By: Cheryl Chiew
Growing up, I played sports. My weight was never an issue as it was always about how fast, strong, and skilled you were. When I was in University, I decided to try a new sport and joined my hall’s level 5 cheer team.
For the next four years, I had so much fun and made many good friends. However, those four years were also fraught with a constant struggle to control my weight and an unhealthy relationship with food.
This is the story of how I learned to celebrate my body for what it can do, not what it looks like.
Hall cheer in Singaporean universities is more relaxed than college cheerleading in the US. Still, I enjoyed the sport as it was fun and challenging. While I did notice the girls on the team were more petite and shorter, I was never made to feel too big by my coaches or bases to be a flyer. Plus, I knew being 119lbs was a good weight for my 5’5” frame.
But as the team progressed to more difficult stunts, I grew increasingly frustrated at my weight. My smaller-sized friends had more success and progressed faster. There was an understanding that I wasn’t as easy to stunt with as I was heavier. Gradually, I became increasingly weight conscious.
Four months into cheer, I decided to diet for the first time. And this diet morphed into a progressively unhealthy relationship with food.
It started with logging in what I ate onto a fitness app to make sure I maintained a caloric deficit. I cut out junk food. If I did eat fat, it was only from ‘natural and unprocessed’ sources such as avocados, tofu, and nuts. Reading nutrition labels became a must. Eventually, I avoided high-carb and high-fat hawker food. I suppressed my appetite with coffee. I would eat before going to restaurants with friends so I could avoid ‘bad’ food. And if I ate out for a meal, I’d only eat fruits and raw vegetables for the rest of the day. I began eating less so I could drink more alcohol.
Food became something I had to control myself from.
My lowest point came during the year-end break of my fourth year. That day, I made the conscious decision to go hungry because I did not have access to foods that I deemed healthy.
While I wouldn’t say I developed orthorexia or body dysmorphia, I would admit that I realized I had a serious problem with how I viewed food and my body. I placed too much value on hitting a goal weight and was upset that I was ‘too heavy’. I didn’t like how I looked or felt because I was constantly tired, hungry, and comparing myself against others.
This revelation occurred close to my last cheer season. As much as I liked the sport, I decided not to continue cheering for my mental health. Without a reason to maintain my weight, the self-imposed pressure to restrict my diet eased up. Slowly, I taught myself to have everything in moderation and that exercise was not a punishment for eating food. I reframed my thinking: food is nourishment to build a strong and able body, not the enemy.
“It’s been a journey, but I’m glad that I can firmly say I know I’m so much more than just a number on a scale. “
Over the next three years, I put on 10lbs.
I could have tried to control my weight again. Instead, I learned to accept my body’s changes brought on by a slowing metabolism in my mid-twenties and deskbound job. I made sure I was regularly exercising and feeding my body a balanced diet. I went to buy bigger pants.
Twenty-six year old me is definitely the heaviest I’ve ever been. But being okay with my weight gain signaled I’ve successfully learned to be kinder to myself. It’s been a journey, but I’m glad that I can firmly say I know I’m so much more than just a number on a scale.