Words by Adeline Tinessia. Illustration by Valerie Yeo.
Trigger warning for bulimia and mentions of disordered eating.
I wake up, turn on my phone, and open Instagram. I scroll through a plethora of well-lit selfies, work out videos, and “candid” photographs, most of which outline the perfect physique of women and girls. Bodies that somehow don’t have any bulges or make any folds, no excess pours out of bikinis, and definitely no double chins in sight. I start the day being reminded that my body is imperfect.
I grab two slices of bread to put in the toaster. Actually, maybe just one. Because society tells me that carbohydrates are evil. I don’t know when I started attaching moral character traits to food.
When I walk around shopping malls, I am bombarded with advertisements to ‘lose weight’ and ‘live a healthy lifestyle’. Diet pills which promise a loss of 5 kg within a week. Shakes which can be used to substitute meals. Products which showcase pictures of women, holding tape measures around their slim waists. I think, “Is this what my body is meant to look like?”
As if these constant reminders to be skinny are not enough, family members, friends and even strangers are always commenting on my body. “Wah, you have to not eat so much rice. You’ll get fatter.” “What boy wants a big girl?” “If only you were slimmer, your face would look prettier.” It’s almost as if my body is public property and, right now, it’s taking up too much space.
I am what one would consider to be “big-boned.” I have more meat on my chest and butt. I have a chunky waist. My biggest dream ever since I was a teenager has been to be a small, petite girl, one that exudes flawlessness in Asian society. One who is considered attractive, one who is desired.
I consider myself a strong woman. It’s not easy to hurt me. I bounce back quickly. But when it comes to how my body looks, I am weak. Being told over and over again by advertising, social media, television, magazines, the people around me that my body is subpar to their expectation of what it’s supposed to be, that I’m far from what a perfect woman looks like, damaged me. As I grew older, the comments on my body became more frequent, a constant part of my everyday life. Slowly, I started believing that I needed to fit the mould that society wanted me to, however wrong it felt.
I don’t know the exact moment I started spiralling into an eating disorder called bulimia. Whenever I felt too full, I would push two fingers into my mouth to the point where I’d throw up. What started off as something I’d do once in a while turned into weekly ritual. Then every day. Then multiple times a day. I would bend over a toilet, spewing out my meals to the point that my body quivered in weakness. I would push out anything and everything that was left in my stomach, and flush it down the drain. It worked. I lost weight. A lot of it.
At the same time, I became addicted to working out. I would run and run and run until I’d feel that I had burnt enough calories. Truth is, it was never enough.
I’d look at myself in the mirror, monitor the “progress” I’ve made, admire how much I’d successfully shrunken myself. Yet, I was unhappy. My skin was dark and dank, my hair was thinning and falling out. My lips were dry and cracked. That was when I began to realise how much my body was suffering, that what I was doing to myself was hurting me. The fact that I was slimmer and multiple sizes smaller didn't make me healthier - instead, it did the complete opposite. As I stood in front of that mirror, I decided it was time for me to put my health first. I went to the doctor, and got a referral for treatment.
I would love to say that my journey to self-love was as easy as going to a café and diving into a piece of cake but reality is often far from what movies or television shows about eating disorders tell us. Eating disorders are a type of mental illness, even though a lot of the symptoms can be physical and/or behavioural. It took years of positive reinforcement from those around me, going to therapy regularly, changing unhealthy habits, and being empowered by reading about and hearing stories from people who themselves had suffered from eating disorders and survived them. It took even longer for me to step out in a bikini in public to show off the flabs on my back, stretch marks on my thighs and cellulite on my stomach. Now I know that these are not excess parts of me, they are just me. Wholly, truly, me.
I still have relapses, and often I go through the same process again, whereby whatever I eat comes out almost immediately. I sometimes look at myself in the mirror, pinch my stomach, and get upset over the fat around my body. When relapse happens, I often feel demoralised and discouraged. It feels as if all the progress I have made has been lost because of a single moment of folly, a momentary loss of control. But then I remind myself that relapses are a natural part of recovery. Healing is not linear.
I am also lucky to have surrounded myself with people who support me and who I can reach out to when I relapse.
Most days, I feel empowered by my body. I am no longer just the inches on my waist or the kilograms on the scale. To me, as long as I feel healthy, then that is all that matters. Healthy doesn’t mean that I can’t eat cookies, or have to eat salad instead of chicken rice. It simply means a balanced lifestyle, where I don’t deny myself the little joys I find in food. Where I no longer view my body as an apology or a burden.
These days, when someone tries to imply that there’s too much of me, I just reply, “nope, I’m healthy”. Through the years, I have built the ability not to let these comments get to me. I am writing this story gladly at 11pm, munching through a box of chocolate wafers, slouching on the couch with rolls on my belly. I just posted a picture of me eating a big piece of crab on Instagram. I have once again found the joy in food, the happiness of being myself. Recovery couldn’t have been more worth it.
Our bodies are our own. And all our bodies are beautiful. Ultimately, we need to stop associating bodies with shame and guilt. We need to stop policing other people’s bodies and own own bodies. If I have one message to share through my story, it is to be kind. Be kind to yourself and be kind to others.
Addy is a part time tea seller, full time student, and 24/7 feminist. An aspiring change-maker, she was born in Jakarta and currently resides in Australia. When she isn’t studying, she can be found in the kitchen, cooking, baking and making herself a glass of gin and tonic.
Valerie is a is a self taught freelance illustrator, and currently a professional ballet dancer with the Singapore Dance Theatre. For more of her works, check out her Instagram.