I was walking to the MRT station one day, when I saw these two girls in JC uniform with a large board. They courteously asked if I would like to purchase some handmade keychains. When I found out that this was in support of the Singapore Association for Mental Health, and in particular the “Support for Eating Disorders”, I was keen to help.
[Slight digression: These days, there are all sorts of people peddling “charity” knick-knacks, but I’ve since learnt that for a plastic minion that they sell for $10, they probably get $5 of the proceeds, which to me is unconscionable. They are paid for selling these things for ‘charity’, and unsuspecting Singaporeans give because they think 90% of the proceeds go to charity. Many a time, I’ve felt like confronting these pesky salespeople – when they ask “Would you like to save wildlife?” or “Do you care for children with cancer?”, I want to say “So, how much money are you making from each sale?”, or “You are not a volunteer right? Isn’t this is a paid sales pitch?”. Sorry, but it annoys me when people who are completely self-interested try to make it sound like they are volunteering out of the goodness of their heart, and try to make those who don’t buy their stuff seem heartless “Oh you don’t care about children from low-income families?”. Errr, I care enough to give money directly to them, and not a huge cut to you parasites.]
Ok rant over. Back to these lovely girls, who were doing this as a school project, volunteering their time and effort in hand-making these wooden spoons with the cutest clay ‘fruits’ ($4 each), and then raising awareness and support for this movement by approaching members of the public.
I bought two keychains, and added a small donation, as this is a cause close to my heart. As a mother to two girls, and as a woman living in this day and age, I can attest to how much pressure there is on girls to look a certain way. The message that bombards us daily, from print ads, from TV commercials, from magazine covers, from friends’ comments, is that you have to be skinny to be attractive. Cue eating disorders in girls who feel that if they can’t go for plastic surgery to give themselves bigger eyes or a higher nose bridge, what they can control, is how much food they allow themselves to eat.
I thought “Margarine of Error” was a cute play of words on “Margin of Error”. Not sure the story behind the name, but perhaps it’s about folks eschewing butter cos they erroneously believe that margarine is less fattening? In any case, I also love their tagline “It’s okay to be who you are right now” (paraphrased).
So I put a photo up on Instagram about this, tagging the group, and they sent a very appreciative reply, which made me realise that I really cared enough about this movement, cared about teenage girls who bear the brunt of such ridiculous pressure, to write a whole blog post on it.
Sometimes, the pressure is perceived to be from men, many of whom will only consider a girl attractive if she’s skinny. Sorry to say, but I think Asian men in particular have a huge mental block about dating someone who is larger than average. Perhaps it’s societal peer pressure they feel too, in having a girlfriend who is ‘not chio’.
Sometimes, the pressure is from other women, which is saddest really, when girls make disparaging comments on another girl’s size. As women, we really need to rally together on so many fronts, and not criticise others to make ourselves feel better. I suppose this is something that most girls learn with age (and which some girls never do, which is then, most tragic for themselves).
Sometimes, and most painfully so, the pressure is from within. Females (ok I must expand this to include males too, for this is the kind of image conscious society we live in today, where the same pressure bears down on males, who then resort to protein pill-popping) feel so insecure, and have such low self-esteem (either due to lack of parental encouragement or consistent parental criticism) that they feel that the only way they can gain acceptance and approval from others, is to starve themselves until they are but skin and bones, so that at least someone finds them pretty. However, it is always disturbing to see people who are prisoner-of-war skinny, and I can tell you that it certainly is not beautiful by any measure.
A friend who’s a secondary teacher observes in the course of her work, girls who suddenly drop in weight, when they are already extremely thin. She then highlights this to their form teachers, and I think they then discuss on whether they need to speak to the girl, and/or her parents. I am grateful that there are teachers who care enough to notice, and who care enough to do something about it.
When I gave my little girls the keychains, I took some time to explain why I bought them, and the issues behind the support group. They might not understand much now, but I hope that others who see this message on their bags, will also take time to be more aware of the people around them, who may be secretly battling eating disorders, and then to care enough to gently ask after them about it.
