Words by Kristian-Marc James Paul
Illustration by Divyalakshmi Suressh
[Trigger warning for body dysmorphia, bulimia, and vivid descriptions of self-harm.]
Today I look appalling.
I looked like this yesterday too.
And I’ve looked appalling since I was twelve years old.
I mean yeah I know, I know this is gonna be work. So it’s fine la, we can talk about it… Errr… okay. Where would you like me to start? I suppose you want me to try and recall the first instance right or something? Like when I actually started looking at my body in this way or whatever? Errr… alright… So I remember opening this letter in front of my mum and instantly we jump for joy. Because I’m going to School of the Arts after primary school. My mum and I are damn happy obviously, but I remember my dad just standing there. Just staring at the floor. And after a while, he finally looks up and says, “Why don’t we try a regular secondary school for a year?” I knew la. I knew what he was afraid of. I mean his son, his only son, hangs out with girls, you know draws, acts, that kind of thing. Is overweight! I remember he used to make these remarks about how he was so surprised that I could finish a whole tub of Neopolitan ice cream in one seating. But I think above all that, he probably thought, my son doesn’t play any sports… what the hell’s gonna happen to him once he goes to an arts school right?
I wash my hands in the bathroom sink. Sediments of chewed-up, mushy dinner and gobs of saliva trickle off the tips of my fingers as the running waters hit my skin; flushing away the mistakes. Cleansing my hands. Leaving no trace of what they have done, of what they are used for, of what they’re complicit in.
Okay so we’re running late for our family friend’s Easter dinner. Aunty Betty. That’s her name. And my mum is banging on my door you know, asking me to hurry up and I keep telling her and telling her that I just need five more minutes. She gets impatient. And comes barging in and I am caught completely off guard la. And then I see her face change and I see tears start to form in her eyes and that makes me start tearing too. I just felt so fucking embarrassed and ashamed in that moment. Fuck it la, I thought. I surrender. So I drop my hands from beneath my armpits and there I am, half naked, with small rectangular bits of masking tape over my nipples. Just standing there, crying in front of my mum. I had a crush on this girl. Debbie. And Debbie was gonna be at Aunty Betty’s house. I mean, I didn’t want her to think that I was fat or anything you know? Was the tape gonna cover those man breasts? No la, of course not. But I mean, worth a shot right?
It makes me fucking antsy. I just get so pissed at my body. You see, my belly button’s damn high. So it means that my lower abdominals are really long, so it looks like I always have a ponch. This thing that’s just hanging and drooping. I’m born with really thick obliques also. Like a genetics thing or something la I guess. But it looks like I perpetually have love handles. These fucking…sacks of meat just glued on to my body… I’ve tried sinking my fingers into my body to try and rip those parts off. I cannot la, there are times where… wow… I just… want them gone. Those lumps sticking out from the sides, from front of my body. I want them gone. In my first year in uni I remember. I stood in front of our toilet mirror and dug my hands deep into my body and I just screamed and screamed and screamed. Not because of the blood that was seeping out from my tummy and obliques. But… from the futility. After that I just went back to using my hands for my throat la. At least that I can control. Somewhat la. Better than nothing I guess.
I gargle my mouth and turn the tap off. My stomach growls. I can’t tell if I’m full or hungry. I can’t tell if I feel filled or hollow.
I remember ending at 4 when I was Sec 2 and just rushing straight home. I’d try to brisk-walk, to get the heart pumping a little. I always started with Bohemian Rhapsody. My playlist was called “workout time” I remember. On my iPod classic. I mean it’s a pretty long song la so once it finished, I knew that I was a good way through my jog on the treadmill. My mum owned a treadmill so I’d come home every day at 4.30 and just run and run. Sometimes I’d just keep pressing back and repeat Bohemian Rhapsody over and over again. Just five more Bohemian Rhapsody’s and I’m done. Just three more. Just one more. My heart was always on fire and my stomach always felt like it was going to explode. And once I was done, I’d get off and I’d immediately throw up. But I’d always be damn happy if I threw up and like…didn’t expel else. Because a lot of the times I’d throw up and also lose control of my bowels. All at once. There was once right, where I was just so dizzy and I couldn’t see or walk straight and my stomach was churning and churning and I didn’t make it fast enough to the toilet la. And well, yeah…I had to throw away those shorts.
Ya I lost weight la. After that period of just running and running I did become skinny but like…not the good kind you know? This was when I was like 16? My arms and legs were quite thin sure, but I was still carrying this tummy around. This balloon. I had this overseas service trip to Phuket and I remember my friends going to the beach for our R&R day? And I didn’t want to go near the water at all la. They kept shouting at me, asking me to come play with them in the water. I kept saying, nah it’s cool, I’ll just sit under the shade. Too hot, too hot. Don’t like sand. All these things to avoid them. And they kept pushing and pushing, teasing me, splashing me with water and then I said, guys, I’m Indian. Indians don’t swim. And they laughed and I laughed along and they stopped and left me alone…I mean it’s true though! I’m not that strong a swimmer and really, all the Indians I know don’t swim either. Like all of them. But you know la, you know it was an excuse. I just didn’t want to have to take my top off. I didn’t want people to see that fucking balloon. And till this day, I still use the same excuse.
I let out a cough, a burp, I don’t know. Seems like there’s still a little bit of dinner left in me. Curry debal from Quentin’s- not as good as my mum’s though.
I don’t like Christmas anymore. I went off like my clean eating diet of like chicken breasts and salads and stuff for like two weeks in December last year, you know, to enjoy my mum’s Christmas cooking for a bit. She cooks all these nice Eurasian food. All these curries and roasts and it’s damn shiok. But those two weeks still haunt me. I regret it la. I really do. Because I’ve put on fat. That fucking ponch feels like it’s pushing against my skin, like it’s spilling out. I don’t look good and because of that I don’t feel good.
One final quick rinse of my mouth and I’m done. A flicker of movement catches my eye and I look up, curious. I catch my reflection staring straight at me from beyond the bathroom mirror. Hissing in my head.
I hear voices in my head la. When I think about my body. When I look at it. It’s like this incessant whining and screeching. It’s like it keeps drilling into my skull over and over again. All the time. And it’s always telling me that I’ll never look good. I mean it seems true la. Something always seems to creep up and shit on my plans. I’m tired la. But I’m also just so fucking scared. I’ve never been happy with how I look…and I think I never will be.
Today I look appalling.
I looked like this yesterday too.
And I will look appalling tomorrow.
Kristian is deeply invested in deconstructing gender and other social inequities in Singapore. He also helps run a student-led gender dialogue group in Yale-NUS College. Kristian also loves to act, write short stories about Singapore and eat Pandan Cake.
Div is a multidisciplinary artist and activist who often works with themes of ethnic and queer identity. Their website can be found at here and their Instagram account is instagram.com/crispy_prata_sucks.