Hui Wen now
I was an unusually shy and body-conscious child. In kindergarten, when we played at being Disney princesses, I always ended up Snow White and secretly resented this. With her realistic proportions and rounded features, I thought Snow White was “the fat princess”. I felt it was a comment on my body but dared not protest.
The pattern continued through my childhood. In primary school, there was no worse fear than being relegated to the Trim and Fit (TAF) Club—even if I never tipped the scales enough to join. Most my classmates were underweight and proud of it. Underweight students had to participate in the Milk Drinking Program and drank a carton of milk every day. At a “healthy weight” I felt like the odd one out.
But really, the turning point was secondary school. Puberty is never an easy time and being introverted, I wasn’t so great at making new friends. Anxious and unable to deal with the situation, I began to starve myself for a sense of control. I didn’t know who to turn to. Life seemed messy but I could always be the master of my appetite. Slowly, I whittled myself down to 30kg, which even at 1.54m isn’t remotely healthy. I knew I looked sick and felt awful too. But I didn’t dare eat because I felt like I would lose control and balloon to a size larger than my 45kg pre-disorder self.
Don’t trust that oft quoted line “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. Skinny—in extreme cases—is truly uncomfortable. With little flesh to speak of, I couldn’t sit on the floor at school assembly without my pelvic bone cutting painfully into my skin. I had to turn myself constantly in my sleep to avoid severe bruising.
Hui Wen then
I had an undeniable problem. My mum look me to our GP, who gave me an ultimatum: “gain weight or be hospitalized”. Not wanting to be force-fed through a tube, I did. There was much crying and it was a huge struggle, but facing the issue head on and communicating with my parents, I got better. The whole experience brought me much closer to them too. Eventually, I started to focus on eating high quality food instead of a small quantity of food. Obsession rechanneled, I found a new love of eating.
After my O Levels, I’d gained enough so my family felt comfortable sending me overseas for school. Living alone and attending university, I felt grown up and independent. I didn’t need to use food for control. Instead, I proceeded to fulfil years of suppressed cravings—all at once. I’d cook 10-course meals just for myself. I’d bake a 2kg cake and demolish it alone. I began bingeing. But not wanting to be fat, I upped my exercise levels too. Instead of my usual hour-long jogs at the neighbourhood park, I did manic two to four hour runs at the gym every night. A friend called my new condition “exercise-bulimia” and it was a pretty apt description. I may have no longer been underweight but I wasn’t healthy.
Things only really got back on track after I moved to New York to pursue my Masters degree. I didn’t have a gym in my building and had to slowly stop bingeing to make up for the lack of exercise. I also worked in food: writing and giving food tours. Doing interviews and guiding food lovers around the city, I learnt to deal with my quiet, timid streak. Many people who worked in the industry were open about their struggles with body image. Chatting with them and being exposed to the different life stories, I felt understood. And I began to make peace with my body.
Moving back to Singapore three years ago, I worked first as the dining editor of a local lifestyle mag and now run a small batch granola business Eastern Granola. I continue to be surprised by the number of food-obsessed people who have issues around their bodies. Many are happy to hear they are not alone. Really, being honest with people is what pulled me through. It’s so sad that many still see disordered eating as taboo. It’s pegged as a “first world problem”. But that doesn’t make the feelings less valid. They are shared by many more than you know.
Now, at 26, I am a chronic oversharer. I’ve found it’s the best way to destigmatize disordered eating. Sharing repressed emotions and allowing myself to be vulnerable have helped me cope with both my social anxiety and food issues. I am still awkward and have all sorts of insecurities but they never become overwhelming because they aren’t secret. I talk them through with friends (or even new acquaintances). So it doesn’t devolve to a serious problem. I’m much more comfortable in my own skin. With eating disorders as with anything in life, honesty is truly the best policy.
*Hui Wen’s granola is now being featured in Made Real’s Oh-Goodies! snack boxes