Body News, Health & Fitness, Wellbeing

How To Nurture A Positive Body Image

Avoiding negative thoughts about the way you look may not always be easy, but learning to love yourself—inside and out—is a beautiful thing. This article by Canyon Ranch will help you take that all-important first step.

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Cultivating a positive body image can be challenging. We are often our own worst critics. When you look in the mirror, you may zero in on one area of your body that you wish was smaller, smoother or just plain different. But chances are you’re the only one being so hard on yourself. The people who love you aren’t looking at your thighs or your crow’s feet—they only see the person who always makes them laugh, the one who cooks magnificent meals and lights up the room with a smile.

Recognizing and celebrating the inner beauty that others see shining through rather than focusing on “fixing” your perceived flaws is an important step toward cultivating a positive body image. Removing the phrase, If only I looked like… from your vocabulary is another. “We all spend huge amounts of time comparing ourselves to others,” says Ann Pardo, M.A., L.P.C., B.C.C., director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. But in the end, these comparisons often do little more than lead us further down a path of negative thinking, of striving for some unachievable body ideal. So, the next time you notice yourself engaging in self-criticism, consider using these suggestions to shift gears and change course.

1. Focus on You
With the daily barrage of “perfect” bodies we see in magazines and on television, comparisons are all but inevitable. But research shows doing just that can lead to a negative body image. Whenever you catch yourself playing the comparison game, consciously decide to stop. Let your logical brain take over: Remember that no one is perfect—the images you see in magazines have likely been airbrushed and retouched. And don’t forget that everyone is unique; try not to use others as a reference point for who you should or can be.

Try this: Stay away from the mirror if you're not feeling so good about yourself today.

Try this: Stay away from the mirror if you’re not feeling so good about yourself today.

2. Step Away from the Mirror
Constantly checking (and obsessing about) your appearance and perceived physical flaws also reinforces a negative body image. If you find yourself often sneaking a peek at your reflection, consider setting limits. Allow yourself to look in the mirror as you get ready to go out, but only once or twice. If you give yourself fewer opportunities to critique your appearance, you may find that you think less about your looks and spend more time thinking about other things.

3. Look at the Positive!
Self-esteem improves when you begin looking at yourself as the sum of all your parts, not just your looks. This “whole person” approach means not focusing on what you lack, but on everything you have to offer and that you do right. Every few days, jot down a different set of five positive attributes: personal strengths, abilities, achievements, things you admire about yourself and like about your looks, things you did or do well, and so on.

4. Exercise, Eat Well and Pursue Your Passions
Taking care of your health and allowing opportunities for personal fulfillment sends the message—both to others and to yourself—that you are worthy and valued, which helps increase self-esteem. Be sure, however, to think of workouts and your diet as a way to stay healthy, not a means to the perfect body. “Our culture is extremely misinformed about weight and body image,” Pardo says. “Very few people understand that mental and physical fitness are what really matter.”

5. Tweak Your Self-Talk
Listen carefully to what you tell yourself. My skin is horrible. I am uglyHow did I get so fat? Some people are so used to putting themselves down they don’t even realize they do it. But it’s never too late to change the dialogue. Try this: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a close friend. Also remember that feelings aren’t facts; just because you may feel unattractive one day doesn’t mean you are. This isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been engaging in negative behaviors for years, but once you learn to recognize the negative self-talk, the next step is to alter it. Make an effort to put a positive spin on whatever you otherwise would have criticized.

6. Dwell on Solutions, not Slip-ups
Focusing too much on mistakes can deal your self-esteem a major blow, Pardo says. If you fall off the diet wagon, for example, don’t label yourself a failure and give up. Instead, consider that the diet you chose may not have been right for you. Explore what went wrong, but in the context of how you can change or do better next time. A mistake or failure is an isolated incident, not indicative of who you are.

Bottom line: “Living in joy and contentment is a much better goal than correctly following some diet based on vanity rather than on self-improvement for the greater good,” Pardo says. Be kind to yourself, and set your sights on happiness, not perfection.

