As the eldest son of two Vietnam War refugees who raised a family on love, pride and food stamps, I was a lot larger than most kids my age growing up, and not in a good way. McDonalds, Taco Bell and Chinese takeout made dinner for my family affordable because fast food came cheap and in large quantities. In elementary school, kids teased me for my weight, calling me names like “dumpling boy,” “hippo” and “fata–.” “Fata–” hurt the most. And I thought I deserved it, too. I thought that it was my fault because my family didn’t have the means to eat healthier foods that often came too pricey for us. At 12 years old, I was convinced that I was ugly.
In middle school, I started running three miles every single day and secretly forced myself to vomit after dinner, because I wanted to lose weight and become someone worthy of friends rather than of petty fat jokes. And I got skinny, all right. After first semester of eighth grade, I got so thin that kids at my school, the same ones who had teased me for being big, started calling me “toothpick” and “anorexic Asian.” They spread rumors that my parents were upset with me and left me to starve at home. To save myself the trouble of high school, I contemplated taking my own life the summer before ninth grade started.
Thankfully I didn’t, and now I am here at Yale. Inspired after that dark experience to learn more about different understandings of beauty, I’m now a healthy young adult majoring in art history. I’m not an artist in the classical sense: I don’t paint; I can’t sculpt; I draw stick figures that are just sad. But when I started bodybuilding at the beginning of last year — because I was so angry with myself for constantly seeking approval from others rather than giving validation to myself — I became my own type of artist.
In a way, the weight room is my studio, the barbell is my paintbrush and my body is a canvas. The weight room enables me to chisel out my masterpiece. Unfortunately, I think the general public often misunderstands the benefits of bodybuilding, perceiving it as a hobby adopted by someone aesthetically preoccupied and morally shallow. But bodybuilding isn’t about excessive narcissism, or constructing false perceptions of physical perfection or constant self-criticism. It’s about having a dream, it’s about formulating goals, it’s about executing a plan without compromise and above all, it’s about knowing the very real value of sweat.
Bodybuilding reminds me that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what others think of me or whether I have external social approval; all that matters is that I invest love and emotion into improving my body for myself, not modifying it to fit social expectations.
Each and every one of us is a work of art created with the many brushstrokes of failures and successes, of families, of laughter, of culture, of stories yet to be told and of inextinguishable beauty.
When I was young, I viewed my body as a burden, as weight I had to carry around. Now my body is a source of pride. Sometimes artists seem to lose agency over their work, but I am not a finished work — I’m a work in progress, one that I alone control.
Hung Pham is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at email@example.com .