Last Christmas, I got into a fight with my mother. In the eleven days that followed, a cold war ensued. It all started because of the top that I wore on Christmas eve — a light green button-down with a notch collar, featuring a tropical print. Earlier that year, I decided to trade a pair of shorts for what the previous owner listed as a “Haiwaiian shirt” on Carousell. When it arrived, I was dismayed. The hem was raw at the bottom; there was a slit that was as large as a buttonhole right in the middle of the shirt. I had overlooked the first detail but the second was a defect that the previous owner omitted. But the rayon material was soft to the touch and I was enamored by the idea of owning an article of clothing from Japan, especially one that was made even more unique by its imperfections. Since I was at a crossroads about my decision to eschew fast fashion, a successful trade — or more specifically, the knowledge that I could continue to refresh my wardrobe without guilt — would offer some much-needed consolation. I decided to keep it.
On Christmas day, my parents launched into a discussion about why I ought to stop wearing this top. While the shirt is not cropped, it reveals my midriff when I stretch, which they found unsightly. The conversation took a turn for the worse when my parents revealed that it would be acceptable for me to wear the top if I had a slimmer stomach. These comments were not made out of malice; my parents thought they were simply offering their honest feedback to someone who cared about her image. But I also believe that I should be able to wear whatever I want to, no matter what my body looked like. The final straw was when my mother balked at the amount of rice on my plate, even when I did not intend to finish it, and told me that I didn’t have to eat whenever I felt hungry.
Normally, I would brush such negative comments aside. That week, however, I was exceptionally sluggish since I had been unable to find the time or energy to exercise after returning home from work. Inexplicably, I’m more accepting of the state of my body when I participate in physical self-care, even when it looks the same as when I don’t. Since I was feeling extra sensitive to external judgments then, I confronted my parents for making me feel shame because of my body, which quickly escalated into a heated argument.
Did I get hungry after dinner? Did I snack often? Did I eat whenever I felt hungry even when it was close to my bedtime? But I couldn’t remember anything, because I never paid this much attention to my diet. It was emotionally draining to be so painfully conscious of everything I consumed.
The first time my parents’ remarks triggered a self-esteem spiral was during my semester abroad years ago. I had put on some weight as I was acclimating to a colder climate, exercising less frequently, and struggling with my meal portions. Whenever I sent them pictures of myself or my food, they would point out that my face looks rounder, ask if I managed to finish the huge portions or warn me to watch my diet. I stopped sending visual updates but their words stayed with me.
When winter finally passed, I resumed the exercise routine that I had back at home. I ran and completed the sets out of self-loathing, and with the hope that I would grow to approve of my reflection. Since I was — am — too bad at math to be able to calculate my calorie intake, I settled for recording everything I ate in a day instead. Whenever I felt hungry outside of mealtimes, I was wracked with guilt. I tried to remember my eating patterns back in Singapore. Did I get hungry after dinner? Did I snack often? Did I eat whenever I felt hungry even when it was close to my bedtime? But I couldn’t remember anything, because I never paid this much attention to my diet. It was emotionally draining to be so painfully conscious of everything I consumed. Fortunately, this unhealthy mindset and behavior stopped after the academic semester ended as I no longer had the time to obsess over my diet or exercise routine when I started traveling. Once I returned to my life in Singapore, I slowly regained normalcy with regard to my body and self-esteem.
Two years after my semester abroad, I was scrolling through the gallery on my phone when I stumbled upon one of the photos that I had sent my parents. I’m at a cafe, smiling a tad self-consciously while cutting into my bagel, which was served with strips of bacon and a generous helping of potatoes. My first thought was, “Wow, they were right, the portion was huge.” Now that toxic thoughts were no longer percolating in my mind and wrecking my self-esteem, I was more objective and could see that part of their feedback was reflexive. Nevertheless, my distress stemmed from their unnecessary appraisals of my body and diet, which were the perfect primer for disordered thinking.
When history repeated itself on Christmas Day, I felt betrayed by the emotions that their petty critiques continue to elicit in me. Why am I still so bothered by negative feedback when I can intellectualize that our self-worth should not be defined by our corporeal forms? Why do I accept compliments about my body or comments about any weight loss without qualms when they are equally unsolicited? Surely this is proof of my cognitive dissonance and how I continue to assign positive and negative values to sizes and appearances. My frustration felt like a setback as I thought I was making headway in practicing body neutrality, a movement that entails paying less attention to our bodies. It differs from body positivity, which encourages us to embrace diverse body imagery and to love our bodies despite their flaws. A critical mechanism of body shaming is that bodies are objects to be judged. To dismantle this paradigm through body neutrality, we have to perceive body parts — of ourselves and others — as they are, without categorizing them on the spectrum of being flawed or ideal. This way, there is no need for comparisons or assessments. A body part is just a body part.
A critical mechanism of body shaming is that bodies are objects to be judged. To dismantle this paradigm through body neutrality, we have to perceive body parts — of ourselves and others’ — as they are, without categorizing them on the spectrum of being flawed or ideal.
When I was discussing this concept with a friend of mine, they said they didn’t like how neutrality implies nonchalance. But I wondered if nonchalance was bad and gave an example of how we are more comfortable with our bodies when we are alone, compared to when we have an audience. My friend concluded that body neutrality is an approach worth considering, since being nonchalant is not the same as being uncaring and nonchalance is better than hatred or discomfort. The week before Christmas, I wanted to invest in physical self-care soon but did not beat myself up for not having done it yet. Having such a mindset was a win in my book but it wasn’t enough — the negative feedback I received for wearing my thrifted top had a destabilizing effect.
Hoping to untangle my feelings, I turned to reading. It turns out that my sense of self-worth was predicated on my self-esteem, which is closely linked to ego, narcissism, and social comparison. In an interview in The Atlantic, psychology professor Kristin Neff explains that self-esteem is contingent on three domains: approval, perceived appearance, and success. My self-esteem has been boosted by others’ perception of me as a thin person and it is at risk of crumbling when I’m aware of their perception shifts. Apart from my size, being an able-bodied and cisgender Chinese woman in Singapore society also shapes my self-esteem and affects the way I navigate the world.
Apart from offering clarity about why it’s so easy to succumb to self-esteem spirals (related and unrelated to our physical appearances), Neff also provides an alternative framework: self-compassion. It means treating yourself with the kindness and care you would treat a loved one. When close friends lament about body-shaming remarks made by their relatives, I tell them to pay no heed and remind them that when we think about why we love the people we love. Their inner strengths, not how well they present themselves, would first come to mind. Yet, when the same thing happens to me, I simply launch into self-criticism. According to Neff, the logic behind why self-compassion is more sustainable than self-esteem is simple: “The sense of self-worth that comes from being kind to yourself is much more stable over time than the sense of self-worth that comes from judging yourself positively.” I had failed to see that I, too, was judging myself all along.
As it goes without saying, it is much easier to preach self-compassion than to put it into practice. Paying more attention to our inner monologues is a start; it helps us identify instances when we are being unnecessarily judgmental and self-critical. In fact, self-compassion is an approach that can be applied beyond grappling with our body image. Although trying to be more self-compassionate should inspire me to take personal responsibility, I actually never apologized to my mother for being out of line during our argument. After the cold war proved to be too inconvenient for daily living, we simply moved past our resentment, allowing the argument to tacitly set boundaries for the future.
Self-compassion and body neutrality are not particularly radical frameworks per se but they’ve altered the way I interpret the world and perceive myself. While I have yet to wear the same top since Christmas eve, I’m hopeful that the next time I do, it will be without an ounce of shame.
Feature illustration by Sherryl Cheong and Stella Heng