Make Happiness your goal today!

Make Happiness your goal today!

This article was contributed by Canyon Ranch. Canyon Ranch is a pioneer in the field of health and wellness will be bringing its integrative and customized wellness programmes to Treasure Bay Bintan, a resort destination on Bintan island.

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The One Thing Missing From The Body Image Conversation – Denise Li

We all want to start loving our bodies as they are, but it’s okay if we don’t love it RIGHT THIS MOMENT, argues Denise. 

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The websites I check back regularly on are not short on articles that discuss body image in great detail. These emcompass everything from slideshows showcasing Jennifer Lawrence’s best quotes on the topic, to the celebrating of using real-women in advertising campaigns, right down to rather aggressive campaigns calling for pre-Photoshopped images of Lena Dunham for the recent cover of Vogue.

Whether or not you agree with how the message is conveyed – I’m not so fond of Jezebel’s militant tactics – the message is clear: Women around the world want their societies to stop valuing one body shape and type over others and are calling for acceptance of all body types, regardless of size. And the biggest way for this to happen is if there is more accurate representation of their bodies portrayed in the media.

Perhaps no other feminist issue has galvanised so much support than the body acceptance movement – fat really is a feminist issue. Understandably so. We are all, after all, consumers of pop culture and would in one way or another be influenced and affected by its messages.

While I applaud all the women-focused websites out there for fighting for an issue that’s close to the hearts of so many women, I think there’s one thing that’s missing from the conversation: recognising the fact a change in mindset is each and every woman is going to take time.

I think many of us – myself included – will have “I hate my body” thoughts from time and time. And while it’s great that there is a wealth of articles out there that celebrate accepting your body as it is, I don’t think it’s going to do anyone any good if they were to start second-guessing themselves with thoughts such as, “I am a feminist; a strong, empowered, enlightened woman, so why am I still obsessed with the cellulite on my thighs?”

Think of how many years of conditioning we all underwent as a result of our exposure to pop culture and all of its unhealthy messages promoting thinness and perfection. Change, both in the media and as an attitude within each and everyone of us, is not going to come overnight and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. That’s the reason why I’m against Jezebel promoting a very aggressive brand of “my way or the highway” feminism; instead of promoting conversation, such a militant stance shuts down avenues of discussion, of women talking about the difficulties of transitioning to a more accepting attitudes towards their bodies.

In my early 20s, I was obsessed with losing weight. I weighed myself six times a day, counted calories and spent inordinate amounts of time on self-loathing. I focused on how much better my life would be if I could just lose 5kg. I’ve come very far from that dark period in my life where a focus on my weight was a symptom of the helplessness I felt in other areas of my life, but that doesn’t mean that I am not impervious to those residual “I hate my tummy” thoughts even as I approach my 31st birthday.

The big difference is that I now have a coping strategy. I’ve come to acknowledge that I’ll experience such negative thoughts every now and then no matter how enlightened I consider myself to be. Only now, I don’t let these thoughts suck me into a cesspool of self-hate and negativity.

I take the time to evaluate each and every one of those thoughts, working through them using logic and rationality. “Why am I thinking about my tummy? What can I do about it? Does this matter in the larger scheme of things?”

Then, I’ll turn to my attention to other things in my life that are far more important than the perceived bodily imperfection: “My body may not look like Adriana Lima’s but it’s strong and healthy, and I can throw a mean punch. I love what I do for a living and I never have Monday blues. I have family and friends that care about me and want to see me do well.”

What it all comes down to: Playing down the negative, accentuating the positive.

I’m not saying that this way of thinking will work for every woman grappling with bodily insecurity issues. I’m just saying that it’s important to have a conversation with yourself about it. Examine if it’s really your body that if you have issues with, or if it’s symptomatic of something else in your life that’s not going the way you want or envision.

