Beauty, Control, and Adoption
With poetry that’s raw and evocative and prose that’s honest and thought-provoking, I always know I’m in for something special when I read anything by writer Mila Konomos.
Her essay, “Beauty, Control, and Adoption” is no exception.
Mila’s article is excerpted from Adoption Therapy, Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post-Adoption Issues. With contributors who are adoptees, counselors, or both, Adoption Therapy is a much-needed tool for adoptees (and adoptive parents) entering therapy or processing on their own, and for those professionals tasked with helping them.
The anthology covers topics such as the myth of reactive attachment disorder, the life-long effects of pre- and perinatal trauma, red flags when working with a therapist, and more. However, it wasn’t until I read Mila’s essay that I understood just how important it is to recognize that adoptee behaviors—even those as serious as eating disorders—are often actually symptoms (or outward representations) of deeper, unaddressed post-adoption issues.
As with all things in adoption, it’s complicated.
—Laura Dennis, Editor of Adoption Therapy, Perspectives from Clients and Clinicians on Processing and Healing Post-Adoption Issues, available on Amazon.
Beauty, Control, and Adoption
the fat drips.
horror of accretion.
inserts a dominance.
my two mamas will meet.
in the Fallopian corridor.
one mother, the conception.
one mother, the virgin.
(God and my mother—
stole my tongue. God and my mother—
replaced it with a new one)
first lap of the white lard.
shift in my sleeves and
the marrow will return.
with its incision. and
until the stalactite ceases.
and the fat
completes the migration.
viscera to dissolution.
dominance of the marrow—
my favorite friend
Below is the postulated equation for optimal attainment of the White American Standard of Unequivocal Beauty (UB)*:
UB = [Celery + Carrots = CC] x [Obsessive Exercising = OE] x [Large Boobs (LB) + Round Eyes (RE) + Blonde Hair (BH) + Long Legs (LL)] – [All Things Asian (ATA)]
*All the above factors of the equation must be applied. Although various measurements of each factor may be applied, no substitutions are permitted. Substitutions or omissions will render the UB factor void. Decreasing the CC and OE factors while increasing LB, RE, BH, and LL factors will produce optimal results. If one can manipulate the ATA factor to equal zero, the UB factor will reach its most desirable state. Warning: When lacking vital components for the above equation, proceed with caution. An imbalanced equation may produce sub-optimal results potentially producing harmful byproducts including SB [SB = Skin and Bones] and even D [D = Death].
* * *
I used to believe that I could force myself to become something I am not.
I used to believe that the above equation, if applied flawlessly, was the answer to my suffering, my sorrow, my perceived inferiority. The equation was my solution to the problem of being me. Of being Yellow in a White World. Of being Lost in a Found World. Of being Taken even though I never asked to be Given. Of forfeiting every piece of myself because that was what others decided was best for me. Of losing complete control over my fate at the hands of those who thought they had a better grasp of my destiny.
I wanted to believe that I had the power to be whoever I wanted to be—because I was raised to believe that it doesn’t matter who you were born to be or to whom you were born. Ultimately, I was trained to think that all that mattered was who others taught me I was supposed to be.
* * *
Hence, I worked compulsively to perfect what components of the equation I could control.
It became my religion.
By the age of sixteen, I had perfected my eating and exercising habits to a scientific precision of routine and counting. Ten carrot sticks in the morning. Ten celery sticks at lunch time. One hour of running, followed by one hour of swimming, followed by starving and starving and more starving.
I was genius in the manipulation and application of the first half of the equation. But it was the second half of the equation that presented far greater difficulty. It seemed that nature would bend, but only so far. Nonetheless, I got it to bend as far as I possibly could.
I got it to bend down to ninety pounds. I got it bend all the way to amenorrhea. To hair loss and adult lanugo. To freezing when it was eighty degrees outside.
But I could not bend the Asian out of me. I could not bend my legs to grow any longer. I could not bend my eyes to become any rounder. My hair stayed black as asphalt and my breasts as small as lemons.
And so my UB factor hovered, ever immobile, ever stagnant.