And I hope that those who are affected will seek professional help, and that getting help for eating disorders will be de-stigmatised, because it is only through acknowledging the issue head-on that the afflicted can recover. The scary part is that it can be very subtle, insidious and easily hidden, or vehemently denied. But I believe it is now more prevalent than we would like to admit. And the afflicted need all the help they can get without being judged.
I hope more people will be aware of the extreme pressure faced by girls in this day and age, from as young as kindergarten. I was horrified when I heard from friends that a kindy girl said, “I cannot eat so much cos I am too fat.” Morbid obesity aside, which is a medical condition in itself, I seriously do not think that the vast majority of kids need to ever think they are fat, or should ever be allowed to mock a friend for being ‘fat’.
Some people like to joke with little kids, “Oh look at your tummy, you are so fat!” or “You are such a fatty pig!”. Whilst they might mean no harm, I think this is certainly needless, and might subconsciously harm a child’s self-esteem, or give them the impression that the only acceptable shape to be is stick-thin.
Beyond size issues, I hope my girls will grow to understand that true beauty always, and ultimately, lies within. In life, it does not take one long to realise that those who look great outwardly, can have really petty and mean hearts. And those with more homely features, less polished dressing, can be some of the most beautiful people you’ll ever meet because they have hearts of pure gold. And I hope my girls will choose to surround themselves with friends who have kind hearts, and not fancy looks.
Even as an adult, I see so many friends struggling with image issues. Everyone is constantly ‘trying to lose weight’, or is concerned with the size of their arms/bum/thighs/tummy, postpartum or otherwise. I am not immune to such concerns, though I try to strike a sane balance between exercising to stay healthy (so that I can eat whatever, whenever, cos I LOVE food), instead of exercising with the single aim of losing X kg so I can have a skinnier ______ (fill in whatever).
With social media and the proliferation of selfies, many people try to flood others with certain images that they want to be perceived as. Personally, I find the whole selfie-selfie-selfie thing very silly, and even more so if it’s like women in their 30s and 40s trying to look like they are still 20. Or anyone trying to get the perfect angle so they look like they have bambi eyes and a (very fake) sharp chin.
Underlying all this selfie-ing, are image issues. People find it hard to accept who they are. I want to shout it from the mountaintops that, (cue crazy singing) “You are beautiful, no matter what they say, words can’t bring you down…”, and that if everyone works on their inner beauty, it will shine out from your eyes, and you need not care about how others label you. Some of the most beautiful people I know are my ex-teachers, both in school and especially Sunday School, who are not gorgeous by hollywood standards. But it is because I see their hearts, how they truly care for their charges, and how they live out their beliefs; that I always think of them as beautiful.
I want to tell all the girls who are trying so hard to look like someone they are not, that it’s simply not worth the time and mental energy. If someone loves you for how you look like, it’s just a matter of time when they will fall out of love with you. The true challenge is to find someone who loves you in spite of it all, and to be someone who will love others in spite of how they look on the outside.
We are all beautiful. You are beautiful. Let’s not let anyone feel so lost and despondent that they feel that their only way to be loved is through achieving some unattainable gossamer weight. That is folly, if not a slow form of suicide. Let’s speak out against those who glorify weight loss as the be-all and end-all. Let’s stop purchasing magazines that only feature anorexic models, such that it seems acceptable to curtail food intake just to make it in that industry. Let’s stop speaking of skinny and glamorous stars as if their idol looks are what we spend our lives aspiring towards.
Let’s encourage our friends with normal genes, with normal body shapes, that they are beautiful because of who they are, and that we don’t love them any less because they put on an extra pound. Let’s not pick at our food, or push a healthy portion of food aside, in front of our children, such that they grow up facing the daily message that I must constantly try to eat less because thin = beautiful. Of course there is a balance, of course we should not stuff our faces with unhealthy calories because we have no self-control and are binge eating (another problem) to run away from real life problems. Of course we should exercise regularly, to keep our arteries clear. But certainly we need not pursue skinniness at the cost of sanity.
We can internalise this message, and turn the tide for the next generation of women. It is okay to be who you are RIGHT NOW, because You are Beautiful.
You can support Margarine of Error by contacting them via their Facebook page (www.facebook.com/margarineoferror) or Instagram handle (@margarineoferror).