Despite our best efforts, it can be hard to love our bodies fully 100% of the time, but that shouldn’t make you feel less of a feminist or empowered just because you bemoan “orange-peel thighs” every now and then. Remember: empowerment is all about knowing that you have the power to change things. And giving yourself time and being patient about coming into your own is perhaps one of the best things you can do for yourself.

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About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets.

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The Thing About Photoshop Is …

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The Thing About Photoshop Is … – Denise Li

MIranda Kerr before and after digital retouching. Are you ready to start seeing more "imperfect" pictures of celeb images?

MIranda Kerr before and after digital retouching. Are you ready to start seeing more “imperfect” pictures of celebs in magazines?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or have absolutely zero interest in things pertaining to feminism (which I assume is not the case, because you’re reading this right now), you might have noticed the slew of articles on women-centric websites celebrating Hollywood’s body image heroes and villanising this magazine, which, two years ago, digitally-retouched a Jennifer Lawrence cover so that she had smaller waist and more sunken cheekbones.

I am among the hordes of women cheering J-Law on when she says things like “It should be illegal to call someone fat on TV”, but the truth is, there is something about the whole deal which makes me feel slightly … perturbed.

Don’t get me wrong because I definitely think the use of Photoshop to retouch women’s faces and figures should go the way of the Minidisc player and fax machine, but as someone who has spent a large part of her working life in women’s magazines, I believe I am a unique position to give my take on the whole deal, and it is this:

The biggest reason why magazines seem unwilling to do away with Photoshop completely is because readers have come to expect perfect images from the celebrities and models that they see in women’s magazines and on TV. Answer this question honestly: Have you ever passed remarks such as ‘Oh wow, celeb X seems to have put on weight’, “Can you believe model Y has cellulite?” or even ‘Celeb Z may be fat but at least she has a pretty face”?

If it is a “yes” (no shame admitting it, because I’m guilty of the off-hand judging remark myself), then I’m sorry to say, you are part of the problem. On the one hand, women say they want to see real and un-retouched women’s bodies and faces in magazines. And on the other, we have no qualms passing such harsh and quick judgement on other women’s bodies.

Just look at the amount of trolling that goes on when unflattering photos of Beyonce go viral. I mean, we can’t even seem to get over the fact that the click of the shutter during an inopportune time – in the middle of a highly energetic performance – will OBVIOUSLY result in some rather odd expressions caught on camera.

There is a gulf between what we say we want represented in the media, and what we’ve come to expect.

And because of this tension, magazines have some very tough decisions to make when it comes to digital retouching. It is always a gamble to put a fuller-sized model in a fashion magazine because of the negative (if unthinking and knee-jerk) reactions it might elicit. And that’s why, when magazines do it, they kinda have to make a big deal about it. They have to say, “Look! Here’s a spread of a size-12 model! No Photoshop!” Of course, the very act of drawing attention to the fact makes it TOKEN, and therefore, no real progress would have been made in the larger scheme of things.

Truth is, I think it should be a two-way street. While we have every right to clamour for change about how women are represented in the media, I think that’s only half the problem solved. Yes, the media has a responsibility to portray women in a realistic fashion. But we need to find it in ourselves to start accepting the fact that beauty really does come in all shapes and sizes. We should also find it in ourselves to stop nitpicking on every tiny perceived flaw – whether of ourselves or other women.

And that means we need to start being more self-aware and stop throwing off-hand remarks such as “You’ve lost weight since the last time I saw you” or “Kim Kardashian has a fat ass”. These remarks may seem sound harmless but they actually affirm and perpetuate unrealistic ideals about beauty.

When magazines see that their consumers are serious about change, they will have no choice but to start overhauling their editorial strategies as well. Call me idealistic, but I honestly think magazines and consumers can work together somehow to create a New Normal – one where women of all shapes and sizes are celebrated for being beautiful, one where magazines can feature thinner and larger models in equal measure, and where consumers won’t even bat an eyelid when they see these images side by side.

