Stephanie Ng, the founder of Body Banter, chats with us on how learning to cope with her own eating disorder drove her to advocate for body positivity.
Multiple platforms are embracing body positivity (ourselves included!) because it’s high time we shut down body-shaming ads and skinny shamers. A small remark about your body, or filtered images on social media, may seem harmless but they can manifest into toxic habits. We sat down with Stephanie Ng, founder of Body Banter – a website you need to check out ASAP.
What is Body Banter?
Body Banter is a non-profit organisation that empowers people to openly talk about body image and mental health. They have delivered a series of workshops and talks across schools in Hong Kong, the US, and Canada, reaching over a thousand students and parents.
Meet Stephanie Ng, the woman behind Body Banter
Stephanie (Steph) is an avid advocate for body positivity and mental health as there’s a strong link between the two. Steph is a clinical psychology graduate – her thesis focused on the clash of culture and cuisine when young Chinese women struggle with body image. Her own experience with an eating disorder drove her to start Body Banter back in 2016.
Hi Steph, Body Banter often talks about body image and mindfulness practices in the same light, can you elaborate on the connection between the two?
Our well-being director, Nicole Yinki, is a sound healer and she added the focus on mindfulness to the mission at Body Banter. I think that emotions often manifest as physical symptoms in the body. So if you calm the mind, you calm the body. Practicing mindfulness helps you feel safe in your body and it helps you feel like you can trust it again.
What’s the Body Banter mission? How has it changed since the launch?
I started Body Banter to serve a tight-knit youth group by creating an open platform on which they could share messages about body positivity and eating disorders. Five years later, our mission is still the same and it hasn’t changed much. Going forward, we are expanding our outreach to different age groups and community members. I want Body Banter to be flexible and open-minded in order to invite more people to join the conversation.
There’s often a generation gap in understanding body image issues. Traditionally, chubbier meant healthier, but that clashes with modern attitudes and results in conflict. How can we be more mindful when communicating with each other?
This is something I personally had to learn how to navigate. At the beginning of my body image advocacy journey, when we had familial gatherings, I tried to get the point across in a straight-forward manner, which resulted in spewing angry words (and lots of statistics!). However, this is not a productive way to build an understanding.
Having an open conversation means sharing personal experiences. Most women have struggled with body image issues at some point in their lives, my mom and grandmother included. Sharing your thoughts together and recalling past experiences is most helpful, in my opinion. When someone brings something up about your body, it’s less about shutting the other person down and more about how you’re changing the way you perceive your body. It’s best to use more positive words; you could try asking the person to try something together with you and bring them in.
It takes time and patience and people may not always be receptive to this conversation. You can do your best from your end, but it’s not your job to convince every person of your point of view.
Other than cultural factors, what other parts of growing up in Hong Kong do you think may lead to disordered and unhealthy eating habits?
There’s a stigma surrounding how much you can express yourself; we are often tied to interpersonal collectiveness. Growing up, we had a module on mental health at school, but even in those spaces, people would hesitate to share experiences. Perhaps, it’s the notion of being seen and not heard.
Another thing is, the media plays a big influence. Advertisements on the MTR show unrealistic images of women (no pores?!) that can target people who have anxious thoughts, obsessive tendencies, and overall low self-image. All of this can aggravate unhealthy eating habits.
What tips can you give to young people who start out eating healthy portions but are still worried about gaining weight?
I think that the first step is to surround yourself with positive people and messages that align with what you’re aiming to achieve. Instead of setting concrete indicators of health, I encourage people to prioritise what they want to feel like every day. When it comes to health, it’s so much more than the physical aspect. Look beyond food, look beyond that one piece of the pie. Think about what will make you feel good inside and out.
With social media, young and old, women and men, are always shown an unrealistic body standard that they think needs to be met. What tips can you give especially on curbing negative social media habits?
Curating your feed is so important. Realistically, you can’t close your eyes when walking around the MTR so there’s no way to shut off negative messages. But with social media, you have the power to do that. Your social media feed is something you can control; follow accounts that can integrate positive messages into your attitude.
Male body image is seldom talked about on social media. How do you think we can help men feel that there’s a safe space for them to share their personal experiences of a negative body image and low self-esteem?
This is something that the team at Body Banter is working on highlighting. I think it starts with one person who is willing to work in this direction, it’s like someone lighting the torch and leading the way. Having someone to represent and show people it’s okay to talk about male body image will be powerful. No matter how many women talk about body image, it will not empower men to openly talk about it. Sometimes it’s not as helpful to target specific topics, it may be better to start a general conversation about mental health amongst men to show there is a safe space with no judgments.
A final word from Steph…
It’s easy to feel like you’re not there yet or you’re not body positive. But every day’s a day to practice. There’s no destination as to where the end goal to body positivity is, just as there’s no end goal for the perfect body. Everything is an act of practice.