Battling negative body image can often feel like a futile fight. But take heart, it is possible to overcome them.
John Lim, now a writer who also speaks on youth and young adult issues, shares his own struggles with body image issues.
“I remember when I was in primary school, I was in the trim and fit club, or the ‘tough club’. Despite exercising, my weight never went down. And my friends would tease me, ‘Eh, John, why you exercise so much still so fat.’”
“I would try to laugh it off, but inside, I felt discontent with my weight and body image,” he said.
From that early exposure to body shaming, John found that he would binge eat at major events in his life, such as when he was deciding what course to study at university.
“I tried to quell the anxieties, and things got better because I saw a therapist. But the issue resurfaced when job hunting,” he adds.
The desire to control is actually a coping mechanism.
When eating disorders emerge in children, parents often ask, “Why?” John wondered the same. “Dealing with the disorder was hard. I kept asking, ‘Why am I so weak? Why can’t I stop?’ It wasn’t just about the food,” he reflects.
“In Singapore’s competitive environment, it can be common to feel that one is not good enough. Comparisons in academics from parents and peers weigh heavily. This spills over into other areas like body image. You start thinking something’s wrong and try to control it through dieting or an eating disorder,” he explains.
Comparison can be unwittingly encouraged by social media and peer comments about weight and appearance, but the desire to control is actually a coping mechanism. There are many things our children can’t control like their peers’ behaviour or their academic grades but they can control their food intake.
John puts it this way – “It’s like the things that you do externally to gain a sense of control over your circumstances.”
Even though it seems more fun to be elsewhere, being with them matters.
Everyone needs people willing to connect with them, even when they’re not receptive.
For John, a friend from volunteering was a turning point in his recovery.
“I was bingeing heavily and was not in good shape. But my friend kept asking me, and never gave up on me. He also kept trying to joke and lighten the mood, even when I wasn’t fun to be around,” John shares.
He urges parents and friends to take the relational risk and reach out to those who are struggling. “Even though it seems more fun to be elsewhere, being with them matters. You can pick up warning signs of eating disorders, like changes in eating habits, excessive bathroom time, or social withdrawal,” he advises.
Some common signs could be the intake and output of food. Are there extreme changes to eating habits, are they spending excessive time in the toilet, or withdrawn from social circles?
Investing in our children’s internal health is crucial. “In social work and psychology, we often talk about psychological safety. As a parent, providing a safe space is essential. It’s about showing empathy and compassion, and being there for your child,” he says. Instead of questioning why they act a certain way, assume they’re doing their best. “This changes how we support our children,” John concludes.
With support, overcoming eating disorders, like John’s, is possible.
1 – Acknowledge the struggle
It can be daunting to have to face the issue but the start to recovery is recognising there is a problem. Instead of pretending things are okay or that the problem will resolve by itself, we have to accept that something serious is happening and it needs our attention.
2 – Ask for help
Often, guilt and shame prevent us from asking for help. We may even justify this by believing no one can help us or even blame ourselves for having a problem. Can you identify with what John shared about using unhealthy eating habits as an attempt to gain control over your life? If so, please be honest about the care you need. Asking for help is you choosing a better life for yourself and breaking this vicious circle.
3 – Isolate your triggers
Eating disorders don’t appear overnight. They are the fruit of seeds that have been sown in your life for a while. For some, it could be repetitive judgmental words from people about weight. For others, it could even be from coming from a household where being a certain size or looking a certain way was obviously important. Isolating your triggers can help you work at the core issue that caused the symptom of poor self-image or eating habits.
4 – Be kind to yourself
Now that you isolated your triggers, you must have clear-cut action points on what to do when you are triggered. When the familiar pull towards harmful thoughts and actions gets strong, these are a few simple things you can do – Get up from where you are, put on music that takes your attention away from self-defeating thoughts, call a trusted friend or family member, or go out for a walk. Be kind to yourself. There may be times you don’t manage to do these. Instead of sliding back into self-blame, choose to try again.
5 – Establish truth reminders
As you rebuild your life, having building blocks of truth is important for you to sustain your healing and growth. What do you need to remind yourself? Is it “I am loved” or “I can do this”? Is it hopeful thoughts about the future like “One day, this will not be a struggle anymore”? Try to find people and things in your life you can be thankful for. Gratitude helps to prevent us from slipping into comparison.
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