Tiffany Le

Growing up in a small, predominantly white community, I had always struggled with body image issues and, consequentially, low self-esteem. Often times, it would feel as though my appearance was an inconvenience for others. Peers would often tell me my skin was too dark or my eyes were too small to be pretty. Family would often tell me to ignore their comments, but ironically my classmates weren’t the only ones to tell me what was wrong with me. Family members would often point out other flaws I never knew I had. These comments were always followed by unsolicited advice like pinching the bridge of my nose for a higher nose bridge or rubbing lemon juice on my skin in an attempt to lighten it. At several points in my life, I was even told my voice was too deep for a girl. An aunt of mine would often say I was similar to The Ugly Duckling. They had even provided me a nickname to use at family gatherings: “Tubby [Tiffy]”.

To avoid ridicule, I tried to become invisible. Don’t speak unless spoken to, make no noise when entering rooms, wear “safe” clothes, apologize often, eat meals as needed and save snacks for when no one is looking, avoid as much interaction as possible, don’t make eye contact. Puberty was my only hope at shedding this invisible cloak, I remembered thinking, as the Ugly Duckling had a “glow up” phase which resulted in everyone loving him.

For a while, being invisible worked. Redirecting attention became a skill I could throw onto my resume. I never had to consciously think about how physically (mentally was another story) inadequate I felt in comparison to other women my age. Sometimes I would think that appearance wasn’t tied to my self-worth; that I didn’t have to be pretty and look like other girls because I had other good qualities going for me, like being studious and a hard-worker. After several years, I had finally decided it was safe enough to come out of my invisible shell and allow myself to be- at least somewhat -seen at university. For the first year, I truly believed I was happy with myself and with how life was playing out. The past didn’t seem to matter anymore.

It wasn’t until my second year of university where my mental health took a turn for the worst. During my first semester of sophomore year, I was sexually assaulted by a friend. The incident made me remember how inferior I felt to everyone around me. Several thoughts ran through my head, “Only pretty girls get assaulted, why did this happen to me? Maybe I finally started to look better, and this is what happened as a result. Either way, I must not be as smart as I thought I was to end up in a position like this.” I confided in my (now ex) boyfriend, whom turned his back on me when I told him what had happened. I didn’t just feel ugly anymore, I felt disgusted with myself. The disgust went deeper than my physical appearance and had now tainted any self-worth I had left. Any amount of respect I had for myself dissipated, and I felt unworthy of respect from anyone. I had never felt more alone.

For the following seven months, I never spoke of the incident, but I had heard other versions of what happened that night. “She’s such a slut; I feel so bad for [my ex]- he didn’t deserve to be cheated on; I always knew she was easy; she’s not even that pretty, he could’ve done better.” I pretended everything was normal and tried to retreat into my old invisible ways. My normal soon became only sleeping 2 hours during the day and none at night, several panic attacks a week, obsessively checking if the doors and windows to my dorm room were locked every night, poor grades, skipping meals, and showering once a week if I had gathered enough energy to do so. Towards the end of the semester, a friend intervened, and I told her everything. She helped me file a report with the university and schedule an appointment with the university counselor, whom diagnosed me with severe depression and anxiety.

After completing my sophomore year, I took some time off from university and moved back home. I finally told my mother what had happened beginning with the assault and ending with my counseling sessions at the school. In hindsight, telling her felt like a mistake that needed to be made. I had opened up in hopes of being welcomed with support and assistance in finding a therapist closer to home, however I was met with more guilt, shame, and victim-blaming. Part of her response which shocked me the most was to consider the inconvenience I may have caused the perpetrator by filing the report. “You caused too much problem for him because you[‘re] stupid,” I remember her saying. Shortly after, instead of being called outright “Tubby” by family members, my new nickname evolved into whispers of the word “whore” behind my back. Instead of providing me advice to make myself more attractive as they had previously, I was now given advice on how to become invisible again.

Over the few years, my mental health continued to fluctuate, as I had finally accepted that I needed help but was still too afraid of others’ reactions to reach out. “Victim” seemed to be the term that I allowed to identify me. The loneliness associated with it engulfed me, which only sent me deeper into my depression and exacerbated my anxiety. But this loneliness also forced me to reevaluate every aspect of myself. My self-esteem and self-worth were already in the gutter when it happened; the assault was just the tipping point. Although I may have been a victim, I didn’t want it to define me for the rest of my life. It may have broken me, but it gave me a chance to rebuild and learn about myself in ways I never could have. It gave me a chance to truly love myself inside and out instead of faking it. I am not a victim; I am a survivor.

Everyday is a different, and every day is hard in their own ways. Although some days can be generally good, and other days generally bad, everyday I try to make peace with what I had once seen as flaws and to forgive myself for the self-inflicted abuse and mistreatment. Forgiveness wasn’t the easiest thing I had to learn, however I found peace in letting go of all of the anger and pain inside me. There are days I wish it didn’t play out like this- that I still wonder “why me” and “if only I had done this, then it would have never happened”. But ultimately, it has shaped me into someone I know Tubby would be extremely proud of today.

Asian Mental Health Collective