Lisa Cheng

“Her legs…they just aren’t made for ballet, you know?” The instructor told my mom. I tried to pretend I didn’t hear. But the words stuck with me. What was wrong with my legs? Sure, I was clumsy and was not great at ballet anyway, but what about my legs made me bad at it? I did not understand the depth of the statement, but all I knew was that it made me feel bad about my body. I was 6.

Although ballet wasn’t for me, I loved moving my body. After trial and error with many sports, I found my love for swimming. I loved to race, I loved to compete, and I loved to win. Even from a young age, I was strong and muscular. Yet, the comments about my body persisted. “If your legs weren’t so big, you’d be prettier.” What did being pretty have anything to do with swimming fast? I shrugged it off, but I felt like my body was the problem for some reason. I was 8.

I was an early bloomer and hit puberty earlier than the other girls in school. My hips and my legs filled out, and I felt awkwardly large. I didn’t move through the water the same way and as a result, my progress slowed. And to my dismay, my legs got bigger. The comments about my body persisted. “The pretty girls are all thin, once you quit swimming you’ll be pretty like them.” I was 12.

I remember looking into the mirror, pulling at my legs, tears in my eyes. I would force my legs into the smallest size I could manage without suffocating. The comments about my body were masked now, in magazines, TV shows, and music videos. “If you were a size 0, you’d be pretty,” they told me. I remember looking into the same mirror after school, staring at the imprints my jeans tattooed into my skin. I hated my legs. I hated pictures. I hated that every single time I showed up to practice in a suit that people had to see my legs. I frankly did not even care that I was among the top performers in my sport. I hated my body. I was 14.

“A hungry swimmer is a fast swimmer,” my coach told me as she snatched my snacks away from me at a meet. I was burning thousands of calories a day. It was physically impossible for me to eat the calories needed to keep weight on. Yet, the comments persisted. My coach routinely talked behind my back about how my body fit in my suit; my teammates bullied me for the way I carried myself and the way my body looked in my suit. I was 23.

No matter what age I am or what shape I’m in, the comments will persist. However, the relationship I have with my body has changed. Through all the negativity, my legs did and still do amazing things. My legs–they walk, they run, they jump, they kick. My legs have carried me to victory in every race. My legs have taken me up mountains, through oceans, and around the world. My legs matter so much more than the way they fit in jeans or the way they fill out a dress. I have hard days still, where I feel like I am not enough. But my body is more than enough, and I am enough.

Asian Mental Health Collective