Hi all, my name is Ariel and I have written a few articles about fitness on Made Real! I will be sharing my journey through the treacherous terrain of body image, calorie counting and exercising.
For as long as I can remember, I have been conscious about my body. Specifically, though, I do remember buying a book called TEN by Vincent Ng, a former local actor who also practices martial arts, about how to lose weight and attain a toned physique in 10 weeks. I remember being in primary six and sitting in the sauna in my condominium after school, before going home, to sweat it out without my mum finding out. I also remember doing intensive exercises in the gym starting that age.
Then, my weight loss regime was probably in bursts rather than a sustained effort — it only became more concerted in secondary two. I remember learning about the basal metabolic rate and how to count calories, and went into a phase of fastidiously counting my calories, eating smaller portions, and shunning oil. Every day for lunch, I would eat the same ham and egg sandwich in a burger bun, and at home I would ask my mum to steam or boil vegetables rather than stir fry them. One day, my friend convinced me to veer from my bun routine and eat from the Japanese stall. I ordered black pepper pork over rice and tried to eat as little as possible without being noticed. I ate all the meat and hardly any rice, and tried to angle my bowl such that my friend could not see that I hardly touched the rice.
While I wouldn’t consider myself in this phase of my life anorexic, it was not exactly very healthy. I successfully lost several kilograms and was rather happy with that. I remember being pleased when I started to be able to see my ribs. Even now there are times I would look back at this time in my life and want to emulate that success by doing the same thing.
Here’s my younger self (pardon the blurriness – couldn’t find a better one!) – I was the girl in front.
In secondary three, I became a Christian and started attending church. Apparently I freaked all my church friends out when I started telling them the calorie content of everything. Nevertheless, it was also in church that I really learnt to built my confidence on the right foundations, and somehow or other, very unconsciously, stopped worrying about the calories in everything. When I stopped obsessing over chasing that desired yet unattainable figure, my eating patterns returned to normal. I had a group of really good friends and we would do the normal things teenagers do – eat ice cream and fast food. At times, I would feel unhappy about my body, but overall, I was eating normally and exercising moderately. All was well.
In junior college, I joined the water polo team. (You can see my post on picking up water polo as a sport here.) Then, I had gained a bit of weight due to a recent trip in Korea, and was determined to lose it. Water polo proved a highly effective avenue. Training sessions were highly intense — a little too much, actually. A few months into joining the CCA, we were having as many as five sessions a week: three training sessions (3 hrs) and two swimming sessions (1-2 hrs). Without me even noticing, the fat started melting off and it was only when my friends pointed it out to me and said I was “disappearing” that I even noticed it.
Part of this weight loss was conscious and part of it was unconscious. Some days, I would feel like I did not want to waste my calories burnt during training and watch strictly what I ate. The rest of the times, I would allow myself to eat the unhealthy food I wanted — which consisted of Island Creamery ice cream, good quality chocolate, nuts. I still did not really like fried or excessively oily foods, and abhorred fast food.
At this point, I was the skinniest I ever was, and the lowest I ever weighed was 48kg for my 171cm tall frame, inclusive of all those water polo muscles. My period stopped for more than a year, but I was fine with that since it meant training sessions were always convenient and fuss-free.
While I was pretty much eating rather freely since I had the liberty to, I was not exactly healthy then because the exercise was over intensive. My body was showing me signs, from not being able to produce my period every month to my perpetual exhaustion. Though I still had great relationships and did well in school, I had little energy most of the time.
Here’s a photo of me from that period (third from the right).
I stopped training after nationals in April of my J2 year and focused on doing my A levels. My body also got to recover slowly and by the end of the year my period was back. The following year, I started my undergraduate studies at Yale-NUS college. In this period, I had gained back all the weight I had lost. Though I was exercising regularly, and always felt the need to run in order to burn off my fats, I was once again confronted with a dissatisfaction with my body. I felt I could never exercise away my fats. Everything was extremely arbitrary. Some days I would feel skinny and others I would feel fat. I would have seasons of running almost every day and seasons of not running at all. I tried different things — low carb diets, vegan diets, eating anything but exercising in proportion… Nothing seemed to work. I was still unhappy.
On my most hopeless days, on one such day, I tried something I had never done before and told myself I would never do. I purged. Do you know the feeling on some days where you just can’t stop eating? Something in your brain just switches off and you can’t help yourself. Then you realise that you’ve eaten way too much, and no amount of exercise could burn those calories off. The only option seems to be to purge. You feel so helpless.
I’ve been there so I understand how you feel. And it is cyclical. Once you start, it takes a while for you to be broken enough to stop. And it feels terrible each time. It was one day after another punishing cycle that I simply surrendered. I felt I was allowing food to have more control over my life than it should. I allowed it to move me to eat, and I allowed it to move me to purge.
For a period after that realisation, before every meal, when I said grace, I would confess that the power of food was broken over my life. Because I believed it really and truly was! Even though the fact might be that I just did it again the day before, the truth was that it was gone and I was free, and it was a lie that it could stay in my life and continue to assert power. For whoever who is out there going through the same thing, I believe the power is broken over your life as well. You only need to change your thinking to change your life.
When you go through something as damaging as that, it is bound to leave its stains and fingerprints in your life. I felt one of it was in the form of shame. Shame, such an enslaving emotion! Once, after a round of purging, I felt so ashamed. I felt I had let myself and let God down.
How do you overcome the emotion of shame? For me, that day, I remembered reading a story the night before, and it was the famous story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Before they ate of the fruit, they were “naked, yet unashamed”. But after that, they were naked and ashamed. I was made aware of the starkness of this distinction — that they were in the same physical condition of nakedness, yet at one point they were unashamed and at another they were ashamed. And suddenly I had a revelation: that I could be naked, naked in my weaknesses and failings, yet unashamed.
Friends, my sisters and even brothers who are reading this, I do not want you to feel sorry for me because this is not a testimony of failure but of victory. Sure, I do not have it all together, and sure, there are days when I go back to those old ways. But I am convinced that it is possible to overcome, and it is possible that we can be set free.
And keep on smiling, because you are beautiful and dearly loved! <3