About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. She will probably always have a fondness for women’s magazines. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets.

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The One Thing Brides Shouldn’t Obsess About – Denise Li

On a health and fitness website earlier, an article on the sidebar caught my eye. The header read: Wedding Workout – Get Fit and Gorgeous in 4 Weeks! Now, I am, of course, no stranger to such articles. Hell, having worked in women’s magazines for years, I’ve even proposed such “Workouts for Brides-to-be” type of stories during editorial meetings.

Now that I’ve been out of the industry for a few months, and therefore have the privilege of being a detached observer, I’ve become less a fan of these types of stories.

Don’t get be wrong: I understand the motivation behind women wanting to read these stories. Those darned white gowns, while pretty, are completely unforgiving, and God forbid that a woman look pudgy in photos, wearing that dress on what’s supposed to be the most important day of her life.

What is it about weddings that turn perfect sensible women into raging ogres?

What is it about weddings that turn perfect sensible women into raging ogres?

But I’ve seen enough of my friends – perfectly rational and sensible on any given day – go apeshit crazy in the months leading up the wedding. They obsess over things like baby blue vs baby pink, whether yellow macarons at the dessert buffet is really necessary, whether they really need to invite that great-grandaunt they haven’t seen they were 5 and, of course, trying to lose [insert imagined ideal number] kilos so they would look at their radiant and thinnest best on the day of the nuptials.

Now let’s just get one thing clear:

I am ALL for women wanting to work out, whether to look good naked, or whether to be fitter and healthier, although I have my own opinions about which one is the better motivating factor. This article is not a debate about the merits of exercise.

My question is: Why do so many women deprive themselves of proper nutrition, go on these insane exercise routines in a bid to look entirely different from their normal selves on any given day … on the biggest day of their lives?

On my wedding day, it is important for me to look like, well, me. Not some starved, emaciated shadow-of-my-former-self version of myself.

I think that a couple’s wedding party should be a good representation of their respective personalities and true selves, and that could be reflected in throwing a gaming-themed party (if the couple are avid gamers), or a beautiful outdoor ceremony (if the couple are sporty types).

Ironically, this obsession with some perceived idea of “the perfect wedding” just makes most weddings seem rather … generic, at the end of it all. The bride wanting so badly to look like a completely a different person from herself comes across to me as an extension of that misguided notion of what “perfection” is. Perfection is not you X number of kilos lighter. Pardon me as I ratchet up this hoary old cliche, but if you weren’t perfect the way you are (thank you, Bruno Mars), your guy wouldn’t be there standing at the altar waiting for you, right?

Perhaps I’m being idealistic but I don’t think brides don’t need to concern themselves too much with losing too much weight for their weddings. Their pictures of them on the day of their nuptials should capture them as they are in that point of their lives. Snaps of a fleeting skinnier version of themselves – assuming they had no intention of continuing to work out or eat healthily post-wedding – feels somehow like a betrayal to their true selves, and just does not do them the same justice, somehow.

About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. She plans to hold her wedding party at her neighbourhood bar The Cider Pit. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets.

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How To Bounce Back From a Body Confidence Crisis – Denise Li

Within the span of a day, both my mum and co-founder Deborah recently told me about how some young Korean women are now undergoing surgery to create what’s known as “undereye fullness” or “eye smiles”. And if even mum knows that such a thing exists, it must really be “a thing”. Not to be confused with undereye “bags” or dark circles, “eye smiles” actually refer to that little bit of skin that “pops out” from just under your eyes, and it’s now being a coveted feature because it’s supposed caused by smiling, and therefore associated with youthfulness.

Will this craziness never end?

Knobbly knees, armpit folds, back fat … as though cellulite and belly bulge aren’t enough, it seems like women go out of their way to look for new things about their body to feel insecure about. Isn’t it strange that in an age where we discuss fat acceptance and how to feel confident regardless of your dress size, there are some of us who obsess over some perceived “weird” fold of skin or crease in our body because this idea that it shouldn’t (or in this case, should) exist suddenly pops into our heads?

