One of my favourite books growing up was Steven Levenkron’s The Best Little Girl in The World. It was about a girl’s journey through anorexia, starving and overexercising trying to be the best ballet dancer in class. As an impressionable adolescent, it didn’t serve as a warning story. It was inspiration.
I am Chinese Malaysian. It’s not a culture where your family tells you how awesome and beautiful you are. It’s a culture of crushing your self worth and sense of achievement to somehow make you want to compete more and achieve more. At annual family reunions, my cousins and I would be made to stand back-to-back to see how much we had grown and who was taller. I had big feet for an Asian (I wear a size 8.5-9 whereas most of my friend were a 6) and my parents would joke that if they had to matchmake me, I needed to hide my feet. I would hear such comments such as “Wahh so tall, how to find a husband?” Yes these were all things said in lightheartedness, but when compiled together with no opposing reassurance that I was fine the way I was, it created a lot of self-consciousness in me as a child.
Now, I’m not here to blame my upbringing or my parents for my issues at all. They did the best job they knew how to do and I have a close relationship with them to this day. They come from a generation where their own parents never said “I love you” to them or gave them any praise, so I definitely give them credit for raising the bar. However, no one is perfect. Everyone screws up their kids. It’s a certainty that I’m screwing up my own kids in ways I don’t realise right now! However, I can only hope to instill enough self-awareness in them for them to figure out early enough in life how I’ve screwed them up and how they can fix themselves…and still love me enough not to shove me in a nursing home at the end of my life.
On one of my trips to visit my parents in Malaysia a few years ago, I thumbed through old notebooks of mine to find a list of “How to Stop Growing” with dot points like “Drink less milk”. I was always the tallest in my class and felt self-conscious about it. I wanted to be petite like my friends, with small feet. Ironically, my friends wanted to be taller. Beauty is an arbitrary social construct. It is whatever you want it to be. Everyone wants to be something else that they are not. I was quite tanned as a kid so my mum said I was considered an “ugly baby” by Asian standards (thanks, mum!), but Caucasians would apparently fawn over my tan. One culture wants to be light skinned, the other dark. Once upon a time, everyone wanted to be supermodel skinny. Now girls actually want a big booty.
One thing people always said to me growing up was “You’re so skinny”. Whether it was said in envy or in a “you need to eat more” kind of way, it sounded like a compliment in my head and I clung to it as an identity. This was something I was “good” at. And I didn’t have to work for it like ballet, piano, or school work. See, I didn’t like hard work. When things got hard, I quit or just withdrew emotionally. But being tall and skinny was something I already naturally was and people complimented me for. So I basked in it. It felt like a purpose and it seemed to fit in with my existing interest in health and nutrition. I loved reading about dieting and exercise in books and magazines and exercised religiously in my bedroom.
As much as dieting interested me, I was obviously never in full control of my food intake under my parent’s roof. But when I left home to study in Australia when I was 18, I was suddenly on my own and responsible for myself. The food servings in Australia are far bigger than in Malaysia, and there was so many exciting new things to try. Heck, my student hostel was round the corner from an amazing gelati shop. So although I was still exercising a lot through being a part of a dance group at University, I was also slowly gaining weight. The super fast teenage metabolism was also likely slightly slowing down. Now, the weight I gained at that point wasn’t a lot at all and was probably barely noticeable to anyone around me, but as an 18-year-old who took pride in being skinny, it absolutely challenged my identity. I remember the day I stood in front of the mirror and realised with horror that my thighs were touching each other (Jeepers, if only that version of me could see current mum version of me! Like come on, you thought that was bad, check out what you’ll become, kid!)
So it began: a drastic process of overexercising and dieting. The crash dieting naturally ended up seesawing with guilt-wracked binge eating. I walked, ran and danced until I couldn’t stand in the shower at the end of the day because my feet hurt so bad. But still my body wouldn’t shake the weight. I’m sure it was just clinging on to it for dear life as I was probably almost underweight at that point. So I kept continuing down the destructive path of seesaw dieting and overexercising. When I went home for holidays, so many people would exclaim “You’ve gained weight!” when they saw me. I would hear “Oh everyone gains weight when they go to Australia” and the good ‘ol “You’re getting fat”. I hated it. I didn’t want to conform to their social standards and opinions and give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me with more meat on my bones. I wanted to be good at this being skinny thing. I wanted to prove my willpower and determination was impenetrable. I didn’t want to fail at it like I failed everything else in life.