Yet I had doubtless conviction that the more intimately I approached skin and bones—even death—the closer I got to reaching Unequivocal Beauty.
I even willingly came under the knife.
Is not the ultimate sacrifice to the idol of beautiful to brush lips with death that one may approach immortal exquisiteness?
* * *
I am not seeking pity or even sympathy.
I am simply illustrating the truth that to what we are exposed is what we believe we must be—until we are hopefully fortunate enough to finally realize otherwise.
* * *
Although I recognize now that I cannot bend myself to become something I am not, I am still attempting to realize the otherwise—
I think perhaps it is because I have yet to also fully comprehend that I do not have to choose between one self and the other, and that ultimately, I will never belong to one or the other.
I am of two worlds.
* * *
Yet when you belong neither here nor there, in some ways, the answers you seek will always elude you. But my hope is that in other ways, we can eventually stumble our way to them.
* * *
Ultimately, what was I was trying to bend myself to become? Obviously, I knew that I could not make myself White. Yet I came to lament so intensely that I had not been born the ideal White woman, that I believe my anorexia was a manifestation of an intense self-hate of not only my body, but of my entire appearance, and ultimately, my irrevocable Asianness.
How was I supposed to grow up in a White family within a White World and not wish I was White? Did I ever have a chance of growing up not wishing that my body wasn’t my body, wishing that my face was not my face?
Even if my parents had been racially sensitive or had possessed an inkling of a clue about how growing up the only non-White person in a predominantly White World would affect a person’s self-image, the fact that I was surrounded by White people, White media, White everything at all times made certain that I would grow up hating the color of my skin, the shape and color of my eyes, the blackness of my hair.
Even if my parents had told me every day of my life that I was beautiful and that being Asian was beautiful (my mom and dad did often tell me I was pretty), White parents telling their Asian daughter that she is pretty begins to feel like a lie when her experiences teach her that being an Asian girl is a curse of ugliness, exotification, and exclusion.
I never saw myself reflected in the most important figures in my life. I never saw myself reflected in books or movies. When I did, they were negative stereotypes that made me feel ashamed of everything that made me Asian.
But most importantly, I never saw myself reflected in my own mother—a blonde, blue-eyed, tall, statuesque, Nordic-looking woman. When she told me I was beautiful—with my short and petite stature, flat-chest, flat-face, slanted almond eyes, bridgeless nose, hair black like an oil spill, skin like burnt butter—I could not look at her and see myself reflected in her beauty. We looked nothing alike.
It is hard to express just how profoundly it affected me when I gazed into the mirror and saw what stared back at me—and that the image that I saw did not match the images of the people I called family, friends, neighbors, schoolmates.
Even to this day, no matter how many times I hear, “Oh, but you are so beautiful,” it is immediately deflected as insincere flattery born of pity and condescension. Not that I do not want to believe it. But rather I have been indoctrinated not to believe it. Not intentionally but inevitably.
You cannot grow up in a society that values Whiteness over all other colors and races and ethnicities and hope to develop a healthy self-image without the support of a family and community of your own that teaches you to inherently value what you look like. But transracial adoptees often lack just that. If you never see yourself reflected in positive ways in your family and community, you are destined to grow up with some degree of insecurity and self-loathing regarding your appearance.
And that’s exactly what happened with me as a transracial, transnational adoptee growing up in both a family and community that was White American. It should not be surprising or anomalous that such an upbringing had profound effects on my identity and self-image, and ultimately my psychological health.
But being the only Asian person among a predominantly White community and family is not the only factor that contributed to my development of anorexia.
As the years have passed and I have emerged from the “adoption fog,” I have come to realize that although my anorexia was in part about appearance and trying to bend myself into someone I was not, it was ultimately never about food or weight.
It was about my adoption. It was about control—or the lack thereof.
It was about my loss and grief and the circumstances over which I had no control that determined I would grow up severed and lost from my original family, country, people, culture, and language.
My anorexia was my medicine. My self-inflicted starvation was my coping mechanism—my wholehearted attempt to feel in control. My attempt to discipline my pain, force my grief to submit, numb my loss. It was the muzzle to silence, the reins to control all the emotions that were not allowed to come out, but felt as though they were constantly howling and bucking at the gate.
