reality of marriage and assimilation proved too difficult for both of them. After my parents split, my father received custody of my brother and me. With every passing year, my memories of my parents as a cohesive unit, and my mother as a guiding presence, became harder to hold on to. My sense of self became more tenuous as well.
One dark night when I was about twenty—the exact trigger is fuzzy—I ate everything in my father’s refrigerator. Leftover pizza. Chicken. Brownies. Carrots. Sprite. Everything. Then I threw it all up. Thoroughly disgusted with myself, I woke my father up and told him what I had done.
At first, he seemed flummoxed and angry, his image of me as the perfect child shattered, just as his image of my mother as the perfect wife had once been.
“Just stop,” he said, incredulous.
“I can’t,” I told him.
After that, however, he became my father again. He found me a therapist who specialized in anxiety and eating disorders. He drove me to my first appointment and patted my back as we got out of the car. I remember sitting in the therapist’s office the first time, my arms folded across my chest, squirming on the squeaky leather couch, wishing once again that I was smaller than I was. “Tell me what’s wrong,” she said.
“Nothing,” I responded, the tears welling in my throat. “Except that I throw up what I eat.”
Even after years of talk therapy helped me to mostly overcome my purging impulse, occasionally it would return, often after a big meal out. I would be sitting with a group of girlfriends, enjoying a multicourse feast of appetizer and salad and entrée and passed-around dessert. The conversation would linger over coffee, and I would nod and smile and fidget, thinking, “I wish I could go throw up.” I knew that, as time ticked on, I would lose my chance. My body would digest the food, and it would become part of me, like it or not.
Sometimes, even when it had been years since the last time, I would go through with it. It was always far more difficult to achieve than it had once been, almost like my body had lost its muscle memory. The dangerous part about purging is that it had always felt good, at least for a little while. But when I would occasionally do it years later, it didn’t feel good at all. My heart would pound and tears would leak from my eyes. I’d sit on the cold floor of the bathroom, catching my breath, vowing to not hate myself for it, vowing to start again.
Eventually, when I moved from Maryland to Virginia, I found a therapist who specialized in social anxiety, something that had always plagued me. I assumed we’d be talking about the things that once made me nervous, like public speaking. Instead, we talked about my mother, and the feeling that I had to look and act a certain way to be acceptable. My social anxiety, therapy helped me realize, was rooted in the feeling that I could never live up to my mother’s expectations, or my own.
Once I did more emotional work in therapy, I came to accept that I would be okay, no matter what my mother said or did, and no matter what I said or did too. In time, my social anxiety began to dissipate and, with it, any lingering desire to binge and purge. My body became less perfect after bearing and nursing two children, and yet I accepted myself more. I began to feel more compassion toward my body and myself. I feel sympathy and forgiveness and even love.
After hearing that my first child had been born, my mother wrote me a letter, saying she wanted to know her grandson. I called her, and we made a plan to make spring rolls together. I remember that first time we saw each other after many years of estrangement, appraising each other as we had in that photograph long ago. We didn’t look any more alike, but our similarities had grown: We were both older and wiser, both softer in body and in heart, humbled by time and all we’d lost. When we sat down to eat, my mother didn’t say anything about how many spring rolls I consumed. She said nothing about how I looked or who I was. We just ate.
That’s not to say she never makes comments or criticizes; she does. Just the other day, after I told her we’d had pizza, she said, “Too much cheese is bad for you.” I just smiled. Now eighty years old, my mother has had her own journey toward acceptance too. Things aren’t always perfect between us, but we are better to each other than we used to be. Before the pandemic, we cooked and ate together all the time, and I hope we will again someday.
No longer Rosette, she is now simply “Grandma Rose” to my children. Her physical beauty still matters to her: She dyes her hair black, wears her favorite gold jewelry to go grocery shopping, and carefully applies mascara and lipstick every day. She is still beautiful to me, but she is beautiful in three dimensions. Maybe I am beautiful to her now too. But even if I’m not, it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to know that it never did.
Based in Arlington, Virginia, Kim O'Connell writes about history, nature, culture, design, and food, and especially enjoys when those things intersect. Bylines have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Ladies Home Journal, Atlas Obscura, and other national and regional publications. www.kimaoconnell.com