No Body is Perfect
Our bodies are just a collection of lungs, intestines, kidneys, spleen, bladder, blood. At the most fundamental level, we’re all made up of carbon atoms. Yet, our brains morph these physical components into sources and instruments of self-hatred. A few fat cells can trigger a whirlwind of emotions, the heaviness of anguish intertwining with a gallimaufry of guilt, shame, rage and regret. Some of us put cloth over mirrors and live under the pretence that everything is okay. Some of us form love-hate relationships with food that are taken to extremes. Some of us go red pounding pavements, even though what we’re running away from will never leave us. Some of us go under the knife, yet the more we chisel our external bodies, the more we chip away our internal selves. And whose image are we trying to recreate? The lingerie-clad supermodels on the Victoria’s Secret runway? Every female celebrity, actress, singer, sex symbol, with a waistline that keeps shrinking as their fame and wealth surge? Coupled with cultural pressures, unintentional self-objectification and societal messages that propagate the thin-ideal standard of female beauty, we become walking time bombs, bursting at the seams. The 2016 Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report, one of the most extensive studies on female beauty around the world, revealed that more women and girls are suffering from low body confidence. Worse, 85% of the women admitted to skipping significant life events and activities when they feel ugly, and 70% of the girls tended to avoid asserting their opinions and sticking to their decisions when afflicted with low body esteem. While body negativity seems like a physical issue, it is in fact, a mental struggle linked to disorders such as depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. There’s no telling what lies beneath a woman’s veneer of composure, whether she’s hiding behind humour, a sparkling personality, or a bold combination of false lashes and lip gloss. Coming from all walks of life and role models in their own right, these five women share their individual journeys towards self-acceptance, how they’ve wrestled with themselves, lost and won fights, and where they are today.
High Net Worth: What does body positivity mean to you?
Preeti Nair (24, comedienne, also known as Preetipls): Being accepting of your own body and also the bodies of others around you.
Cheryl Tay (32, founder of Rock The Naked Truth): Accepting my body for what it is and being proud of what my body is able to do! We are our harshest critics and it’s very easy to find flaws with oneself. This is where body positivity is very important because it means being able to see past your insecurities and embracing what you have.
Munah Bagharib (30, actor and host): It means wanting to create the best version of your body, mind and health.
Cheryl Wee (31, founder of Cheryl W. Wellness and Weight Management): It’s about finding and loving your best possible self. Everyone’s optimum weight and definition of what’s beautiful differs. It’s only through respecting our bodies that we get in tune with what’s best for our bodies to be truly healthy from within. To me, that’s the new sexy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a size 0 or 12, as long as you’re healthy and on a mission to be the best version of yourself. That, to me, is embracing body positivity.
Alison Carroll (30, co-founder of BalletBody and former professional ballet dancer): Being comfortable in your own skin.
What’s your relationship with your body?
Bagharib: I think we are okay now, my body and I. We understand each other better now and most importantly, I listen to it when it tells me I need to rest or slow down. I used to not care about what I do to my health, physically and mentally, but it drains you out and makes you less productive. Plus, you only have one life. Make sure you do all you can to take care of yourself and only then, can you take care of others. Honestly, it took me a long time to have a good relationship with my body.
Nair: It's 100% a love-hate relationship. Some days I feel like, "Damn, I look fine!" and other days I'm more than okay to not step in front of a mirror.
Carroll: I have a positive relationship with my body, but this has only come in recent years. I think with age, I've become more confident with myself and how I look.
Tay: I used to hate my body a lot for a good 13 years of my life from the age of 18. I felt fat, ugly and that I wasn't good enough. I struggled with eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, and I really hated myself so much that at one point, I was even harming myself (scratching myself till I bled as punishment). I just kept thinking being skinny is beautiful, and I became obsessed with the digits on the scale, doing everything I could to bring the numbers down. At my most extreme, I was running 20km in the morning, 6km in the evening and doing 2 to 3 hours of kickboxing at night. It was a really terrible place to be in. I lost over 20kg but was still very unhappy with myself. It's like this downward spiral, a never-ending road to misery. Finally, at 30, I realised that my body is capable of so many things. A friend introduced me to weightlifting and I was like, “Oh wow, the body is amazing.” From there, I started doing CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting. I threw out all concepts of wanting to be skinny because being thin doesn't mean you're healthy or strong. I finally accepted my body for what it is.
