Raising awareness of eating disorders in Singapore was, for me, something that had to be done. After a quiet struggle with anorexia and a prolonged recovery trying to get back to a healthy relationship with food over the past few years (ever thankful for the friends who were always there), it took me a long time to be open and comfortable enough to even discuss eating disorders. In various conversations with friends during JC, I gradually realised that many of my friends had encountered similar experiences with disordered eating (to various intensities) and could relate. These may not be as severe as commonly classified eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but had a destructive effect on one’s self-image and hence, one’s life.
Adapting to a healthy lifestyle is easier said than done. For me, what started off as an interest in healthy weight loss and toning up to achieve that cover model-like physique turned into an obsessive interest with calorie restriction and “allowed” foods. I started to feel terrible when friends and family members started giving concerned remarks about my almost skeletal appearance – it made me feel like there was something horribly wrong with me. The thrill of dropping another kilogram also faded away as my weight spiralled downwards, beyond what I had originally aimed for. My severe hair loss, pallid skin, amenorrhea,and constant coldness made me feel even worse. My social life suffered. In what was the tip of the iceberg, I had a health scare when I visited a screening centre for a checkup, after much apprehension and fear.
I recall the doctor telling me that I was “grossly, grossly underweight”, that my hormone levels were screwed up, and that I needed to put on weight or my heart may stop functioning. It made me intensely uncomfortable. Looking back, I am rather perturbed that this specialist, and another GP whom I visited earlier for my hair loss, who both suspected anorexia, chose not to deal directly with the issue. Through sheer willpower, I gradually added foods like caloric desserts to my “acceptable” food lists. I was really scared that people would notice my weight gain and make more remarks about my body. Yet, this did not happen, so I was even more encouraged to recover. I did not put on weight the healthiest way, but that did not matter to me – I was finally putting on weight and getting to my ideal body shape. While my physique began to appear healthier, so too did I begin getting used to bingeing on desserts and even healthy food, sometimes doing 1-2 hour cardio sessions in guilt, attempting (but often failing, thank goodness) to puke out whatever I just ate, and engaging in chew-and-spit tastings in an attempt to restrict calories.
While I appeared physically healthier, my habits were no better as I begun to have new obsessions. When the stress of JC begun, the compensatory behaviours started fading away and I turned to food to cope with stress. Although many people see eating their favourite foods as a reward, I had the epitome of a love-hate relationship with food. The sheer amount of pleasure and comfort food gave was indescribable, yet I soon began to see food as a form of self-torture – it meant a loss of self-control. Perhaps this made up for almost two years of strict deprivation, but I certainly did not feel any better about my body. Like Fang Min, I was introduced to the Fitblr community by a friend (Piramol, who will be sharing in this series as well) at the end of J1, and gradually got more realistic expectations of what healthy meant. I got a clearer idea of what a balanced lifestyle entailed in terms of nutrition and fitness, rid of pseudoscientific dieting and exercise fads. I also realised that self-acceptance and self-confidence definitely do come hand-in-hand with good health.
Thus, much like any journey, my experience with body- and self- image had its ups and downs: I can only imagine how frightening the experience must be for someone who’s had a longer period of recovery than myself. While I exceeded the minimum healthy weight for my height that I originally targeted during my anorexic days, this goal has become completely insignificant to me. I now staunchly believe that a focus on improving one’s health, rather than an unhealthy obsession with looking a certain way, is the surest attitude to have. Living life this way makes me so much happier, healthier, and energizes me to take on the world – more so than I have ever been.
When Fang and I both realised that our interest in health and fitness, and our concerns over an unhealthy preoccupation with self/body- image were not unique, we decided to kick off Project Made Real as a way to tackle this. The deeper we dug, we realised that these were in fact more common issues than we had imagined. We realised too that these were very much shunned topics, shoved under the carpet because it makes people uncomfortable. But it is this avoidance that we hope to get rid of, for acknowledging the issue is the first step to helping each other achieve a healthier self- and body-image.