Author: Victoria Ying
Publish Date: April 25, 2023
Publisher: :01 First Second
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1250767004
Author website: https://www.victoriaying.com/
by Soph Myers-Kelley
If you have experience with an eating disorder, this book may be triggering for you. It could also be deeply and emotionally relatable. For those who are unfamiliar with eating disorders and want to learn what one person’s experience was like, this IS the book for you.
Valerie Chu can’t remember a time when her mother did not watch what she ate. She remembers, since she was a young child, wanting to be gwai (a Chinese term roughly translating to good or obedient) for her parents. This includes being thin. The fictional—though realistic—Hungry Ghost by Victoria Ying opens with a young Valerie at her own birthday party, being handed a piece of cake from her mother who advises her to “remember, don’t eat, just taste” (3).
That message sticks with Valerie throughout her life as she begins to show typical signs of disordered eating. By throwing up her meals, she can eat a regular amount of food around her friends & family without concerning them. She appears to be eating the amount a growing girl should, only to throw it up later.
Valerie’s mom’s views on eating and size don’t just affect Victoria, but her mom also judges Victoria’s friends. It becomes very evident that her mother doesn’t think men, or anyone, find fat women attractive. She is so grateful that her daughter is thin and works very hard to keep her that way by reminding her to avoid eating the fat on meat, to not eat anything at a restaurant with friends when the family just had dinner, etc. Victoria thinks about food much more than her mother realizes. Not only her mother, but other family members comment on Victoria’s size and other body elements, leading to an unhealthy self-consciousness and body dysmorphia.
This disordered eating conflicts with Valerie’s high school life with her best friend Jordan and her crush, Allan. Her eating disordered thinking makes it hard to see her friend Jordan as the vibrant, intelligent, powerful, and social girl she is, because Jordan also happens to be large. Valerie goes on a school trip to Paris and finds it harder and harder to maintain her purging bathroom visits alongside her intensive time with her classmates.
Then her father, an adventurer often away on fun and sometimes dangerous antics, dies flying a plane in Tibet. As she reflects and mourns, Victoria thinks “My father died with no regrets. I couldn’t die now and feel like I have lived my life. I haven’t. I’ve lived like a prisoner to my body” (105). For the first time, because of the grief of losing her father and the struggle to keep her mom going, she eats with abandon. She doesn’t count calories. She doesn’t empty her stomach afterwards. But once her mother recovers, it’s back to minimizing eating in order to lose any weight gained during the grieving process.
The part that got me crying was after a hard conversation Valerie has with her mother in a restaurant. Her mother is going after her eating and exercise habits again, out of concern for Valerie’s health. Valerie tries to share her disordered eating and her feeling unwell with her mother- only to be recommended to diet instead of purging. In the bathroom where Valerie has run off from her mother, a stranger comes in and offers a hug. She shares “I overheard you and your mom. She might not ever understand, and I just want you to know that you’re beautiful” (168).
In the afterward, Ying explains that while Valerie is not Ying, Ying was once Val. She also explains how she didn’t feel fully recovered from disordered eating until her early thirties. She’s shares how she got to recovery by; “reading memoirs, seeing therapists, and working [her] way through [her] own brain to find a way to just be happy for [herself]” (202). The end also has resources for people in recovery. Most importantly, she recommends working with registered dieticians who specialize in Health at Every Size, a powerful framework of looking at eating and health not in a disordered way, but in an accepting and gentle way towards one’s body.
This book explains with vivid colors, beautiful, simple drawings, and stunning detail what it’s like to have an eating disorder and an enabling parent in a Chinese-American household. It also shows that this parent is acting, while in a deeply problematic way, out of love. Healing is possible, and in order to heal, one needs to choose themselves and their needs, self-love, and happiness over that of others.
Soph Myers-Kelley is a medical librarian, herbalist, and activist living in North Carolina. They can be contacted at https://www.smyerskelley.com/ and followed at https://www.instagram.com/sophmyerskelley/