"The ability to recognize beauty is not a passive act of seeing but an active endeavour of self-understanding." - Ocean Vuong.
The first time I heard the word 'fat', I was probably still in my early adolescence. Back then, 'fat' was just a word to me, like any other, used to describe things. Like apples are 'red' or oranges are 'round'.
I was fat.
Though merely a descriptor, the word 'fat' planted itself in my mind like a seed, stemming from it one self-deprecating thought after another. It felt like any accomplishments I had, be it a minuscule task like learning a new language or momentous events such as scoring straight A’s in an exam, would be preceded by the fact that I was 'fat'.
And for the longest time, I carried that word with me wherever I went. I brought it on vacations where I skipped going to the beach because I did not like my body in a bathing suit. I etched it on the spines of books I've read in school corridors during recess because I "was not hungry".
Somehow this word that had so long ago begun as an innocent remark stuck with me until the day I left high school. By this time, I had thankfully improved my relationship with food and, my appearance no longer troubled me. I could even go as far as saying I was happy and confident with the way I looked. But as with all recovery journeys, some days will be stormier than others. It goes without saying: recovery is a lifelong process, not something a one-off visit to the doctors can fix.
However, something happened at the end of my pre-university year that gave me something to ponder on. As I was preparing to enter my undergraduate course for Dietetics with Nutrition, I received an interview invitation for my university's scholarship programme. As with most interviews, I was asked the golden question, "Tell me more about yourself".
Like many others, I spouted off a list of conventional responses from my background to my hobbies, passions and finally, why I wanted to become a dietitian. Thankfully, the rest of the interview went off without a hitch, but it left me with an epiphany. Never once did I think of my weight in those few minutes of describing myself. And I will go out on a limb here and say that for most, your weight would not even make it into that brief description. That is because we are so much more as a person than our body size.
Yet, as I have shown you, that is not always the case. As an aspiring dietitian, I often encounter instances of men and women who have consciously or unconsciously internalized their weight and body size as a part of their identity. Many people of bigger sizes who are hardworking, intelligent, and successful consider themselves lazy because of the prejudicial stereotype society often perpetuates against fatness. But if we were to see all that they've achieved in life, we know they are anything but!
Even on the smaller body spectrum, any changes to a person's physical appearance may significantly affect their self-identity. When we live in a society where appearance gets complimented over one's character and achievements, it is not difficult to see how our self-worth can get absorbed in our body size.
It is also not a surprise that a changing body can lead to feelings of distress because it calls our self-identity into question. But that's not to say our physique does not play a role in our sense of self. People's experiences in the world are often dictated by their bodies, and these experiences are the ones that shape them into who they are. Therefore, it is impossible to detach one from the other. Given that our bodies change as we progress in life, encasing our identity in it does not seem like a good option.
For those who may struggle with this, it can be helpful to build our identity and nurture self-acceptance outside of our physical bodies. One thing I like to do every night before calling it a day is penning down three things I am grateful for, be it a person or an event that had occurred during the day. If this is too cumbersome for you, try listing the characteristics you value most about yourself on a piece of paper or your phone's notepad that does not touch on your appearance as a reminder. On one of 'those' days, you may even call to mind all the great things your body has done to carry you through tough times.
At the end of the day, I believe part of making peace with our bodies is accepting any and every future version of it, or at least striving towards that. None of us can freeze our bodies at the age we are now or guarantee we will always be free of any illnesses. I cannot even say if any future bodies of mine will be easy to accept, but there is one thing I do know. Self-acceptance is a journey, not a destination and building my identity beyond my looks has given me the strength I need to get through the ups and downs of life.
Prepared by Lim Kah Yen,
Final Year Student, 2022
BSc (Hons) Dietetics with Nutrition,
International Medical University (IMU)
Checked by Mohd. Siddeq Azha,
Diet Ideas Sdn. Bhd.