Cheryl Tay: Finding confidence through fitness

I recall the horror that would overwhelm me when I saw the digits on the scale increase, before I proceeded to slap myself and dig my nails deep to scratch along the sides of my face and forearms.

I wouldn’t stop until I bled, as it was ‘punishment’ to myself for eating and “gaining weight”. Only 18 years of age then, it was such a strong obsession with weight loss that I got sucked into.

Absolutely mental.

I wasn’t born chubby, but I gained a considerable amount of weight when puberty hit me at 12. I grew a love for junk food and I remember eating six roti pratas (with egg) and two Milo Dinosaurs for breakfast. I would also empty out my piggy bank to buy chips, chocolate, ice cream and soft drinks.

My schoolmates wouldn’t let me off. They gave me the nickname “Sharity” (that pink charity elephant) because it sounded like my name, I liked pink and I was chubby. I was also the last to take the school bus and this group of skinny girls would intentionally squeeze into three seats (of five) at the back of the bus and take out a long ruler to measure seat space for me: “Is this enough space for you Cheryl?”

Going on to secondary school, I was actively involved in the badminton, track and cross-country school teams. The baby fat naturally fell off me and I became quite thin, but I gradually put on weight because I was constantly hungry due to the high frequency of training and I ate what I liked, thinking that I could out-train a bad diet. As a result of the training, my body developed differently from the average girl’s. My arms, thighs and butt were bigger for example.

Then, my first boyfriend left me for “not being hot or pretty enough”. He was ashamed of being seen with me in public and he would often compare me to pretty girls we see on the streets. At only 16, my self-esteem took a massive beating and from then on, I felt very conscious of myself.

By the time I entered junior college, I was on the heavier side of things. Growing up in an all girls’ school for 10 years, being in a mixed environment made me feel worse about myself as my peers started attracting boys and getting into relationships. I, instead, became the “Bro” and never had the pleasure of being pursued.

Focused on cross-country training, I ran every day and could push out a decent 2.4km timing of less than 10 minutes. Thus, I was afraid of changing the body drastically, so I stayed at around 62kg (at 1.67m tall) throughout.

I endured all the teasing, as boys called me “Cheryl Piggy Tay”, “Pinky Porky”, “Airporkling” and more. I took it in good humour and often made fun of myself with them, but I was unaware of how much it ate me from within.

When the competitive running season ended and performance was no longer my goal (GCE ‘A’ levels were round the corner), I decided to try and lose weight. From a harmless visit to a slimming centre, everything spiralled into a desperate pursuit of being thin.

Initially, I was running 20km every morning, doing three hours of kickboxing in the afternoon and running another 6km in the evening. On the run, I wore additional layers (jacket and sweatpants over my tshirt and shorts) so that I would perspire more. I starved myself by eating only one apple a day and I refused to drink any water.

In short, I was just fixated on getting the numbers on the scale down.

In two months I lost nearly 20kg, but I still felt I was fat. I withdrew from my friends and avoided going out with them, because I felt they didn’t understand and would only force me to eat. I lost my personality as I became grouchy all the time. I resented friends who were slimmer and prettier than me. My parents wanted to take me to see a psychiatrist but I got angry, insisting that I don’t have an issue. My period didn’t come for seven months and I was afraid to tell anyone.

And then I burst.

It was impossible to sustain such a lifestyle and when I took up a temporary job that worked office hours, I couldn’t find the time to exercise that extensively. Worse, I was burnt out and was so, so sick of running and exercising. At the same time, I couldn’t starve myself anymore and I went on a rampage, eating all the foods I’ve been avoiding for months.

The 20kg I painstakingly lost bounced back so quickly (in a matter of a few weeks) and I couldn’t take the blow. People asked what happened and although some said I look better, I became increasingly frustrated at myself for the rebound.

This was where I sought alternative methods.

I worked multiple part-time jobs – salesgirl, waitressing, giving tuition, giving out flyers, temp jobs at a bank – and channelled all the money earned into various weight loss methods.

