By the time I was 13 I was convinced that there was only one standard of beauty. Thin. I was constantly reminded of it every day. At train stations, in advertisements, on TV shows and at family gatherings. Everywhere I went and everyone I met seemed to have a say in the way my body looked and it all seemed to point back to the fact that I haven’t met the ideal standard.
Growing up in both South Korea and Hong Kong, I quickly realised how common Asian cultural values are shared. Food is a common love language. It transcends the barriers of literacy to translate itself to ‘I love you’ but by twisted logic it’s also destructive. Indulge too much of it and you’ll be carrying burdens of shame.
It has become normalised for family members and friends to comment on your weight as a greeting. “You look like you’ve gained weight, should you really be eating that?” What should’ve been taken lightly as small talk felt like a tsunami of criticism to the thirteen year old me. Maybe it was puberty, insecurity or the trivial pressures of society, but when you’re growing up and all you want is to be accepted it becomes a much harder task to see it as just a comment.
During the summer of 2013 I had lost a substantial amount of weight. I wasn’t a fat kid growing up but had some baby fat that would obliviously hang onto my body. I hadn’t noticed much until I started receiving compliments from family and friends about my weight loss. At first, I couldn’t help feeling proud. It motivated me to eat healthier, workout regularly and I was confident and happy. But soon it became addicting. I couldn’t get enough. It was validating and without it I felt like a failure, that I no longer mattered. Compliments drove my motivation to lose even more weight despite having already lost more than 20 pounds.
Everything happened almost instantaneously. I hadn’t and still don’t have any recollection as to how I lost so much weight to begin with. I’d look in the mirror and despised what I saw. I’d be so fixated on certain features but soon enough what started as localised flaws began spreading. From the way I talked, to the way my cheek bones move when I smile, to the way my breasts are shaped, to how my love handles would hang.
While I couldn’t control most of my flaws, there was one thing that would give me the objective results that let me know I was doing something right. The scale soon became my religion. I would be at its beck and call every morning, counting calories every day and measuring myself every week. The number on the scale became a huge determining factor as to how my day would turn out. I’d cancel plans, holidays, birthdays because I couldn’t fathom the idea of being seen in a group of people when there was still so much work to be done.
I started distancing myself from my friends, avoiding social gatherings and experiencing sporadic mood swings. Soon enough my internal struggles started surfacing. My hair started falling out, I couldn’t get up until my dizziness subsided, I would feel cold all the time and most troubling of all I’d lost my period (something my body is still recovering from). One memory I do remember is being jealous of girls bonding over their shared experience of painful period cramps in toilet stalls and passing pads and tampons in secrecy in class – as if it was an exclusive clique I wasn’t part of.
Despite my hopes to keep up an effortless illusion like the dream I’d been sold by media, my secret couldn’t be kept any further. My family and friends started noticing my physical changes and compliments no longer became words of envy and astonishment but of worry and shock. But I’ve always kept my problems to myself and this time was going to be no different.
It wasn’t until I started chronically fainting and collapsing that I realised this was a much bigger issue than just my vanity. I’d feel my blood drain from my face to my fingertips until a moment of blackness outstripped my vision. While I’ve fainted on multiple occasions; during a spin class, on a hike, from getting up too quickly, the worst of all was when I fainted at a Church in Korea. Being carried in an ambulance with my mother and sister by my side it was the wakeup call I needed to realise what I had succumbed to.
Seeing my family worry, I knew what they were going through was more than the pain I’d put myself through. Lying helplessly in the urgent care unit strapped to IV drips making up for lost nutrition, I could no longer fight alone. I needed help. I cried that night with my mother while she nurtured me as I finally spilled. Once I’d admitted defeat, things weren’t any easier. The road to recovery was tough. I’d experienced multiple relapses but I was fed up living as a prisoner in my own body.
Recovery was like a game of Snakes and Ladders. Re-learning how to eat again only to relapse because of how my brain categorised good food and bad food. Taking another two steps forward and stop planning my meals and exercising rigorously only to be taken five steps backwards after looking at the mirror and seeing that my collar bone no longer protruded. I’d take a ladder up once I stopped weighing myself only to be awaited by the snake that slid me down to cancelling plans when I noticed the stretch marks on my thighs.
I’d have my good days and I’d have my bad ones too. Replacing old habits that I have accrued throughout the years was like learning a new way to live. I steadily stopped relying on both the scale and the mirror and I started listening to my body. I would eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted so long as I was satisfied. I no longer had the hunger pangs that would wake me up in the middle of the night. Of all, I stopped comparing myself to others. It was only then I was able to truly see the unique beauty in people and myself.
Fast forward seven years, my thoughts back then still lives in part of me and it’s something that I’ll always live with. The days leading up to writing this article I took some time to reflect on myself. I realised how far I’ve come since then but also being hesitant and feeling under the weather when writing, I also realised how much that part of me I thought I’d left behind still resonates subconsciously.
What I do know now is that I may not always like what I see or the comments I hear but I wouldn’t compromise my health for feeling as comfortable in my body as I do now or how strong I feel – I even overcame my fear of spin class a week ago! Back then my mom would tell me “people won’t remember you for how you looked, what you said or even what you did. They’ll remember you for how you made them feel.” So let’s just be kind to others and maybe a bit more to ourselves.