Sometimes I congratulate myself for achieving this social victory. The victory that social media influencers and popular media preach in their #loveyourself campaigns. The victory that admonishments like oi leng moi meng, a Cantonese saying about prioritising life over beauty, celebrates. The victory of body positivity.
I replaced targeted fat-reducing workouts with yoga centered on flexibility. I chased away the voices in my head that drove me to fastidiously count my calories. I distanced myself from all weighing scales and body measurement tools.
My size doesn’t matter, I told myself.
I was free.
In the beginning, I found it difficult to embrace body positivity. I wanted to adopt the mindset because of encouragement from the media and exhaustion from fighting myself. I couldn’t imagine continuing life like this — prolonging hunger by hours to cut down my meals each day, swapping rice for salads, and pushing myself to do one more squat.
But freedom is not won easily.
How could I look at my unflat stomach in the mirror and see beauty? How could my thighs that easily rubbed together be good? How could my arms that jiggled when I flicked at them bring anything but disgust?
There was nothing good about my body. There was nothing beautiful about being fat.
I struggled for years to change the way I saw myself. My fists poised a little higher and struck back each time I chanted to myself ‘You will never be skinny enough’. The thought was an empowering, albeit slightly bleak, way to finally escape from the longtime captor of my thoughts — skinniness. Each time someone commented about my body, I retorted with ‘it doesn’t matter’. And I began to believe just a little more that my size truly doesn’t matter.
Nowadays, I don’t think about my body too much. I don’t fuss over my diet. I don’t exercise to the point of exhaustion trying to lose a few more calories.
But that isn’t really body-positivity. It’s body apathy.
I don’t measure myself on weighing scales, not because I don’t care, but because I am afraid of the numbers I will see. I find solace in not knowing. But pretending that a part of myself doesn’t exist does not equate to love. In fact, it’s worse than hate because at least in hate I acknowledge myself. Now, I simply refuse to see.
I pretend that my choice of apples over bananas is because they taste better. But am I sure it isn’t because I know apples have fewer calories than bananas?
I pretend each time I practice yoga that I try harder because I want to be more flexible, stronger. But am I sure my captor is not seducing me with the thought that yoga too might make me slimmer?
I am not at war with myself anymore because I’ve refused to acknowledge the enemy of my mind. The shackles are still solidly around my feet. I’ve become the poster child for Stockholm syndrome, telling myself I am free when I am clearly not because a part of me still longs to be beautifully skinny. My actions tell a different story than my endeavors to rip myself away from those fantasies.
I exercise fervently telling myself I want to be healthy. Yet, I hope it will slim me down. I skip meals telling myself I want to save money. Yet, I hope it will pull down my calorie count. I avoid weighing scales telling myself I don’t care about a number. Yet, I hope the number will keep falling. I keep pretending things have changed. Yet, nothing has.
I trained myself to be apathetic, to erase the very idea of weight from my mind, only to realise that the only thing I have scrubbed away is my self-awareness.
Sigh… Doesn’t it feel like I’m back at square one?
I struggle to change because for as many messages that preach body positivity — there is a subtle one that tells otherwise.
Don’t I hear a twinge of disappointment when my relatives tell me I’ve gotten bigger since the last time they saw me? Isn’t that a hint of a smile I see when they think I’ve gotten thinner?
Don’t I hear a hint of pride when my friends tell me how little they’ve been eating? Isn’t that dissatisfaction I see when they mention that they’ve had too many carbs?
Am I imagining things? Aren’t these the same people who tell me that my health matters above all else? But the message I am getting here is that health matters, after you’re skinny.
Most of the time, I can’t help but agree. It is difficult to un-love skinny beauty. I’ve read countless articles about how weight loss is not always the answer, about how skinniness rose as an aesthetic preference, about the value of loving yourself. Yet, I can’t help but be drawn to the aesthetic and social value of skinny beauty.
I love bodycon dresses, bob-cuts and crop tops. I love flat stomachs, protruding collarbones and thigh gaps. I love seeing the number on the weighing scale go down, hearing praise on my weight loss and watching myself become smaller.
I struggle to feel at peace in my own skin, drowning out negativity with apathy, flushing down any disparaging thought against my own body before it even surfaces. This is war, and I am on the defensive.
But I remember different days where there was true peace in my mind, where I looked at myself and didn’t think of anything, where I acknowledged my size and accepted it as much a part of me as I did my hair colour or ears. I remember days in my childhood when I didn’t avert my eyes pretending not to care because skinny beauty simply did not matter to me.
Then, I grew up and skinny beauty mattered. I chased after it, a plastic trophy marking my win in society.
I’ve finally become everything everyone ever wanted. I’ve finally tortured my body to fit into a mould that does not fit me. I’ve come to claim my prize. I’ve come to claim your affection.
This is my hero’s journey, isn’t it? After all, don’t all the fairytales tell it that way? Don’t they all start with the fair princess whose whole entire arc is propelled by her beauty? Don’t the beautiful win in real life too?
I know my limits. I know I cannot sustainably stay at 48 kilos any more than I can grow another 10 centimetres. I know I cannot have a less round face any more than my foot can fit into size 8 shoes. But there is a distinction between the constraints and obstacles of my body — the parts I cannot feasibly change — and the parts perseverance and strength can. The toes I can touch when I could only reach my shins before, the new-found confidence I feel in dresses.
These victories were important to me because they were privileges I believed skinny beauty monopolised. I believed my stomach fat prevented my body from bending, even though I’ve seen large people touch their toes. I believed dresses were designed for the skinny, even though they were designed for all different body types. I proved my own fallacious thoughts wrong, victorious without skinny beauty
Yet, the battle rages on.
For until I reach the point where I can look at a weighing scale without fear, walk past a mirror without assessing the flatness of my stomach, see myself truly and say ‘this is beautiful’. Until then, I know I have not won this war, I know I remain a captive to skinny beauty.
Author’s Note: For those who saw themselves in these words, I hope you find comfort knowing you are not alone.