I could not control the fact that I had no knowledge of who I was or from whom I had come. I could not control the truth that I never knew who my Korean mother was or why she had abandoned me. I could not control all of the racism and prejudice that I experienced amongst “my” predominantly White community. I could not control all the relocating and the repeated loss of friendships and familiarity. I had no control over my life’s circumstances.
So, I found something I could control. Growing up in a home where appearance was of the utmost importance—diets were the norm and perfectionism was the way—anorexia almost came naturally, easily, logically to me.
I learned that appearance was power. And power was control.
So in my subconscious mind if I could make myself appear a certain way, then I would be superior. I would have the power for which I longed. I could gain the sense of control that had eluded me since the day I was born.
The more weight I lost, the more in control, the more empowered I felt. It was addicting. The thrill, the rush I felt when I stepped on the scale and saw that I had lost another pound. The smaller the number, the greater my sense of power.
My anorexia was my power.
It was exhilarating to feel as though I had this power, this control that no one else around me possessed and most importantly, that no one could take away from me. Of course, I realize now it was almost delusional, and absolutely any sense of power or control was nothing but illusion. But it was all that I felt that I had. It was the only way I could feel what I was so desperate to feel: in control of my life and myself.
The truth was that I was only becoming weaker and less in control. Any strength or power that I had was seeping away. The more I tried to become someone I was not, the more I tried to wield power over the truth and get it to submit to illusion, the more unhealthy and lost I became. The more I denied the profound, traumatic effects adoption had on my life, the more trapped and miserable I became.
Of course, at the time, I had no clue that my anorexia was a coping mechanism for dealing with the dormant and latent psychological, social, and familial issues resulting from being adopted. My family was even more clueless. None of us had any awareness of the complexities of adoption, and in particular the complications that come with transracial adoption. I just thought I was crazy.
Now, it makes so much sense.
On top of being an adoptee who had been relinquished as an infant without any say in my fate, I was adopted into a military family. We moved every one to two years. These were not the most ideal circumstances for an adoptee with attachment issues and a fear of abandonment and rejection. The constant moving added loss upon loss. Any notion of control over my own life became nonexistent.
My dad was gone at sea for indefinite periods of time. I never knew when he was coming back—or if he was coming back. Though it was simply his duty, this was very destabilizing and psychologically stressful for a deeply emotional, adopted child like myself.
Combine this instability with a tendency toward perfectionism, a strong focus on appearance within my family, and clear racial disparities—it was the perfect formula for developing anorexia as a coping mechanism.
* * *
Eventually, I overcame my anorexia in physiological terms but not psychologically. Although I was no longer clinically underweight, and the amenorrhea, lanugo, and other symptoms had subsided, controlling my weight remained a coping mechanism.
I ultimately became addicted to laxatives—a seemingly peculiar addiction. But again, it was all about grappling for a sense of order, a way to feel as though I was in control of something tangible. Laxatives helped me to maintain that illusion.
The addiction to laxatives ultimately arose from an almost universal trigger for adoptees—a traumatic break-up. After I graduated from college, I eventually got engaged to a guy I had been dating for almost two years. I had my dress. The church and photographers were reserved. The wedding party was lined up. Then, four months before the wedding, my fiancé broke up with me—without explanation. He simply told me he didn’t think we should get married, didn’t think we should date, and then he got up from the table and that was that. We never talked about it again. Six months later he was married, and I was left trying to make sense of it all.
The use of laxatives quite honestly began innocently. Due to the stress of the break-up, my body just seemed to shut down. So, I started using laxatives. But with a history like mine, I should have known I was entering dangerous territory. One can imagine how an event like a broken engagement could trigger deep-seated adoption issues of abandonment and rejection similar to that of an adoptee’s original relinquishment, and hence, how desperation for control might manifest in unhealthy ways.
As I began to lose weight due to the stress, the memories of the sense of power and control that I had experienced when I was anorexic began to return and flood me emotionally. Slowly but surely I became dependent on laxatives as a way to control my weight and to feel empowered once more.
This lasted for years.