I know some people out there will go, “But Material World also features skincare products and cosmetics … aren’t you guys guilty of perpetuating the stereotypes that the media has created about beauty?” Pardon me if I sound defensive but I think there’s a huge gulf between giving tips that help women look their well-groomed best, and pointedly telling women that they should go have invasive surgery done in the pursuit of some vague and unattainable notion of physical perfection. Material World is very firm on where we stand on this point and we don’t equivocate on it.

Marion Bartoli - a role model for women everywhere!

Marion Bartoli – a role model for women everywhere!

On a more personal note, I’ll admit that it isn’t always easy to rise above societal expectations about a woman’s physical appearance, because it’s just so pervasive. If you want the proof, just look at all the derogatory remarks thrown at Marion Bartoli’s way after winning the most prestigious title in the tennis world, the Wimbledon Single’s Championship. She was called names such as “fat”, “ugly” and “undeserving” on Twitter – never mind that she’s stayed disciplined and trained hard for years to become number one in the world in her sport. It’s a sad fact of life that even successful women will be deemed as somehow lacking or inferior if she doesn’t fit into society’s conventions of what’s deemed beautiful.

But what made Bartoli a true winner in this entire debacle was when she came out to say, in response to the BBC commentator’s remarks that she’ll “never be a looker”:

“It doesn’t matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamed about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”

The lesson we can learn from this is that because we live in such a judgmental society doesn’t mean we have to be ruled by its norms and expectations. Sticks and stones, remember? Society may cast its harsh judgements, and magazines may continue to feature skinny, air-brushed models, but if you have a healthy self-esteem, all of it won’t matter. Nonetheless, everyone’s confidence gets shaken once in awhile. I know mine does – but I get back on track quite quickly by asking myself these questions:

What do I love about myself?

It can be something as simple as “I can make a kickass aglio olio” to something bigger such as “I am able to have a conversation with almost everyone in the room”. The answers will remind you that there is more to your life beyond caring about how you look.

What do I have that others don’t?

I will always answer this question reminding myself that I am fortunate to have my health and full use of all limbs. It’s something that I tend to take for granted, but every once in awhile, I marvel at the fact that I can run 10K-s, box, do sun salutations … My body may not look like Adriana Lima’s but it works, and it’s a bloody amazing machine.

What do I want to achieve in my life?

This question  was definitely inspired by Bartoli’s reaction to the BBC commentator. Unless your ambition in life is to become the next Doutzen Kroes, chances are, you probably don’t need exceptional looks or genes to achieve it – just a lot of hard work and perserverence, both of which are things you have full and complete control over.

See, there are so many more things in life worth caring about than whether you’ve got “eye smiles”. But, of course, if it means that much to you, there’s always an easier way to get them; just stop worrying about silly little things you have no control over. Instead, go out to spend some time talking and laughing with an old friend.

laughing pug

About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. She’s feels 100% body-confident about 90% of the time.  Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets.

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The Story Of My Breasts – Deborah Tan

angelina-jolie

Angelia Jolie completed her double mastectomy procedure at the end of April.

I’m sure by now many of you have heard that Angelina Jolie have had both her breasts removed. The double mastectomy procedure for the actress began in February and was completed by end-April. The actress, whose own mother died from breast cancer at age 56, had an estimated 87 percent risk of developing the cancer due to a “faulty” gene, BRCA1. Since the operation, her risk has dropped to under 5 percent. Her story – penned by Jolie herself – can be read here.

Breasts. As women, our breasts are part of what we are. In fact, our fashion choices often lie in how to best complement our pair. Hearing Jolie’s story over the news today, I was forced to confront with my personal struggle with my breasts.

I hated mine.

The Beginning Of The End
I remember clearly the day I started to notice the buds growing under my t-shirt. I was devastated. To me, the appearance of breasts meant the beginning of the end of my childhood. I knew I would soon have to deal with other puberty-related issues such as menstruation and the appearance of body hair.

