Recently I bumped into a neighbour and the first thing she said to me was “Wah, 看起来你发福了是吗?” In other words, she is saying that I gained weight. That made me start reflecting about fat shaming in Singapore/Malaysia.
Growing up in Singapore as a fat kid
Since I was born, I was chubby. I was round and like a ball. When you were less than 5 years old, that was probably cute. However, once you get into primary school, the shaming begins. I’m not sure about the school system now, but back in my days, we had the Trim and Fit club (TAF club), where students were forced to miss recess to do sports and exercise. Think about this message that schools were sending to children – you are fat, being fat is wrong, you need to exercise, and you cannot eat and play like everyone else.
I guess that’s when I started having issues with my weight. When my sister was born, she was the opposite of me, she was slim and she had always played sports growing up so she was fit. When I would go back to see my relatives, I’d always be compared to her. My sister was made to go to TAF club in primary 1, then a relative commented, “If your sister needs to go to TAF club, then what about you?” Messages like these stay with kids for life.
After primary school, I lost some weight, but entering secondary school, boys were mean. My NPCC senior called me “The cadet with fat thighs”. Another thing that sticks in your head. Other of my school mates would compare and say, “Wah your mother is so slim, what happened to you”, and it goes on. When you have not met someone in Singapore or Malaysia for a long time, the first thing they usually say is “Wah, you lost weight already ah” or “Wah, you grew fat”.
How body shaming affects us – perspective of a psychologist in Singapore
These messages might seem harmless or seem like a culturally appropriate thing but little do people know how much these messages can affect the other person. I share the perspective of someone who is fatter in the Asian culture, but someone who is skinny might face their own set of challenges. I know people trying to bulk up because the messages they received were “Wah, why you so skinny”. It’s all about the person’s body and external looks. How superficial we are.
I believe that many of these messages have affected how we speak to ourselves and how we view ourselves as people. Personally, I have a love hate relationship with food. I like to eat, but I always need to be super careful about what I eat or I need to exercise extra to not gain any weight. Others might develop other body image issues or even eating disorders.
I used to shame myself when I eat, treat my body really poorly, and do bad things to it. It did not help. I would call myself fatty, tell myself I’m disgusting, and say mean things. However, after learning self-compassion, I have decided to treat myself kinder. When I want to eat, I ask myself, are you really hungry or are you feeling anxious? If my answer is anxious, I will try to find out what’s going on, and try to comfort and soothe myself in other ways rather than food. Sometimes we feel empty and we use food to fill the gap. That might make us feel worse.
What our psychologists have to say about fat-shaming and overeating
Emptiness that we feel emotionally cannot be filled using external means. Most of the time, we need love and care to fill that void. We need to learn how to fill our bodies with love and care, not just from others, but from ourselves.
I used to think that if I was nice to myself, I would indulge myself and never be a better version of me. I realised that I also never believed that I deserved love or to be kind to myself. It’s something that I never really knew about growing up. Asian families use “tough love” or “reverse psychology” to show their love. They use beating, scolding, advising, shaming, or guilt tripping to get you to do what they want. This is very common.
It’s not the fault of our parents that they use those methods. Our parents have never been taught how to love in gentle ways. This is what they experienced growing up and what they know, hence they believe it’s the right way.
However, now that we know that love can be shown in gentler and nicer ways, shall we be the new generation that does so? Being kind, caring, and gentle doesn’t mean being a push over or letting everything slide. It means, learning to speak using kinder words, while setting boundaries to protect ourselves.
If you want to learn to have a better relationship with food, be more resilient to body shaming, there is hope! It starts with understanding why you don’t have a good relationship with food, what messages you have been sent in the past, empathising with your experiences, and learning to be kinder to yourself and use caring words of encouragement for you!