An Áo Dài’s Embrace

A piece originally published on Medium republished on Project Ava with permission from our Storyteller, Olyvia Chac-Nguyen. Learn more about the Storyteller Program.


Standing at 5’3″ and making weight as a super heavyweight boxer, wearing a áo dài was something far beyond how I wanted to display my “curves”. The traditional áo dài captures the grace, elegance, and figure of a Vietnamese woman. It’s a dress that covers everything yet hides nothing. The slimming dress for an hourglass waist accompanied by a pair of hip-hugging pants. It was the perfect representation of the Vietnamese woman finesse. The thought of a áo dài molding to my pudgy body could never materialize in my mind.

The stresses my mother had to overcome during my well child check ups with my pediatrician; ever since I was old enough scoop my own bowl of rice. The doc’s after-visit summary advised to “be sure to monitor your eating habits and make sure you feel hungry before you want to eat. Let’s keep monitoring your weight until our next visit.” Mom never left the office without asking the pediatrician for children weight loss pills. Every. Single. Time. She hoped my 12-years-old thunder thighs and expanded waistline could be fixed with a pill. I don’t blame her, though. She has watched too many American commercials about some new fad magical diet pill that aired on channel 2 — the only channel we had. That, combined with a middle school education and lack of English competency, was a reason she dragged me to every grocery store visit to decipher extensive food and nutrition labels.

I am 120% sure I suffered from teenage angst and self-destruction. It wasn’t an urge to be rebellious that provoked me so much as the subject of my physical appearance. My distorted views of body image fell into the statistics of many U.S. young adult females with poor mental health. I, and those around me, knew that I was on the outskirts of the outskirts of society’s standards. Not only did I not look like an American, I did not look like a Vietnamese woman with a wraparound waist, long jet black hair, delicate, and with a soft voice. Instead, puberty blessed me with a deep tenor of a voice — granting me the honor of being called “sir” occasionally. My shoe size runs over the average U.S. females’. My favoring a short hairstyle didn’t place me in the “strut with confidence” category.

Reflecting on my teen years, I denied myself the right to feel beautiful and comfortable. I adamantly believed that beauty evolved with privilege (skinny people privilege) and was reserved for size 4 waistlines and my exceptionally gorgeous friends with closets cluttered with clothing and, most importantly, an elegant, flowy áo dài that captured their petite figures beautifully. The word “privilege”, as a WoC, has invaded my life in aspects aside from my body image. Adding a thickened layer of oppression onto my identity as I navigate life.

This privilege tied my tongue when I wanted to ask a classmate to the senior prom. It held my tongue when I should have voiced that the pulchritude buxom-blonde high school valedictorian cheated on a calculus exam. It silenced me from pairing and uttering the words “Olyvia” and “beautiful” together.  The lump in my throat obstructed me from verbally tearing apart each of my petite female friends’ when they had the privilege to try on a size 6 dress and then had the audacity to call themselves “fat”. I coped with the aggression solely within my head and dissociated myself from the social behavior of “skinny” people.


I built a wall around all the commotion from my environment or you could call it “teenager-ism” and diverted my energy towards focusing on achieving scholarly and placing myself in the top seat of my graduating class. The teen years I kept my silence were the years I prayed that college would arrive quicker and I would be freed from the juvenile judgment and ridicule. And Buddha answered my prayers in the form of a couple of dear merit-based scholarships and an acceptance letter to Oregon State University. During my Salutatorian speech at my high school graduation, I shared with the audience my journey of how I was able to stand in front of them with my head held high; accepted for my merit. Layers of my shame dissipated and were replaced with a new coat of courage.

Leaving the comfort of my hometown for college, I began an arduous journey of discovering identities, environment, and support that would guide me to my true self. It began as a brief but isolated beginning. I lied on my creaking dormitory bed the second week of fall quarter, clutching myself to keep from crying. I lived in a single-room residence hall so the weeping did not interrupt anyone’s REM cycle — just my sense of sanity. For three torturous hours, I lied there rocking my limp body back and forth, praying the deathly feeling of loneliness would be eviscerated from my soul.

Amidst the moist cheeks and comfort rocking, my dad’s parting words erupted in my head:

“con nhớ luôn luôn chăm học để con co một tương lai rat la sáng. Mặc dù sẽ co một số thứ sẽ rất khó, con nhớ không bỏ cuộc và cuối cùng con sẽ thành công. Nhớ cố gắng nhe con?”

“I want you to remember to remain focused on your studies because you have a bright future ahead of you. Although you may face certain challenges, don’t ever give up. Don’t ever give up, Olyvia.”

My whimpering subsided and my snot-filled nostrils clearing, I dragged my feet to the bathroom. As I washed my swollen eyes, I stared intensely in the mirror. My mother’s almond-shaped hazel eyes and witty intelligence. The undying gumption and endless resilience from my father. The reflection of my father’s daughter who wasn’t born a quitter.

My dad’s words shot some sanity and saved me from the temporary crisis. The role of Filial Piety revived me from my mental psychosis. My father raised me as the oldest daughter, to be the first to encounter and navigate the Vietnamese-American identity, the first to receive the privilege of being an American-born, educated female. Privilege began to become mine. The labels I received as WoC, I embraced them. The label I embraced the most was “plus-sized”. It was a part of my identity that I could not hide nor pretend it was not real. Facing the mirror each morning no longer involved regret or self-loathing.

An old mentor once gifted me with this wisdom: “don’t pretend to be someone other than yourself. People can see the real you and if you keep being yourself, people will naturally be attracted to you and gravitate towards you.” I swore by this wisdom through my undergrad. I slowly received the privilege that was mine. I accomplished and experienced more opportunities than my parents could have ever hoped for me. I was fortunate as well to find a core group of friends from my Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) at Oregon State. They granted me the gift of family and has become a continual support system in my life. I met individuals, mentors, and influential characters who have played supportive roles in unconditionally shaping my perspective of life. Leadership, acceptance, dedication, and patience are the pieces of life this organization has imprinted in my mind, body, and heart. Most importantly, they showed me how to love and accept the most relevant person in existence: me, my plus-sized self, and I. Seek beauty from within and not from throughout yourself.

Now when I see an authentic and flawlessly crafted áo dài, the ones my younger sister wears during large Buddhist celebrations or for the engagement receptions of dear friends, I see the elegance, grace, and finesse of a Vietnamese woman. But I am also witness to how the finesse of Vietnamese woman has transformed living as a plus-sized Vietnamese American woman. True definition of a real Vietnamese woman exists from the following: 1) it is not through her physical presence but her sincere demeanor to act with principle, dignity, and carry the traditions of our people 2) beauty is not found on the surface but from within and the journey of realizing true beauty — not vanity — is how raw charm will illuminate and attract others and 3) to be resilient through the most arduous of situations and to respond to chaos, distress and begin to heal from the pain is to act with warm actions and simply embrace.

Ava Love,

Olyvia Chac-Nguyen

Last Updated: August 24, 2016

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