I didn’t wear a training bra. I refused to. I childishly believed that as long as I didn’t wear a bra, my breasts would stop growing. A bra represented “womanhood” and if I didn’t wear it, perhaps “womanhood” would leave me alone.

To my dismay, my breasts grew and grew and grew. By the time I was 16, they measured 36C. Seriously, whoever said Asian women have no breasts clearly didn’t see me.

Twin Terrors
My breasts were a hassle. I envied my less endowed friends because they looked more graceful playing sports. Dressing up was a pain. At my young age, I wasn’t versed in the art of dressing for my body. But the loose t-shirts and shirts I opted did not do my figure any favour. Although I looked dowdy and frumpy … I still attracted catcalls from construction workers who seemed to be able to see what I was hiding despite my best efforts. It was frustrating.

At 23, I learnt from a friend that she had breast reduction surgery done at a local hospital. I asked my mum if I could go for one. That was the extent of how I hated my boobs. My outfits made me looked either like a tramp who wore dresses that left nothing to the imagination or a tramp who wore all her oversized castaways at once.

The Turning Point
One day, I bought a dress. When I tried to wear it with a bra, it was too tight. Fed up and determined to not banish it to the back of my closet, I abandoned my bra. It fitted beautifully.

It was a eureka moment. Without a bra to “lift” things up, I actually looked smaller. I began to understand how my body worked. Once I understood what made my body look good, I began to explore more fashion options. Trying more clothes helped me see what cuts and fabrics suit me best. Slowly, I began to regain my confidence.

Breast Friends
Today, I dare say I enjoy dressing up. The people who’ve gotten to know me in recent years think I probably have always adored my breasts. But this confidence and self-awareness did not come easily. While I still envy girls who can pull off the androgynous, hipster look (it’s sooooo coool), I have come to treasure what I’ve been given. The fact that a much-loved relative got afflicted with breast cancer a few years ago made me understand what it means to not take things for granted – even if it seems you have too much of them.

They are mine and I shall miss them if I ever have to lose them. But my life will not stop there.

Christina Applegate - The actress had both her breasts removed in 2008.

Christina Applegate – The actress had both her breasts removed in 2008.

Jolie’s decision is inspiring in its decisiveness and courage. She recognised that she wanted to ensure she lives long enough to enjoy her children the way her mum never had. She wanted to spare her family from the pain of losing her to a dreadful disease. It is a brave, brave thing to decide you would remove something that is not just integral to your identity as a woman but also to your image as an actress much celebrated for your sexy image. I’m not saying her success is due solely to her va-va-voom image – Jolie has become much more than her famous Lara Croft image.

Another actress has actually gone down this route before Jolie and I think she should also be celebrated for her decision to take charge of her health and body – Christina Applegate. The actress had both her breasts removed in 2008.

An extreme decision such as a double mastectomy is never an easy one to make. And I hope Jolie and Applegate will be inspiring examples of how life can still continue to be meaningful and beautiful even after the procedure. Cancer has been deprived of yet another victim.

About The Author: Deborah Tan is a founder of Material World. After 10 years of working in magazines Cleo and Cosmopolitan Singapore, she is now a freelance writer/editor who works on this website full-time. She likes liquid eyeliners, bright red lipsticks, tattoos, rock & roll, Mad Men, Suits, and knows she can be a bit too shameless for her own good. Follow her on Twitter @DebTanTweets.

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Confessions of a “Normal”-Sized Girl – Denise Li

Plus or minus a couple of kilos, I’ve remained around the same weight for over 10 years now. But though my weight remains unchanged, my attitude towards my body has vacillated between shame and disgust, to ambivalence, to acceptance and confidence, and not always in that order either.

