Actress Lynn Chen’s Advice on Getting Thicker (Dumpling) Skin

The first time I heard of Lynn Chen was when I saw her playing the role of darling Ramona in the 2009 film “White on Rice.” She was such a natural on screen—a testament to the talent of the many underrated Asian American actors out there. But it wasn’t until I researched more about her films and career as an actress that I learned about her lifelong battle with binge eating and anorexia. For a moment, I was completely stunned at how someone so talented, smart and beautiful could ever suffer from body image issues and an eating disorder.

And then I felt completely connected to her.

As someone who has dealt with body image issues my whole life, I realized that people are always surprised when you show any self-loathing bout of insecurity and weakness. So I’ve learned how to hide it, grow a thicker skin and mask my true feelings. This silence is common in the Asian American community; no one likes to talk about their flaws, much less their self-image issues. Growing up, it was hard not being the pretty girl. Even among my best friends, I felt like I was the odd one out. I didn’t fit the Asian standard of beauty; I didn’t have an oval-shaped face or white porcelain skin. But it is stories like Chen’s that have inspired me to come forward, share my silent struggle, and ultimately overcome my obsession with food and body image—and hopefully it can help you too.

Lynn Chen started a food blog called The Actor’s Diet in June 2010 to help her overcome her issues with food. Since then, her blog has taken off with a strong following of readers and commenters who relate to her everyday choices about food. It has transformed into a foodie blog, making eating food fun and healthy, as it should be.

“For most of my life, I struggled with binge eating,” Chen says. “Since I was a child I used food as a way to process my emotions. It wasn’t until I became an actress that I tried to combat that constant weight gain with dieting and, eventually, anorexia. I began blogging because I wanted to hold myself accountable when it came to binge eating and anorexia. I figured if I channeled my obsessive mind about food in a public forum, there would be no hiding.”

If you follow Chen’s blog, you’ll see that she documents the details of her meals quite well, taking pictures of dishes—the healthy and the unhealthy—she’s made, ordered and eaten. The beauty of Chen’s blog lies in that it’s shameless. Whether she’s enjoying a decadent chocolate-chip cookie or a lentil salad, she stays honest. She makes eating and being healthy easy and welcoming, so she keeps both herself and her readers in check “I certainly hoped that I would be successful and inspire others [with my blog], but when I initially began I had no idea what was going to happen,” Chen says. “I felt it was important to show that if somebody whose career depended on how they looked could come to terms with the truth—that size, weight, outer beauty isn’t important—be honest with herself, fall down and make mistakes, and still persevere, then maybe that would inspire and help someone who was struggling with food as well.”

Then in February 2011, Chen took her blogging to another level by addressing eating disorders and body image issues head on in her latest project, Thick Dumpling Skin, with Hyphen magazine founder and editor-in-chief Lisa Lee. Chen had stumbled upon an NPR interview with Lee, in which she discussed her past struggles with food and body image. Lee also had a history of extreme dieting to lose weight. When Chen heard how being Asian played a role in her issues with food, she was immediately compelled to contact Lee. Asians grow up around food; it is so central to our culture that it’s almost a measure of love amongst family members. Our mom, aunts and grandmothers constantly feed us and critique us on the foods we ate—what we ate too little or too much of. Chen and Lee met and shared their stories, soon realizing that they were not the only Asian Americans who suffered from eating disorders. E-mails came pouring in from both men and women across the world who had struggles with food and their body and dealt with pressures to be thin. To help bring eating disorders and body images issues to light in the Asian American community, Chen and Lee created Thick Dumpling Skin as an open forum, where people can share their experiences—both past and present—and find the support and advice they need to beat their battle with food.

While she can’t pinpoint why eating disorders aren’t openly discussed in the Asian American community, she does know “that our culture doesn’t celebrate women’s curves like some others do,” Chen says. “I remember walking around in Asia and feeling like an elephant compared to everyone there, men included. I wondered what was wrong with me; it almost felt like I was being a ‘bad Asian’ by not being ‘true’ to what appeared to be ‘the norm.’ ”

Since Thick Dumpling Skin launched earlier this year, the forum has continued to receive unique stories and experiences with food from people all over the world. More importantly, it has given Asian Americans a public yet anonymous space to reveal their thoughts and feelings about food and their bodies. It’s given people a real look into how eating disorders affect people’s self-image but also every other aspect of their lives. Being a Filipino American, one story titled “I Really Want(ed) To Be Brown” struck home with me in particular. The story details the desire of a young biracial male (half White and half Filipino) to be brown like his Filipino relatives, which manifested insecurities about fitting into a family and culture where brown skin was beautiful. It is refreshing to hear such a diversity of voices from the Asian American community.

“I had a suspicion that eating disorders are much more common in our community than we think they are, and from the letters and stories we have been receiving, this theory is confirmed. I want people to know that they’re not alone in their struggles, and to give a voice to those frustrations, rather than staying silent,” Chen says.

It has been three years since Chen overcame her eating disorder. Through therapy, support and soul-searching, Chen learned how to healthily channel her emotions with food. She has returned to show business and is focused on her acting career. “Being Asian American in this industry can be an incredible asset—I have a community of artists that none of my non-Asian American actor friends have. It’s something I value, cherish and don’t take for granted,” Chen says.

Through Chen’s story, I’ve grown a thicker skin and learned to love every part of myself, good and bad. It’s a comfort to hear stories from different people all over the world who have dealt with similar issues. We’ve all been there, whether we’re white, black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Asian. As Chen says, “Everyone’s journey is unique, so it may take a long time to figure out what works for you. I spent years feeling like I would never come to peace with food, but I’m living proof that it can happen.”

(Photos Provided by Lynn Chen, courtesy of Chopper Platt)