Wee: I never thought that I would develop an eating disorder because I was so aware. It was around 2013 when I dived into the acting world. It was my childhood dream and it meant so much that I felt a responsibility to be thin because everyone around me in that circle would body shame themselves. Everything was about weight, dieting, and being thinner. I started to second-guess my body—I went from 49kg to 45kg, then I dropped to 42kg and I wanted to lose even more weight. It was just never enough. I felt I was never enough. For 4 years, I hated my body. I couldn’t even look in the mirror after I showered. I would put myself through extreme diets, liquid fasts, sometimes eating only 300 to 400 calories a day. I ended up binging on “cheat days”. It was physical and mental torture. I felt like I was in a jail in my head, always thinking of the next diet, crying if I ate a normal meal. I had secondary amenorrhea for the longest time. I always wondered why I wasn’t born thin and what was wrong with me. Eating was a love-hate relationship. It occupied my mind every second of the day that I couldn’t even enjoy the things I used to love. I shunned my family and friends, fearing they’d say I’d put on weight. I didn’t want to have to eat with them and gain weight as a result either. It was a tough 4 years but I’m grateful for it because now, I learnt to appreciate my body. I know my vulnerabilities and I understand what it’s like to hate the only vessel we have.
How do you see yourself and your body?
Nair: In a mirror. [laughs] Just kidding. Some days are better than others, but honestly, it’s a day-to-day journey of me learning how to love myself.
Bagharib: I see myself and my body as one entity now. It's not just a vessel I'm living in. It's me, all me, and I need to be proud of what I have and take care of it.
Tay: Right now, I'm very happy with my body. I'm actively competing in Ironman triathlons and it has shown me how the body is able to keep pushing limits, so long as the mind wills it. I am focused on performance and health now, rather than aesthetics and appearance. I don't bother with the digits on the scale and I eat whatever I want!
Wee: Somehow by God’s grace, it was only during my pregnancy that I completely healed. Even after I got married, I had this little fear at the back of my head that if I got pregnant, I’d put on way too much weight because I’d now have a reason to binge. But thankfully, things turned out for the better. I was experiencing really bad morning sickness and had a strong aversion towards desserts or anything sweet, which cured my sugar addiction and bad eating habits. I had to eat small regular meals and focus on nourishing this other life inside of me. It wasn’t just about me anymore. In those 40 weeks, I re-learnt how to eat, focusing on whole fresh foods which I craved, eating regularly and doing light exercises. I appreciated my body for carrying this little life. I realised that without the sugar highs I could function properly, think better, and work more efficiently. I could also focus on working on my relationship with others, and enjoy having a meal with my friends. I was so much happier. After giving birth, losing weight wasn’t my top priority. Instead, it was to eat enough so I could breastfeed. Now I see my body as a friend I have for life. I have to keep my body strong for my family and the ones who stuck by me through the good and bad, so I can do the same for them.
What do you love most about your body?
Wee: That I can actually grow a human being! Our bodies are amazing works of art; each unique in its own way right down to our DNA, and that’s what makes us beautiful. Wouldn’t it be boring if each body is made the same? We’d be robots. What intrigues me the most is that we’re all special, from our brain to our skin, size and shape.
Nair: I love being curvy and thicc.
Tay: I love that it’s able to take me through something as mentally and physically challenging as an Ironman (which consists of 3.8km of swimming, 180km of cycling and a full marathon). I love that the body is very smart and if you don't treat it well, it will respond accordingly.
Bagharib: I know I'm strong but I also know when not to push myself too much. It's about finding that balance between wanting to get stronger and knowing when to back down to recover.
