17 valuable lessons I learnt from my body image struggles

After battling my body image monsters for over a decade – and spending lots of money and crying too many tears of frustration – I definitely learnt a lot of things. Once locked in the spiral of body image struggles, it is hard to break out of it even though you know that you shouldn’t be doing what you are doing.

But it is not impossible!

It will take time and you have to try – your mindset is not gonna magically transform overnight. Start by surrounding yourself with positive people and most importantly, people who don’t judge.

Here are 17 valuable lessons that I learnt from my struggles and hopefully they will help you cope with yours:

1) Don’t be motivated by weight loss

If all you think about are numbers, numbers, numbers, it’s gonna drive you crazy. I did everything I could to just get the damn numbers on the scale down. I would run for hours, take excessive laxatives or diuretics, starve myself, sit in the sauna, go for hot yoga and do anything to push the numbers down.

For a start, throw out the scale!

If the reason why you are doing exercise is because you want to become 45kg or have a 21-inch waist, you’re gonna end up giving up somewhere along the way. That’s because exercise will become a chore to you and you will find it such a pain to get up in the morning and put on your running shoes or head to the gym.

I was counting every single calorie I ate and trying to find exercises that burn the most calories. In a day, I was running nearly 30km, doing four hours of kickboxing and even swimming 200 laps before. In the end I burnt out and hated exercising. I refused to run for the next five years!

Focus on wanting to improve your health and find a type of exercise that you genuinely enjoy doing. That way, you won’t feel like it’s torture and you will actually look forward to exercising.


2) Don’t compare yourself to others

This is one of the most common causes of why people slip into body image issues. We see all these models on TV, in magazines, in the movies and we want to look like them. Now that there is Instagram and Facebook, we have even more access to good looking people around the world and we start to idolise even more.

Woman, (or Man), stop comparing yourself to others.

You know what Photoshop is? Airbrush? Yup, most pictures you see in magazines are doctored. Also, why do you want to put yourself under unnecessary stress? These models, actresses and celebs go through extreme diets that are detrimental to health. Do you think they are really happy? Why do you want to be famous like them?

We can all have a six-pack if we wanted to, but the price to pay to get it – is it worth it? And after you get it, what will it do for you? Are you prepared to let go of it after? You can’t be eating steamed chicken breast and broccoli for the next 50 years of your life.

3) You will never be satisfied

The downward spiral never ends. Even when I was at 45kg with skinny arms and a 21-inch waist (and no butt), I STILL FELT I WAS FAT. So annoying! My initial aim was to lose 5kg, then it became 10kg, then I already lost over 20kg, but I wanted to continue losing more. No matter how thin you become, you will just want to become thinner. That is an unhealthy obsession! If you feel you’re a bit pudgy and you want to lose weight, nothing wrong with that, but know when to stop.

4) Sustainable results take time, so set realistic goals

I often tell others this – Results aren’t immediate; if they are, they won’t last. All these models that go on extreme diets and exercise plans need to lose a certain amount of weight in a certain amount of time, but it is so unhealthy. Besides, do you have the time to keep up a twice-daily fitness regime? You have a normal life to lead, with bosses to answer to and family to take care of.

Set realistic goals and give yourself a year or more. The aim is to shed the kilos and keep them off, not lose them in three to six months, look good in photos and then suffer a rebound. Ask the bodybuilders – they aren’t shredded all year round. They have their off-season bodies too. Make a long-term plan and stick to it. Short-term successes achieved through fad diets or quick fixes will only make you feel worse.

5) You will always have ‘off’ days

There will be days when you wake up, look in the mirror and feel fatter than usual. Don’t start punishing yourself or hating yourself more. Our bodies are very sensitive and smart systems. I suffer from bloating when I eat certain foods, so you might be exercising right and eating well, but suddenly you notice you’re more bloated than usual and it affects your confidence. It could be PMS, something you ate, stress and even lack of sleep – all of these cause bloating.

There will also be days where you find it harder to control your cravings and you fall prey to binge eating. If you aren’t supposed to have a cheat meal that day but you broke your resistance, don’t be so hard on yourself. Have it and then jump back on track the next meal. I used to think, “Oh since I already had chocolates, why don’t I just eat more junk the rest of today and go back on the diet tomorrow?”

One bad meal is not gonna make you fat, and that doesn’t mean you can go on to eat a whole day of junk food. Just get back on track as soon as you can!

6) Your loved ones will be hurt the most

Suffering from body image issues and eating disorders may seem like it’s your own problem, but you’re actually hurting the people around you most. When your family and close friends see you treating yourself like that, they are hurting more than you know. To you, it seems like they are nagging you and not understanding what you’re going through, but they are actually concerned and they feel helpless because they don’t know what to do to help you.

I remember hating everyone around me back then – I didn’t want to listen to anyone and I was very angry at them. My friends kept telling me I needed to eat and that I was skinny enough, my parents wanted to send me to the psychiatrist but I felt I wasn’t sick nor crazy. My sister cried when she saw me scratching myself till I bled. I would scratch my forearms and sides of my face until the skin broke and I started bleeding.

I also started to resent my slimmer friends, especially those who don’t exercise but eat a lot and can remain so slim. I would distance myself from them and I quietly resented them. I had a friend on the cross-country school team that I was quite close to, but I started to be mean to her because I was jealous of how skinny she was. I never told her, although she tried to ask me what was wrong. Don’t do that to your friends – understand that different people have different body types and metabolic rates.

7) Develop a good relationship with food.

Don’t hate food. I used to blame food for making me fat and I didn’t enjoy eating. I felt like I was forced to eat healthy because I was trying to lose weight. Then when I ate any junk food, I would feel really guilty and beat myself up for it. I fell prey to binge eating because I was starving myself and obviously you go hungry eventually so I burst.