After a few months down this path, my period stopped. Prior to this, it had always been like clockwork. It disappeared for a few months and when it finally came back, it was very irregular. Fortunately I still managed to conceive both my kids with little issues, but my menstruation cycles actually only started becoming predictable more than a decade later after I had my second child. In hindsight, I was depriving my body of fat. The low-fat trend was very popular at the time and all fat was seen as bad. We now know that isn’t true. I was also replacing sugar with artificial sweetener- another thing we now know isn’t great for the body.
Now, make no mistake, I wasn’t cowering at home under my blankets all day. I was still proud of my body and how I looked. I liked dressing up and living life as any other young adult does. But was I ever going to look in the mirror and feel I was skinny enough? No. Because my weight was never the problem. The problem was wanting to be good enough. Eating well and exercising and being your best physically is obviously a great thing, but when done in a way that is beneficial to your body and mind. Starving yourself and overexercising to be underweight and for social acceptance or to fill emotional voids in your soul…that’s obviously very destructive behaviour. Obvious to everyone except the person doing it.
So when did things start to change? I just grew older. Got married. Had a family. And my perspective on what was important in life changed. There’s nothing like being responsible for raising little humans to make you realise how insignificant some of your old personal issues were. Who has time to brush their hair when you just want to sleep for 10 minutes straight without being woken up by a screaming baby? I’m not in the best shape right now but I respect my body so much for enduring what I’ve put it through over my life so far, and producing two human beings. It’s carried me this far and it’s done a good job. It’s functioning. Yup, the bar has been wayyy lowered with motherhood. Not peeing when I sneeze? That’s good enough for me!
When I was younger, I used to agonise over the fact that my boobs were small, but I can tell you that breast size has nothing to do with milk supply, because I could have fed triplets with my supply. These boobs have carried me through feeding each kid for almost 3 years. They have nourished and comforted. Breastfeeding has actually been an incredibly empowering and healing process for me. I now think my boobs are pretty awesome.
My body is still my body. It hasn’t gotten skinnier. It’s gotten so ridiculously far from the ideals my teenage self had. But what has changed is my perspective and my self dialogue. I am now in a stage in my life that I am more sure of myself and am not afraid to own up to being a shallow, entitled teenager and young adult with warped priorities. I let people into my head. I created an imaginary battle with others that really was never there. So what if people point out that I’ve gained weight. It’s the truth and I am old enough to deal with the truth without getting defensive. And as long as I’m happy with myself and know I’m working to be fit according to a reasonable standard as measured by science, people can say what they want. (For the record, I’m really not working as hard as I could now and I know that. Not using motherhood as an excuse at all. I will get there!)
Self acceptance is never an easy process. That is because it involves confronting your own personal demons and admitting you can be a lousy person who has chosen to blame everyone else for your issues and let life run you over with a truck. It’s hard to let go of things which used to define your life, and cut out or have serious conversations with the close people in your life who have enabled you to make your crappy mistakes (especially when it’s usually done through misguided love). Hating my body was probably just a subsection of the fact I just hated myself in general and felt like I wasn’t living my best life. I’ve never worked hard and pushed myself to my limit. I was given a lot of opportunities and leadership positions in school but I honestly secretly didn’t do a good job of them (just pretended to) and felt like a fraud. I dieted and exercised to feel like I was in control of my own life and decisions when I should have been fixing other issues.
I will never be as skinny as I used to be as an 18 year old, and that’s okay because that really wasn’t healthy. But I can be good enough for myself. I can be strong and build a good butt because geez I’m getting old and have a lower back problem (for real) so I actually need a good glutes to support my back. I can be healthy, eat well, and exercise regularly because I respect my body. And I can be successful at other things in life and not put my identity in how I look because I now know I’m capable of it.