“You have the power within you to live your best life. Life is too short to spend time dwelling on things about your body that aren’t even true.”
We see it on social media all the time – images of picture-perfect women with modelesque bodies, and throngs of people ooh-ing and ahh-ing after them in the comments. Is it really any surprise that many of us are so unsatisfied with how we look in comparison, spending so much time and effort chasing the image of bodily perfection? Just last year, Singapore General Hospital (SGH) saw a 15% increase in eating disorder cases with anorexia and bulimia taking the lead.
It’s a tough society to grow up in, surrounded by unrealistic expectations and “ideal” dress sizes. For those who take the brave step towards recovery to break out of the toxic mindset of the “perfect” body, the journey is fraught with challenges. Nicole Tan is one such survivor. The 26-year-old changed the narrative of her life by overcoming her eating disorder and is now a thriving and happy vegan lifestyle advocate.
I sit down with her to speak about her journey to recovery, the challenges she faced, and her hope and advice for those struggling with eating disorders.
It started with a compliment
Nicole shares that she became more aware of her body in secondary school. Being in the netball team, she was surrounded by “other pretty girls” and remembered thinking she was chubbier in comparison. However, as she was young and more intent on having fun, she brushed off the feeling.
It was only when she was in ITE in 2014 that the eating disorder began. “I had more time to scroll through social media and became more conscious of how I looked. I’d see these really pretty girls and wonder why I couldn’t have that body,” she says. “When I went to prom, even though I wasn’t actively trying to lose weight at the time, some boys commented I looked thinner. It was so nice to hear, I thought, why not try to lose more?”
Chucking her love for fried chicken out the window, all she would eat for a period of time was fruits. “I lost so much weight so quickly. Looking back, that was a really scary time. I’m 161cm tall, and I only weighed 39kg. People were pointing it out to me, but I didn’t see the need to change. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see what they saw. I didn’t think I was skinny enough yet to feel happy,” she says.
Seeking help and finding herself again
Nicole only realised she needed to get help after a conversation she had with her mother one evening. “I was sitting on the couch in a sleeveless top, and it was really obvious that I was just sticks and bones. My mother came home from work and told me she needed to talk to me,” she shares. “She asked me why I was doing this. At the end of it, she told me she didn’t want to lose her daughter.”
At that point, Nicole hadn’t admitted to herself that she was struggling with an eating disorder. But her mother’s words forced her to realise something important: that her actions were affecting herself and the people around her.
Not long after, she went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa: an eating disorder that’s characterised by excessively low weight, distorted body perception and restriction of food intake. To overcome her fears and get better, she had to see both a psychologist and a medical officer for a year.
“When your body isn’t used to taking in so much food after such a long time, it doesn’t respond well. I became very bloated and uncomfortable, and that’s obviously difficult when you’re already concerned about gaining weight,” she says. However, despite the difficulties, Nicole persevered, telling herself that the numbers on the scale didn’t matter and that getting heavier was a good thing.
She started documenting her recovery on her Instagram page, posting her daily meals and receiving encouragement and support from a community of people who also struggled with eating disorders and body image. In 2015, she experimented with a pescatarian diet to nourish her body with food she felt good about. Two years after embarking on her journey to recovery, she switched to a full vegan diet.
“My transition into veganism stemmed from wanting to have a better relationship with food, and to love food again,” she explains. “As I’ve learned more about veganism, I’ve learned more about myself and how I can feel satisfied when I have a filling and nutritious meal.”
She’s living her best life now
It’s 2022, and Nicole is glowing and thriving. She continues to post delicious plant-based meals and recipes on her Instagram page, and occasionally talks about her past struggles with her eating disorder and her gratefulness in overcoming that dark period of her life.
“Of course, there are days where I’m still concerned about my body and how it looks. But I’ve come a long way from where I was – I don’t dwell on what I see anymore,” she says. “Just the other day, I was trying on different clothes and realised I could see a little bit of stomach flab. Instead of being affected, I laughed it off because it’s normal for people to have some fats!”
I ask her if she has anything to share with people who are struggling with eating disorders or body dysmorphia.
“Reach out to people; don’t be alone in your own thoughts. If you need professional help, get it! It felt good to speak with my psychologist, and every session was a safe space to pour my heart out,” she says.
“Even if you feel like you don’t have the right support system, remember that you have the power within you to live your best life. Life is too short to spend all your time dwelling on things about your body that aren’t even true.”