What insecurities do you have about your body?
Bagharib: So many! I can always pick on almost anything and everything! But that's a choice. I've learnt that yes, everyone has insecurities, but you can choose not to let them bother you. You have the power to not let it bring you down. You can accept that yes, I have flaws but I also have attributes that make me beautiful and unique. Every time I find myself feeling insecure, I have to consciously tell myself no—this doesn't help anything. It doesn't do anyone any good.
Tay: I used to think my thighs were too big, my boobs were too small, my arms too flabby (and for many years I refused to wear sleeveless tops). Now I don't feel insecure about these things anymore. The only things I think about are performance-related, for example, how I can improve my timings and get stronger.
Wee: I think us ladies are more susceptible to body insecurities, and I’ve come to realise that the prettiest, sexiest Victoria’s Secret ladies, who seem flawless, have major insecurities too. It’s probably not a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t cripple us. After all, we’re human. It’s normal to have insecurities, but don’t let that get the better of you. And don’t let other people’s insecurities become yours. After having a baby, my tummy is different, and my skin is drier, but I’m somehow more accepting of myself than I thought I’d be. Because my focus is on something bigger than myself—that is my family, my baby, my future, and my career. I need my body to carry me through it all, so I have to overlook my insecurities and carry on with what’s more important in my life now.
Nair: I definitely still struggle with my weight and I think I’m finally at a stage where I’m mostly okay with how my body looks. However, I understand that the main priority here is my own health, so I’m now at a point where I want to focus on getting fit (don't get me wrong, skinny is never the goal—I will always want to be thicc), not because I don’t like the way I look but because I don’t think this is the best version of myself just yet.
Carroll: Being a former professional ballet dancer, there were many insecurities that came with body image. Training and being in front of a mirror every day for 8 hours a day and constantly striving for perfection in the art form can be quite challenging. However, I've learnt to embrace my imperfections and love that they are what makes me, me.
What are your struggles with body image?
Carroll: Having a rather athletic figure is something I used to struggle with. But like I mentioned, I’ve learnt to embrace it!
Wee: I used to think I’m not good enough, not thin enough, not beautiful enough, too round here, too fat there. I hated myself and my body.
Nair: I definitely have issues with my weight, especially when I was younger. It really affected me when I was unable to find clothing in my size. Now that I’m older I’ve learnt to shop online.
Tay: Body image is defined by how you perceive yourself, not how society views you, not what your parents or friends think of you. In terms of appearance, I'm not insecure anymore. I am very proud of my body and it's going to be with me for the rest of my life, so I am going to take good care of it.
Bagharib: It's when you see someone else who looks entirely perfect to you, and think, “Why isn't that me?” I look at myself and pick on every single flaw, and tell myself that I don't look good enough. Always wanting more than I already have. It's also sometimes what people expect from you and how you should look like. But your body is yours and you choose how you take care of it. You choose your image and what you want to do with it and no one can interfere with that.
What do you do to love and embrace yourself?
Tay: I think it’s important to find something that gives you confidence. For me, I enjoy working out a lot and I feel good about myself after I finish a workout. It could be something as simple as a 30-minute swim or run, but I'm grateful that I am able to move freely without pain and enjoy sports.
Wee: During my darker years, I went on a couple of health retreats and cleanses to “find myself” and “eat clean”. I would say that it worked for a period of time when I was there. But once I came back to reality, I realised that if I didn’t accept what was really going on deep down inside, no amount of clean eating would help to make me feel loved. When I couldn’t handle things anymore, I saw a psychologist. It really was a journey to love and embrace myself, which involved feeding myself right, accepting myself as I am, and loving outside of ourselves. When I focus on loving someone else, be it lending a hand to a friend or doing something for someone I care about, my inside world healed. Perhaps we’re put on this earth to help each other grow and flourish within.