It was not until I eventually married and my husband and I decided to try to have children that I finally became motivated enough to overcome my dependence on laxatives. There were practical steps I had to take to heal my digestive system and body in order to be able to have children. And of course, I had to learn healthy ways to process my adoption issues to be able to implement the practical steps. It was a very difficult process, and one that is ongoing.
I still struggle from time to time with wanting to gain a [illusionary] sense of control by way of controlling what I eat and how much I weigh. And there have certainly been periods in my life when I have hovered at the borderline between anorexia and healthfulness. But I can honestly say that I have no desire to return to anorexia, and I would qualify my relationship with food and weight as generally healthy. To me, this is a satisfying victory with which I am quite content.
* * *
So, in the end, how did I overcome my anorexia and my addiction to laxatives?
The primary realization that has helped me to overcome my anorexia and to cope with my adoption over the years is learning to accept that I will never be in control—that control is ultimately an illusion. Even of those things that I think I can steer or command, I cannot, because life is just too wild, unpredictable and adventurous to submit to control.
But as it pertains to my adoption, I have most importantly had to learn to accept that there is nothing I can ever do to make it right. There is no amount of work or control that I can attempt that will ever bring me complete resolution or closure. This is the only way that I have found peace—to accept that I will never find complete peace over my relinquishment and adoption.
Many others have challenged me on this by telling me that I am wrong, or that I am somehow missing something or that something is wrong with me that I have accepted that I will never completely heal.
But again, my healing is not about control—and that, obviously, includes even letting go of a sense of control over my own process of healing. I cannot force myself to heal in the same way as others. I cannot force myself to feel peace. Rather, for me, it has been about letting go of control and realizing for me personally that complete healing is not my goal, but rather acceptance of all the loose ends and open wounds and unresolved losses and griefs that will always be a part of my life and who I am.
This is my way to healing.
This is my way to being free of anorexia.
This is my way of realizing that control is something I will never have—whether adopted or not adopted, whether Asian or White—I have to let go.
Not of the sorrow and pain and grief, but rather of the expectation, the pressure, the demand that I should either never feel such deep emotion, or only feel them once in my life and then move on.
Being an adoptee is a journey for sure, but not one that is linear or simple.
It is complex and convoluted.
And I’m tired of trying to control it.
All I can do is allow myself to feel what is true.
To me, that is peace, that is healing, that is the only “control” that matters—not trying to control my circumstances to avoid the pain, but freeing myself from the control of others so that I can run toward it, heart-first, and embrace every bittersweet moment, every engulfing emotion that I am fortunate enough to experience now that I am no longer so paralyzed and entrapped by having to control it all.
Because ultimately that’s what the anorexia was about for me—trying to avoid feeling all the pain, sorrow, joy, hurt, hope, love, grief that came with being adopted.
I had to accept that there is no equation—not only for attaining an illusion of ideal beauty, but even more significantly, no equation for managing and controlling the depth of emotion and pain that I have experienced as a transracial adoptee.
My equation for beauty and power was nothing but a hindrance, a poison that kept me emotionally stunted and miserable. It was born out of fear—a fear of feeling, because I was so afraid that if I allowed myself to feel, I would be crushed beneath the burden. I was afraid I would weep so uncontrollably that I would never be able to stop, that the grief would feel so dark that I would never see the light again.
Yet, I have discovered the truth to be quite the opposite. The more I allow myself to feel all of it, the closer I move toward psychological health. And although I still have my moments of weakness, of rage, of fear, more and more these moments give way to strength, vulnerability, tears, which ultimately, can only come when I choose to accept that control is an illusion that too often stands in the way of experiencing true love and whole health.
The more I let go of control, the more I open my heart and mind to feel all the darkness and pain that I feared for so long, the more courage and hope and love and resilience I find—in the end, the more light has opportunity to fill my life.
* * *
Mila C. Konomos is a reunited Korean American transracial adult adoptee. She was born in Seoul, Korea in 1975 and adopted six months later by a White American family. She has been in reunion with her Korean family since 2009. She and her husband have two children. Mila blogs at The Lost Daughters and Yoon’s Blur.