“I started to measure myself using a different set of numbers: how fast I ran, how heavy I could lift. It was no longer about the scale, it was about body performance.”
Cheryl Tay in 2022 is unrecognisable compared to the individual she was almost two decades ago. And we’re not just talking about physical appearances – she’s now happy, mentally and physically healthy, and carries a drive and passion for living well. The 35-year-old is the founder of Rock The Naked Truth, a body positivity movement in Singapore. But her path to loving her body wasn’t a straight line. She didn’t simply stumble into a fitness routine that ultimately changed her life. Instead, she faced countless ups and downs, including fad dieting, extreme exercising, and a yoyo-ing body weight that left her distressed at times.
We speak to her to find out more about the movement, and how she overcame the dreadful body image issues experienced by many today.
The obsession that ate her up
Cheryl didn’t start out as the confident woman she is now. Back in 2004, body positivity wasn’t on her mind. During her second year of junior college, she struggled with an obsessive desire to be thin.
“There were many reasons. Family and friends played a part. But what really triggered it was being in a co-ed school for the first time,” she says. “I saw that girls were receiving flowers from secret admirers and getting asked out. But I never went on a single date. I was so envious of these girls. I thought guys didn’t like me because I wasn’t pretty enough.”
This kickstarted a perilous journey to achieve what she deemed as “the perfect body”. For two to three months, she used her A-Levels study break to do excessive exercise. “I was on the cross country team, and all I knew was running. I’d run every single day and work out multiple times,” she says. This included running 20km in the morning, 6km in the evening, and two to three hours of kickboxing. She would also deprive herself of food to accelerate her weight loss.
“I lost 20kg and was the skinniest I’d ever been. But it was also the darkest period of my life,” she shares. A friend of hers even told her, “you didn’t just lose weight, you lost Cheryl Tay herself. You’re not the same person anymore.”
But despite that, Cheryl told herself it was worth it. “I wanted to show people that I could be pretty and hot too,” she says.
How insecurity poisoned her life
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. After a few months of rigorous exercise and dieting, Cheryl’s body couldn’t take the abuse and she succumbed to binge eating. She put back all the weight she’d worked so hard to shed. In the years that followed, her body weight continued to yoyo between light and heavy. She fell into a rabbit hole of consuming slimming pills, embarking on countless fad diets, and even taking fat-melting injections.
“In university, all the orientation camps had a pageant and it made me feel worse,” she says, recalling a time when she had gained weight. “I thought if I maintained my skinniness, I’d have had a shot at participating. Looking back, it was so stupid.”
Cheryl’s insecurity with her body seeped into other areas of her life as well. Because she felt so terrible about herself, she began to project her feelings onto those around her. “I wasn’t a good friend. Especially to women I felt were skinnier and more beautiful than me,” she says.
She would find ways to tear them down, commenting on things they were insecure about to make them feel bad. “I ended up ruining a lot of friendships. Nobody stayed by me because I was such a horrible person.”
Giving up the endless chase of being skinny
Finally, in 2012, Cheryl reached a point where nothing was helping her lose weight any longer. “The diets weren’t working, the exercise wasn’t working. I was so tired of looking for ways to lose weight, I decided it was time to give up,” she says. She stopped dressing up, wore shapeless clothes, and wouldn’t touch any sleeveless tops for a long time.
A year or two later, a friend invited her to the gym. Thinking she had nothing to lose, Cheryl went along. That’s where she rediscovered her love for fitness.
“The more I went, the more I realised how cool the human body really is. I wasn’t going because I wanted to lose weight, I just wanted to be better than I was before,” she shares. “Instead of checking how many kilograms I weighed, I started to measure myself using a different set of numbers: how fast I ran, how heavy I could lift. It was no longer about the scale, it was about body performance.”
In time, she progressed from doing half marathons to triathlons and even completed a full Iron Man triathlon. “I was out there for over 12 hours, and when I finished it, I cried. I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. As cheesy as it sounds, I realised my mind is the limit.”
Starting Rock The Naked Truth
In 2015, Cheryl organised a fitness competition and shared her story publicly for the first time in an interview with a local publication. She felt hopeful that someone else might learn from her mistakes.
However, the article didn’t receive the outcome she expected. Instead, individuals approached her asking how they could lose weight the way she did. “They completely missed the point. When I was struggling with my weight, I was skinny but I was miserable,” she says.
This inspired her to take action. In 2016, she launched social movement Rock The Naked Truth to promote body positivity and help those struggling with body image issues.
Through the movement, Cheryl arranges fitness programmes and related events. “Most are free or at a nominal fee because I want people to have easy access to different types of fitness activities. I want them to find something they love that they can use to sustain themselves.” Her movement has also provided a safe space for people to come forth and share their own struggles with body image.
“Body positivity was not something I was familiar with until I was exposed to the concept by Rock The Naked Truth,” says 33-year-old Carrie Sim, a member of the movement. “I’ve become a lot more aware of my triggers when it comes to body image, and learnt to cope with my emotions in healthier ways.”
“Cheryl has managed to do something so many others have tried to do but failed,” says 40-year-old Jazzy Tasdelen. “Through sharing my story I was able to connect with so many women who experienced similar things to me. I particularly loved the collab with Rentadella where I got to wear gorgeous dresses to show that any body can be glamorous.”
“For someone who used to struggle with gaining muscle mass, I never thought of myself as ‘fit’, but my experience with Rock The Naked Truth has helped my personal fitness journey tremendously!” says 43-year-old Ivan Chan, a member of ROCKrunners, an all-inclusive running club.
Finding the ‘why’ in loving your body
If you’re struggling with your body image, Cheryl wants you to know that it’s important to find your ‘why’. “Why are you chasing these things? And be honest. Is it vanity? Is it to be well-liked? Then ask yourself who you are without it.”
“I don’t regret my decisions because they made me who I am today. But it was an extremely painful journey,” she says. “It’s so easy to be attracted to shiny things like appearances, fame and popularity. But don’t mix up your obsession for looks with being confident.”
The road to self-love and embracing body positivity is long and challenging, especially in a society that places emphasis on unrealistic body standards. But when you’re strong in your own identity, you stop comparing yourself to others and focus on what’s best for you.