Bagharib: I look at what I'm grateful for in life and the people I surround myself with. I love being the person who takes care of the people I love, especially my mum. I want to be there for her always and I know I need to be stable on my own first (mentally, physically and emotionally) in order to be the best person I can be for her. I think that's what motivates me and I tell myself to be grateful all the time.
Nair: I spend time with the important people in my life, and focus on things that make me happy. A good example would be the passion projects I have in mind. There’s no better way to show self-love than working towards making my dreams a reality.
Carroll: Things can get quite hectic at work so I’m always making time for myself, be it by sitting at a cafe sipping on tea alone, or getting a nice long massage. My "me time" is very important to me!
How do you tackle days when you don’t feel beautiful?
Tay: During the PMS period, I get bloated and the water retention makes me feel fluffy. That annoys me sometimes but it doesn't bother me to a point where I think I'm not beautiful. Beauty is not about looking sexy in a tight dress. Beauty is having the confidence and assurance about yourself. So I don't have days where I don't feel beautiful! But for those who do, I suggest being kinder towards yourself and learning how to appreciate the positive points about yourself. And stop comparing!
Wee: In the past, I would binge. I would have a double scoop ice cream on a cone, a huge, creamy slice of cake, a cream puff, loads of Oreos, chocolate, bread, whatever sweets and desserts I laid my eyes on in one sitting. These days, I’m not even sure because I don’t take note of what I eat. I’ll remind myself to show up for the day, unless I really feel like crap (then I’ll let myself indulge for that one day). I’ll talk it out with my closest friends, my husband, my sister, my cousins and cry if I need to. When I receive love from them, I’d feel better. On days I feel puffy, bloated or just not in the mood, I’ll have a nice shower, put on something nice that makes me feel good, like an accessory or my engagement ring, and say a prayer to bless the day. If all else fails, I’ll binge-watch comedies I love on Netflix.
Carroll: I don't try to tackle them. Instead, I try and find one thing that makes me feel good and embrace that it’s okay not to feel great every day.
Bagharib: It's hard but I know it's a mindset that comes and goes, and it doesn't help to be in that negative space. I'm generally pretty happy-go-lucky and I just have to remember that as much as there are bad things, there is also good in me and in people, so we might as well focus on that.
Nair: On tough days, I’d like to think I prefer being alone and keeping to myself, but after doing that, I realised it’s probably really unhealthy to be alone with your thoughts when you’re feeling down. So I try to surround myself with people who love me for me, flaws and all. It helps to hang out with my dog too—that always works.
In recent years, have you been kinder and more forgiving towards yourself?
Tay: Yes, definitely! I used to compare myself with my friends and that made me feel awful. I would also follow a lot of fitness models and use their photos as my handphone wallpaper for motivation, but I ended up making myself feel worse. We are often our harshest critics, so we need to learn to be kinder to ourselves. Ultimately, we only have one body to live in for the rest of our lives and no matter how much money you have, you can never swap parts with anyone (I can't go and pay someone to give me their boobs or legs). So why don't we just learn how to appreciate what we have and stop wishing for what we don't have?
Nair: Yes, for sure. I used to be really insecure, especially because I got bullied for things like my name, weight and race in secondary school but yeah, I’ve definitely started embracing everything about myself in recent years.
Bagharib: I have actually. I think being that person who used to push like crazy and then suffer for it, gave me a wake-up call. I realised I cannot just push without giving myself some downtime and recovery time. I also know I cannot look perfect and be perfect. I have flaws and now I embrace them and work with what I've got. As long as you keep yourself happy, nothing can bring you down for long.
Wee: If I get a negative comment or feel like I don’t look good, I express my emotions and find a way to let it go. I let nature take its course. My speedy postnatal weight loss, for example, was surprisingly not a big deal to me. In fact, I was so excited to use myself as an experiment, concocting treatments that were easy on the body with lasting results. I had fun while trying to lose weight. We are not made to be perfect and things happen for a reason. In the words of my favourite singer, Ed Sheeran, “life is more than fitting in your jeans”.