Living Big, in a Small Body

Except for the extra legroom, living in a small body is... pretty average.

It always amazes me how easy it is for us human beings, to misjudge each other's nature. Most of us would quickly judge a stranger without really understanding the life they lead and the reasons behind it. Instead, we make judgements based on how they speak, dress, walk. Sometimes more dangerously, how they express their gender identity, sexuality, or the colour of their skin.

As someone who studies cognitive psychology, I understand why biases came about. We simply can't help it; it is how the brain processes information via heuristics. According to Dr Christopher Dwyer, a researcher at the National University of Ireland, there are at least 12 main biases hindering our decision-making process in everyday life — most notably, Confirmation Bias, leading us to favour ideas that confirm our existing beliefs and what we think we know. It's not because we're bad people (well, the majority of us), but we are cognitively lazy: we immensely dislike changing our thinking schema.

"While heuristics are generally useful for making inferences, through providing us with cognitive shortcuts that help us stave off decision fatigue, some forms of heuristics can make our judgments irrational."

— Dr Christopher Dwyer


The saying "Don't judge the book by its cover." implies we know physical looks have always mattered more than we would like them to be. Attractive people are viewed as more social, happy, and successful. It pays to be pretty, especially for women. According to a study published in 2013, conventionally good-looking women reportedly made 8% more. Meanwhile, being attractive as a man only earns you 4% more, unless you're taller than 6 feet. According to one study, each inch above average may be worth $789 more per year. Evolutionarily speaking, being tall was one of the indications for strength and power.

On the other hand, small women, especially Asian women, have been objectified and over-sexualised because of their size. A quick Google search shows 267 million results, many of which come from porn sites. Asian fetish is not a new topic, however. Asian woman (and to a certain extent, Asian men) have been seen as subservient, loyal, and family-oriented. Asian women were and still are perceived by Caucasian men as sexually suggestive, yet silent and submissive — beautiful but void of feelings and autonomy; primarily based on Asian stereotypes built on the images of "Geisha" or "China doll". In 2008, 75% of Asian/Caucasian marriages involved an Asian woman and a Caucasian man, according to the US census racial categories.

Anecdotally, marrying off your Asian children (read: girls and young women) to a Caucasian person was viewed as an "achievement" for many Asian families, much less so in recent years. Marrying a White person means you can expect your offspring would be prettier, more "exotic-looking", probably taller and expected to be more successful. As Caucasian men married more and more Asian wives after World War II(especially with the increasing involvement of the US's in Asia), desperate women in rural areas see this new trend as their ticket out of poverty Some don't make it that far, falling into the victimhood of human trafficking rings.


In our early years, boys are taught to take as much space as possible. Meanwhile, girls and women fold themselves up and try to make room for others. As a society, we tell girls to be as small and skinny as possible, and they will be loved more. Affecting girls as young as 10, anorexia mostly affects young women with the average age of onset is 17. To boys, we say "Take more room!" "Dominate your surrounding space!". Boys grow up manspreading, demanding to have space taken.

For those who don't fit in these rules, society punishes them — small men perceived as "timid" or "weak", "f*ggot". At the same time, **muscular women get criticised of being "bulky", "large", and "unattractive". Naughty Dog, the video game developing company of the award-winning The Last of Us series, has recently received death threats for including a female character in the game with a muscled build. This gendered view on body standards reflects, while complicates, our perception as a society on queer bodies and fat people.

Racially speaking, Asian Americans have also been found to be less satisfied with their bodies than White, Black, and Hispanic Americans, who say their body satisfaction range somewhere in between. Much similar to how teenaged girls feel the need to be thinner, self-image in the Asian community is influenced mainly by the mainstream media.


I'm not a large person in any way. During my kindergarten years, I was malnourished and severely underweight (for scale, I am now a "5-foot-nothing" adult). Having grown up in a dense population, I understood early on the "need" to "contain" myself. When I moved across the ocean to Australia, which population density is nowhere near as dense as Vietnam's (294/km² vs. 3/km², respectively), womxn don't seem to be allowed to take space unless it's designated. I figured, as a small Asian queer person, "I'll have a long road ahead of me."

Before Australia, for almost 18 years, I had a head full of the straightest blackest hair you would ever see. People were envious of me having long black hair, and I could never understand why. On the day I moved out of home, I had my hair cut short, tomboy short, because I was becoming "an adult", becoming me. I remember vividly the hairdresser asked me a couple of times just to be sure about the haircut, and how I felt the surest I'd ever felt in my life. But for years after that day, whenever I closed my eyes, I saw myself as a little girl with long hair again, standing in the dark, alone. In those visions, I often looked terrified. I can't describe how much that dead version of me had haunted me over my early adulthood years.

Because of the rejection I'd faced being who I was in my home country — where Confucian values are ingrained; I wanted to be White-r (a fact I don't usually care much to admit). I wanted Whiteness and the privileges that come with it because I believe it would make my life easier. And for a little while, it did. I'd been always more "Westernised" than my peers. I could speak English without an accent. And then I integrated smoothly into a Western country. Physically, I wanted my body to match my ambition for a larger and freer life. But in reality, I was only feeling insecure about my height and my facial features. Deep down, I knew the guilt was there; it's always there, the guilt of me honouring my own skin and heritage, hiding behind my contempt for poverty and traditions.


When you ask someone what "living big" means to them, they could say it means living in a big house (among other materialistic things). Not until I moved into a bigger home had I understood the needs for big houses; because of the dense environment my upbringing having accustomed me to. When you're poor, and your country has more people than land, a piece of land is sacred. There's an old Viet saying, "tấc đất, tấc vàng", "an inch of land is an inch of gold." Economically, more space requires more maintenance, more furniture and more energy spent, all of which my family didn't have.

On the other hand, having adequate space is essential for one's well-being; space for privacy, for entertainment, for quietness, or simply for breathing room, space for one's self. In recent years, there has been a rise of "living small" due to the economic downturn and overpopulation. While young people seek tiny homes as an alternative way of homeownership, crowded space can take a psychological toll. However, studies of this subject are difficult to conduct, since, culturally, my concept of crowdedness would be different than yours. Plus, as long as the space in question helps maintains one's psychology needs, having a smaller space doesn't necessarily mean a bad place to live.


If you ask those who knew me growing up, they would say I'm living big; abroad, Westernised. According to my long-haired self, I certainly am. Nowadays, I'm content with the privileges I've been given, and I make an effort to help those who are less fortunate. I try to treat everyone respectfully and equally by being aware of my own psychological laziness. As I am approaching my 30s, I do consider myself living big, but not in the same way others would think.

Brené Brown defines Living BIG as living with "Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity", which values I try to show up for. To live a big life, achieving big dreams is to be opened and critical of one's thinking, to realise where we're keeping ourselves small, or whether others are doing it to us, intentionally or not. To live a full life, we need to step out of ourselves to have a holistic perception of ourselves and life. Living big but also generously, wholeheartedly, and always with kindness.

There's not much I can do about the size of my body. Most days, I try to love it, and most days, I fail. For now, anyway, I'm okay with it.