Another time I was trying to eat clean and I forced myself to stay away from junk food, but when I burst, I went mad. In one sitting, I ever ate five tubes of Tim Tam, two tubes of Pringles, one tray of 36 Ferrero Rochers and one entire tin of butter cookies. I felt so guilty by the end of it and I never want to feel that way again.

I realised that the more you restrict yourself, the worse it becomes and you end up eating more junk than you should be. What I do now is to allow myself little treats here and there. This way, I don’t feel deprived and I can control the junk food intake better. For example, I don’t crave for Tim Tam anymore but when I do eat, I just take one or two as opposed to five tubes (which is 50 Tim Tams). I’m not forcing myself to control; the body just knows when is enough.

Many suffer from eating disorders such as bulimia, where they force themselves to vomit what they ate. I tried to stick my fingers down my throat but I just couldn’t induce vomit so I didn’t suffer from bulimia, but it is not healthy at all to be doing that.

It is very common for people to go on low-calorie diets when they want to lose weight. However, undereating is just as bad as overeating. Our bodies are very efficient. When you don’t eat enough, your body will burn muscle instead of fats and it it muscle that you need to help burn your fats, so you’re not helping yourself. Your metabolism will also suffer, so it’s not surprising that you are not losing weight or even gaining weight even though you are eating 500 calories a day and exercising every day.

Remember, nutrition is very important. It forms 80% of your lifestyle, while exercise is only 20%. Fuel your body the way you fuel your car – if you put crap into your car, don’t expect it to perform. Apply the same logic!

8) Don’t neglect your health

We all want to look good and we do drastic things to chase the numbers to the ground, but when health complications occur, is it worth the pain and sacrifice? Not forgetting the medical bills? Regardless of which end of the spectrum you are at, your body suffers at the extremes (becoming stick thin or being obese).

So what if you end up being 40kg but your period doesn’t come anymore, you get hair loss, you fall sick all the time amid other illnesses? Always remember, focus on your health first. Why cut years off your life just because you want a thigh gap? Life has more meaning than that.

9) Good-looking people have insecurities too

Guess what? Good-looking people are actually more insecure than the average person. I’m not saying all of them are, but most of them have a lot of insecurities even though to us they have the looks and the body. It is annoying to us average people when they complain about not being good enough, but for some reason there is some pressure on them despite being “perfect”.

Thus, let go of the need to be perfect because no one is. There is no ideal body and no perfect shape. You are who you are – embrace your body for the natural shape it takes. Your body may change slightly depending on the activities you do, so find something that you enjoy.

11) No one has the right to tell you that you’re fat or ugly.

Just ignore the critics and focus on yourself. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. If anyone dares to tell you that you’re fat and ugly and makes you feel like you are worth less than he is, that person is an idiot. Just because they are better looking or have a hotter body doesn’t give them the right to put others down. That’s not cool, at all.

12) Progress is not linear

The thing about active living or weight loss is that progress is not linear, so manage your expectations! Just because you lost 5kg in the first month doesn’t mean you will constantly lose 5kg every month, so don’t set goals and give yourself unnecessary pressure. In fact, sometimes you might even gain weight because of muscle gain or water retention during muscle recovery.

13) Be mindful of what you say to others

You never know the extent of impact with just one remark from you. There are many people out there who end up sliding into eating disorders because of a comment that their classmate or colleague carelessly passed. “You have thunder thighs, you look fatter than the last time I saw you, you exercise so much why still so fat..” These are all remarks that can cause permanent lifetime psychological damage to someone as they slip into body image issues. Be kind and be mindful of what you say to others.

14) Realise you are in control

You are in control of your life. You decide your actions and you choose what you want to do. Nobody can force you to starve, nobody can make you stuff your fingers down your throat, nobody is saying you have to be a Size ZERO. So don’t feel pressured to be anything – you be firm in your own beliefs and love yourself right.

15) Don’t lose your personality

When I was desperately trying to push the numbers on the scale down, that was all I cared about. Because of the lack of nutrients and the poor nutrition (heck I wasn’t eating), I became moody and grouchy. I was snapping at people and I didn’t have patience for anything or anyone. I avoided going out with my friends and chose to clam myself up at home because I got sick and tired of people telling me I was too skinny and needed to eat.

Until one day, someone said to me, “Cheryl, you are losing your character. You’re no fun to be around anymore. Where’s the outspoken, bubbly and cheerful Cheryl Tay we know and love?” At that point I just ignored what he said, but in hindsight, I realised he was totally right in saying that. There is a lot more meaning in life, like friends and family whom we should care for, instead of shutting them out and being grumpy as hell as we battle the bulge (or perceived bulge).

Embrace inner beauty and we should be loving others for what they are made of (ie. their substance) rather than judging them based on appearance. Remember, being stick thin doesn’t make you the nicest on Earth. On the contrary, you might actually be a terrible bitchy person because of the fatigue from overexercising and the lack of food.

16) Be patient and make it a lifestyle

Create habits that will stay with you for long, otherwise you will fall into a yo-yo effect. If you make drastic changes, you might see results in three months but the minute you go back to a regular lifestyle, the weight rebounds and you feel worse about yourself. Don’t rush to lose 10kg in 12 weeks, but aim to lose it over a year or so. Be patient with results, be patient with progress, be patient about implementing changes into your life.

17) You will never be ready

There will never be a perfect time for you to gather your act and overcome the body image struggles, so do it now! Don’t make any excuses and continue to let yourself slide down the spiral or get trapped in the vicious cycle.

17 )The biggest battles are fought in the head

Ultimately, it all starts from within. The mindset is the most important thing through it all. Adopt the right mindset and tell yourself that you are stronger than this, you can be better than this and you will get there. Don’t give up because we aren’t giving up on you.


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