A plus-sized woman in Singapore tells her story on representation, body positivity, and her time for change
Round is a shape. I have always been a big girl. My whole life I was always described as plump and cute. And once you've passed a certain age, that doesn't exactly equate to be a compliment. I was the only student with a tummy when I danced ballet from the ages of 6 to 12 in primary school. I may have been round but I could cartwheel, bridge pose, plié, spot turn, and I took centre stage in all the school performances there were. For as long as I can remember then, my size was never a limitation.
But when I was 12, my mother had me on The Beverly Hills diet. The first three days of the diet consisted of eating only pineapple, then only papaya, and only watermelon. You could eat any amount but nothing else could enter your mouth. The hogwash behind it was that the pineapple removed the fat, the papaya gathered it together, and the watermelon washed it out. Suffice to say, I barely made it past day 1 or 2 but the process was repeated over and over. Unfortunately, the only person who benefited from this was the fruit shop owner.
Sports was never my thing in school. I hated to sweat. I was always one of the last two struggling pupils in the 2.4km run. The other girl (who is still one of my best friends) was ironically, a skinny girl who too hated sports and getting herself sticky.
"I never understood the point of that club other than to humiliate overweight and underweight kids."
Soon I was forced into the TAF club (we all know it's not trim-and-fit but FAT spelled backwards), a place where we were made to do nonsensical workouts and denied food during recess time. I remember having to leave my purchased lunch because all the fat kids were suddenly summoned to get screamed at. Recess time ended and the food had to be discarded. I never understood the point of that club other than to humiliate overweight and underweight kids. From my memory, it never educated on good fitness nor, more importantly, healthy eating habits.
I was happy with my looks. For me, as long as my breasts protruded further than my stomach, I was fine. I spent my mid-teens to late twenties sucking my stomach in. And if I was getting attention from boys, I felt validated.
University days were better because living in England made me realise that my UK14 top and UK16 bottom were not big, but instead they were average sizes. It was also the unhealthiest time of my life as I partied most nights and ate mostly junk food and take-out. In a weird change of events, I lost some weight and even dropped a clothes size. Shopping for clothes in the UK was more enjoyable than in Singapore. I always found it a demotivating experience here since finding the correct size and fit was an issue. After a while, I stopped trying and just window shopped. Things have definitely changed over the years since I returned home in 2006. I find we stock bigger sizes, albeit in smaller quantities, and of course, online shopping is a whole new (plus-size) world. The average size of being skinny in Singapore will probably always remain but retailers have become more educated in sizing, given that there is a lot of money to be made by carrying and designing for bigger sizes.
"At my first job, a senior female boss had said "Actually, you're quite pretty." Like it was an epiphany that I could be big, of a minority race (implied during the conversation), and have a beautiful face."
Growing up, statements like "You have such a pretty face, just lose some weight" as if it was a miracle cure to all things good was constantly repeated by my family members. Weight was the reason for being unmarried. Money spent on solo-traveling was instead suggested to be spent on a fat-loss camp. I was even told to lose weight for an emotionally abusive boyfriend. At my first job, a senior female boss had said "Actually, you're quite pretty." Like it was an epiphany that I could be big, of a minority race (implied during the conversation), and have a beautiful face.
The problem with all these behaviours centering around physicality is that it does nothing for the recipient other than to create self-esteem issues. It may be surprising, but we are perfectly aware of our size — skinny or fat. We have plenty more achievements and failures in our lives despite our weight.
Once I hit 30, body insecurity issues manifested. Suddenly, I could not dance like I used to because my knees hurt. It took me longer to recover from just one night out, and I could feel aches and pains in places I didn't know that was possible. I hated my ever-growing stomach. The days of easily sucking in were over. Ageing is no fun.
The time had come to take my health seriously. Not only because I was at my heaviest weight ever, but I was worried I will end up having all the ailments my parents have. Combined, they have dealt with diabetes, heart bypass, cancer, and gout. If I could prolong getting the inevitable, then I had to do it. I was also going on a skiing trip for the first time and needed to work out to get prepared to learn snowboarding. I tried to do it on my own but then I really didn't know what I was doing at the gym. A colleague then recommended me a personal trainer, and that started my weight-loss, muscle-gain journey.
"Having to plan my meals, deny myself all the chocolates and dairy, figure out what's healthy to eat when dining out, and being hangry every day at 4pm was a major mental struggle."
In four months, I lost 16kgs. I was the fittest I had ever been in my life. It was also the hardest thing I ever did. As time went by, I was willingly going for runs and feeling the need to sweat more. I gained muscle, my stomach was significantly smaller, and I felt great. I do enjoy working out but food was the real enemy. The meal plan I had, in theory, wasn't difficult to follow. But having to plan my meals, deny myself all the chocolates and dairy, figure out what's healthy to eat when dining out, and being hangry every day at 4pm was a major mental struggle.
As I sojourned on my fitness journey, I celebrated my weight-loss achievements a bit too much. The constant food control was something I didn't want to maintain. This was in 2013 and in the years since, I have put back on all that weight I lost — muscle included. It might sound disappointing but I am the strongest I have ever been in my life.
"I was probably the most active I have ever been in my life. And yet, the weight didn't go. It didn't help that I may have salads, but I always had dessert. Oops."
Last year, I quit my job of ten years to go solo traveling. In that time, I climbed three mountains, went for a wellness retreat that included daily yoga (which I still maintain) and boxing combined with pilates. I snorkelled, I kayaked, I hiked, and I danced a whole lot again. I did laps at my Airbnbs' swimming pools, workouts in hotel rooms, and when at home, I trained at the gym. The most active I have ever been in my life. And yet, the weight didn't go. It didn't help that I may have salads, but I always had dessert. Oops.
Weight has always been my issue, but I still amaze myself every time I willingly run, hike, or do anything active. My last health check in 2017 showed that my legs are mostly muscle (yes, squats!), my fat is concentrated on my stomach area (sigh), and my overall health is good (no onset of diabetes or anything). I've come a long way from my school days and that's important to me.
Meanwhile, I will keep trying to love my body the way it is, and be an example to everyone who sees me defy the (big) odds by being active. If 6-year-old me didn't see size as a limitation, why start now?
This is Plus-Size Fitness. Watch this space for what else I will do.