Nope, I won’t be disclosing my weight in this article because that’s irrelevant to the issue at hand. Neither will you be seeing pictures of me in my lingerie as I don’t believe that serves any purpose to the point which I’m trying to make, which is this: Thin and large bodies may hog the headlines in the media, but even “normal-looking” women can have an unhealthy relationship with their bodies. Let’s make it clear: I am not here to talk about fat acceptance, nor will I be so arrogant as to talk about eating disorders, something I’ve only read about but never experienced … I am here to talk about my relationship with my own body and how it’s changed over the years.

I have never been overweight, nor overly thin since I hit my teens. But somehow, it got into my head when I was about 19 or so that my small love handles and tummy qualified me as “fat” and therefore made me unattractive. I weighed myself five times a day, sometimes after a meal or even just after a glass of water. A “weight gain” of 500g was enough to make me go into a downward spiral of negative repetitive thoughts. I could not stop thinking about how much I “gained weight” and would strive to lose that 500g by eating less or exercising more. I ignored all perfectly rational advice that it was “just water”.

In my mind, “being fat” was associated with a loss of control, discipline or willpower, and that scared me greatly. Thinking back now, I was never the brightest nor the most athletic kid at school. But I had come as far as I did because I possessed a reservoir of motivation, which I tapped into whenever I needed to study for my most hated school subject (chemistry), or whenever a track and field competition loomed. In the same way, I had maintained my “normal weight” by halving my portions and generally just lowering my calorie intake whenever I felt I was over the “acceptable” limit. To go over a certain weight would have meant some kind of abject failure on my part, and I just couldn’t abide by that.

My fat obsession tapered off when I entered university; largely because I managed to surround myself with good people who did not care how much I weighed, and also because I found a healthier avenue for which to channel all that energy: my studies in English Literature. Nevertheless, I still recall days when I woke up “feeling bloated” and being bothered by it for the rest of the day. Still, it was, to me, a big step forward when the bulk of my thoughts were no longer centred around food or feeling self-conscious of belly bulge.

A few years ago, I picked up muay thai (Thai boxing) in an attempt to radically change my lifestyle as I no longer found joy in partying it up every Friday night. What was initially an attempt to fit some regular exercise into my schedule became a passion. I saw dramatic changes in my body shape – I weighed the same but looked leaner and more toned. Naturally, I was pleased and, a few months later, I found myself packing my bags for Chiang Mai for a gruelling two months at a muay thai camp to improve my skills. The three to four hours of exercise a day saw me shrinking a little more each day, even as I tried to eat to maintain muscle tone.

I lost four kilos in about five weeks but the most astonishing thing was, the weight loss didn’t make me happy. I had reached that XX kg which, in my mind, I always thought of as “my ideal weight”, but there was no elation, not even a smidgen of triumph at having finally reached that magical number after all these years.

Instead, my new body felt completely alien to me, with its strange new dimensions and angles. My love handles had disappeared and in their place were my hipbones, which were barely able to hold up the pair of shorts I had bought just before I left for Thailand. Where I’d always self-consciously and sometimes subconsciously touched my little tummy was flatness and tautness, and I strangely found myself missing that little bulge that, whether I’d liked it or not, had become a part of me.

Then it hit me: I wasn’t happy when I was “big” … and neither was I happy when I was thin. So, I started redefining my body in other ways that made sense to me: I liked being strong, to be able to hold planks for one and a half minutes, to be able to run 10km in under an hour, to go five rounds on boxing pads with my trainer without giving up, to be able to hold the yoga chair pose until the final count. I started to work with my body instead of fighting against “fatness” or trying to get it to be “thinner”. Instead of regarding it with hatefulness and disgust, I began to appreciate all the amazing things my body could do, and I marvelled at how quickly it could do even more with regular training.

At the grand old age of 30, I’ve finally come to accept the look and shape of my body for what it is. But more importantly, I’ve begun to develop an appreciation for its strength, flexibility and ability to endure – and not what dress size it fits into.

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About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. Lastly, she believes that everyone should make it a point to travel solo at least once in their lives. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets

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