“I was running a 42km marathon while carrying painkillers because I was injured everywhere.”
As the head of a successful activewear brand, Anya Active founder Melinda Sutikno is the image of a thriving young entrepreneur who is outgoing, fit and happy. You wouldn’t have guessed she has a history of body image issues, as her younger self was once plagued with insecurities that manifested in eating disorders and a dangerous habit of overexercising. In our chat with her, Melinda pulls no punches, sharing her struggles in the hopes of inspiring others to stay active in a healthy, sustainable way.
Tell us how Anya Active came about.
The brand was founded based on my personal struggles with body image issues, overexercising and eating disorders. I took the learnings from that period in my life when starting Anya Active. We believe that health looks different for everybody – just because someone looks a certain way, it doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t take joy in movement. We don’t believe there’s a single ‘look’ as to what health or beauty can look like on someone.
What’s inside you is more important than the end goal or performance. We focus more on celebrating the little wins and enjoying exercising. If you exercise from a place of self-love, it will reflect on the outside too. So start from inside out, rather than outside in.
What does ‘body positivity’ mean to you?
I’d rather use the term ‘body neutrality’, because sometimes with the word ‘positivity’, it comes with the pressure to completely love yourself. It’s a journey, and the end goal is to fully accept and love yourself, but most of us are a work-in-progress.
How did you reach that place of self-love after overcoming your struggles?
In the past, I used to struggle with eating disorders and overexercising. There was a period of time where I went between being overweight and underweight, and my weight yo-yoed 15kg over a few months. It was quite crazy and I was feeling very depressed.
At one time, I was running a 42km marathon while carrying painkillers because I was injured everywhere. But I still wanted to run to burn calories. It was a very unpleasant experience. And in the end, I hated running and I hated exercising, ‘cos my motivation wasn’t from the right place.
What changed was when I learnt about the growth mindset, knowing that we have the power to grow and improve as human beings. The other mindset shift was to focus on how I feel after exercising: the runner’s high, or feeling strong and confident. Focusing on these small wins and celebrating them – not just focusing on the end goal – helped me reignite the joy in exercising.
That must’ve been really difficult, having to pull yourself out of that dark place. After you hit that point of having a positive self-image of your body, how do you maintain that mindset?
I’m still a work-in-progress and sometimes I still struggle with body image, especially on days when I bloat or eat a lot. But I try to shift what I value: from focusing on looks to other strengths I have. I focus on my discipline, work ethic, or being stronger overall – not so much on how I look but running faster or lifting heavier.
At the same time, trying different activities helps a lot. I was running for the longest time because I thought it burned the most calories. But over time, I tried yoga, high intensity exercises and weightlifting. When I tried high interval training, I started to lift weights and build muscles. I felt stronger and more confident overall, and that helped in achieving a better body image.
What’s your favourite exercise right now?
I’d still go back to good old running. But high interval training is very fun, too. I go to F45 and sometimes you don’t really think, you just do. It feels good ‘cos you sweat a lot and you feel strong.
For better or for worse, a lot of people have certain goals around their appearance. How would you advise people to pursue these goals healthily and sustainably, without spiralling into a place of hating or resenting their bodies?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight or lose fat. In fact, if you do it with the right motivation like wanting to be healthier or feel more confident, I think that’s okay.
From my personal experience, celebrating little wins helps a lot. Let’s say, hypothetically, the end goal is to lose 15kg but you haven’t hit that number and you’ve only lost 2kg. Instead of saying, “I’ve failed”, focus on the fact that you’re actually becoming better – growth itself is more important than the end goal.
At the end of the day, it’s important to understand your own body. You need to do a lot of trial and error. This includes trying different types of exercises that make you feel happy or strong. For example, not everyone likes running; some people like gymming or weight-lifting. Just try different things to see what makes you tick.
What do you think of the term ‘gymtimidation’, where people feel afraid to set foot inside a gym – whether due to their looks or lack of experience?
This is definitely an issue in Singapore, especially if you don’t conform to the look of a typical gym-goer, who is very muscular or very lean and slim. You also hear people sometimes making fun of others who look a certain way. Instead of judging, we should be inspired or empowered because they’re taking steps to better themselves. They have the resilience and discipline that not many people have.
With the impact of influencer and celebrity culture, what would you say to someone who is trying not to compare themselves with the images they see online?
As human beings, we tend to compare ourselves with others on things that we deeply value. For example, in the past when I wanted to be super skinny, I looked out for people who looked like that on social media. But once I started shifting my ‘goal post’ towards things like work ethic, I stopped looking at people’s appearances and started being inspired by people’s hard work.
Most of us are on social media and we can’t avoid that – so instead of focusing on looks, be inspired by something else. And focus on other strengths you have instead of just looks, because we are more than our weight or our appearance.
We also have to understand that influencers only show certain aspects of their lives, and we don’t see the whole picture. So if we’re comparing ourselves to them based on what they show, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.
What are your thoughts on body positivity or neutrality in Singapore?
I feel that it’s been quite encouraging ‘cos we’re starting to see more brands, influencers and model agencies represent a wider variety of shapes and sizes. That being said, there’s still a lot of work to be done, especially when it comes to awareness and empathy. I still see plus-sized people being bullied online. We’re not in any position to judge someone else’s looks or journey.
Whether you’re on the journey to recovery, or on the road to building a consistent workout routine, there will be difficult days. But if Melinda’s story has taught me anything, it’s that we are stronger – mentally and physically – than we could ever imagine.
If you suspect that you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, professional help is available from the Singapore Counselling Centre, the Centre of Excellence for Youth Mental Health in Singapore, AWARE Singapore and other organisations.