In middle school, 5-foot-11-inch Yumi Nu would walk down the hall as boys bullied her by calling her “Godzilla” and “Yao Ming.”
Last week, the 24-year-old Japanese and Dutch model and singer-songwriter made history as the first Asian American curve model to appear in the sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue — a feat her younger self never could have fathomed.
“Growing up, I didn’t have someone that looked like me,” Nu told NBC Asian America. “Being able to fulfill this representation role for other people who see me as a role model and to also fulfill that for myself has been super healing.”
Nu said when she did see Asian American women in the media, there was no diversity in terms of size.
The Los Angeles-based Nu is blazing a path for plus-size Asian women, many of whom thank her on social media for helping normalize different types of bodies.
“As Asian Americans, we have this dichotomy of the pressure of Asian culture and what it wants us to be and then American culture, so to have these conversations with fellow people in the same boat has been really nice for me,” Nu said.
“I think a lot of Asian women can relate to our elders talking about weight and body,” she said. “There’s a lot of shame like, ‘Cover up,’ and, ‘Don’t eat so much,’ but also, ‘Don’t waste food.’”
Nu said comments made within the community are often cloaked in concerns about health, but she believes fatphobia is part of patriarchal Asian cultures.
“I grew up under it and my mom grew up under it,” Nu said. “It’s years and years and years of that instilled in that culture. I understand the concern and intention, but living with that little voice of how I should be, at least for my Asian side, was really difficult.”
Nu said body-shaming and society’s rampant pressure to be thin led to body dysmorphia and a rejection of her Asian background.
“I felt like I was less worthy for being Asian because I felt like an outsider being so tall,” Nu said. “All I wanted to do was be white, to be white enough to fit in and not be called Godzilla.”
One of only two Asian kids at her Maryland school, Nu said she experienced a pair of disturbing incidents of racism during her childhood.
When she was around 12, she said, Nu and her mother were walking in public when a skinhead with a Confederate flag screamed at them. Around the same time, Nu and her sister were seated in their dad’s car when a man looked at the girls and spit on the vehicle.
At age 14, Nu’s family moved to the Newport Beach, California home where her mother and uncles — one being DJ Steve Aoki — were raised.
A year later, she began writing music on a ukulele and released her first song at age 16. As a teen, Nu modeled on occasion, but the plus industry wasn’t fully formed, so she took a hiatus from being in front of the camera.
During that time, beauty standards were evolving and expanding, and Nu said she learned to love her body with the help of role models such as Ashley Graham and Hunter McGrady.
Nu has since walked runways for designers such as Jason Wu and Jacquemus and appeared in Vogue and campaigns for H&M and SKIMS.
In addition to modeling, Nu honed in on her artist voice and wrote new music during the pandemic. Her first single, the dreamy post-breakup tune “Pots and Pans,” was released in June. Nu said she plans to call her forthcoming EP “Hajime,” which means “beginning” in Japanese, since she feels she is starting a new chapter in a mentally healthy place.
Nu is also at work on a plus-size apparel collection that she hopes to debut later this year.
“I’ve worked in plus-size fashion for so long, and also being a customer, I feel like I’ve done so much research and worn every possible company’s clothes,” Nu said.
“For years, there was a lot of shame around my body,” she said. “It made it hard for me to flaunt the curves I had for a while. I was putting my worth and value on what people thought of me. Now, I have the power over my own life and how I feel.”