I would pay for expensive packages at slimming centres and painfully sat in their hot blankets, apply loads of slimming cream (including a chili one that burnt my eyes), mix different brands of over-the-counter slimming pills, wrap my tummy (too) tightly with a corset, try to purge my food, overload on laxatives till my stomach hurt and diuretics till I nearly fainted.

I lost count of the number of home slimming machines, slimming patches, detox cleanses, colon cleanses, meal replacements and low-calorie diets I went through. I even paid for fat-melting injections and was on the verge of going for liposuction.

During this process, I fell prey to binge eating and could easily eat five packets of Tim Tams, two tubes of Pringles, one tray of 36 Ferrero Rochers and one tin of butter cookies IN ONE SITTING even though my stomach was hurting.

Guess what? It was all in vain. I couldn’t lose any weight.

I eventually ran out of money and was forced to give up this “mission”. Throughout university, I became even fatter from all the late-night suppers in hall and I was still burnt out from all the over-exercising. I hated how I looked and I was always hiding in oversized tshirts and FBT shorts.

Towards the end of university though, I lost some weight due to stress at school. That got me started again and I was back to slimming pills and low-calorie diets. I managed to stay at the lower end of 50kg for a couple of years, but by the time I hit 25, the kilos just piled back. I desperately tried to pick up running again and I even did Bikram Yoga for 40 days in a row, but the body eventually settled at 60kg.

My metabolism suffered terribly throughout those years from all the things I did to my body and for a long time, no matter what exercise I did or how I watched my diet, I remained flabby, thus always hiding under baggy clothes.

Then I discovered weights in 2013. I hired a personal trainer for six months and for the first time in my life, I did things like deadlifts, back squats, shoulder presses, bench presses, bicep curls, reverse flys, dumbbell rows and more. My body started changing, becoming toner and firmer.

I felt a lot better about myself and I feel more toned. I realised that we should accept our bodies for what they are and not lose ourselves in trying to force our bodies into something it’s not. Also, we should exercise because we genuinely like it and not because we want to lose weight. That way, it wouldn’t feel like a chore.

I eventually found my confidence through fitness.

I learnt to appreciate the functionality of our bodies – suddenly I am able to lift something so heavy off the ground, I am able to complete so many burpees at one go, I can finish a half-marathon. I’ve competed CrossFit, a high-intensity constantly-varied functional type of fitness, which involves Olympic weightlifting. I will also be attempting my first Ironman 70.3 triathlon later this year, challenging myself to try something different.

Coming to terms with myself finally, I learnt that the numbers on the scale is not a reflection of your self-esteem. We should not be defined by what others think of us, we should not let ourselves be controlled by our weight. Focus more on how you feel and bring out that confidence from within.

It’s been over a decade now, but I’m glad I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. The endless chase of being skinny was exhausting me in all ways – emotionally, physically, mentally, financially – and I wasn’t happy. At all. I always felt I wasn’t good nor pretty enough to deserve certain things.

Sustainable results take time. Quick fixes can only give you temporary contentment, before you fall back into the sinkhole. Adopt an active lifestyle, take care of your body well and it will reward you ultimately.

The mindset towards our bodies is very important and I hope you realise that putting pressure on yourself to look a certain way is not healthy. If you truly love yourself, you wouldn’t let yourself starve yourselves thin or sit around on the couch and do nothing.

The struggle is real and it isn’t easy to accept ourselves fully, but it’s not impossible. You’re also not alone in this. I wish there was a support community I could turn to back then, hence I initiated Rock The Naked Truth, a body image movement to help others take care of their bodies well and find their confidence whilst having a support community.

All of us have our own set of insecurities that affect our self-esteem. It could be about our weight, hair, skin, teeth or a medical condition. That doesn’t mean you aren’t beautiful, that doesn’t mean you’re not an inspiration to others.

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After I graduated and started my career in private practices, I still couldn’t find the discipline of keeping an active fitness routine. It was also during this time that I went through three incidents that knocked me down hard.
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