The Wellness Insider has talked extensively and openly about the topic of body image, covering issues of body shaming, emotional eating and eating disorders. So far we have given you facts and figures peppered with opinions and arguments. But how does it actually feel like living with some of these problems day-in, day-out? How does it feel like having to face the self-loathing, the discrimination, the loneliness? How can you use all that negativity and channel it into something beautiful and constructive?
Meet Miss Lim Lishan: actress, model and yoga instructor. She was even a participant on the Miss Singapore Universe 2018. But it has not been an easy journey for her. From battling binge eating to trying to redefine her life with yoga, Lishan shares with us her experience with raw and refreshing honesty.
Q: Understand that you’re a freelance actress, model and yoga instructor. Could you tell us a little more about these?
I rush around from studio to gym to office to homes to teach daily. And I take on various personas in print or video by emoting characters by playing stories and scenarios in my mind.
Q: What inspires you to carry on doing what you do?
Passion. I love what I do for my job and it gets me out of bed every morning. Teaching and sharing the holistic system of yoga and leading a fit, healthy lifestyle energises me and gives me a purpose. My passion for the performing arts has been a childhood dream of mine and I live it. I am often asked why I want to freelance and not get a stable corporate job but my heart’s desire is to be and do what I truly enjoy and want to see happen in the world.
Q: Given the strong association with beauty pageants have with the issue of body image, what was it like being on the Miss Universe Singapore (MUS) Pageant?
It definitely put me in the spotlight to raise awareness of my mental health struggles in an interview with The New Paper. That sparked an interest in sharing again in other interviews. I’m glad to have applied to MUS, as it has given me a voice to the public, which is the first step in my advocacy.
Q: How did participation make a difference despite not winning?
I did not make it to the top fifteen but being part of it made me realise that everyone has an important story to tell. The pageant is a platform to allow us strong beautiful ladies to raise awareness of the struggles we have personally endured and experienced. I love how I have met such passionate, wise ladies.
Q: Did you ever experience body-shaming as a teenager? If so, what was that like for you?
When I was 14-15 and experiencing puberty, my family members mentioned that I was fat and this made me determined to reclaim the slim identity I always had as a child. I started cutting out “bad” foods from my diet and started exercising compulsively. My rigid eating pattern and self-hate, coupled with guilt from giving in to temptation developed into bulimia where I punished myself with exercise and purged to undo the “damage” with my loss of control over sinful foods. Gaining weight became associated with poor self-esteem and losing weight was my eating disorder congratulating me. It is a dangerous, devastating psychological illness. Underneath the obsession with weight, calories and fitness, I was someone riddled with anxiety, depression, mood swings and poor self-image. I wanted to reclaim a sense of control and identity over my ritualised ideal.
Q: I understand that you developed depression prior to the eating disorder (ED). How did this come about? How did it lead to the development of the ED? What were some of the other triggers that led to it?
I believe I already had the seeds of bipolar disorder planted in me and it manifested in my hyperactivity and anger. Academic stress when I was 11 led to daily crying spells and breaking up with my first boyfriend while adjusting to a challenging curriculum in junior college pushed me to binge eating, self-harm and suicide attempts.
Q: What was it like battling an ED? How was it like for those around you?
It’s a lifelong ongoing battle which has been happening for a decade for me and not abated. Every meal is a struggle, including rejecting and resisting food offered to me and all around me. I worry my boyfriend every time I ingest too much or feel guilty over eating and purge. You never know when your next purge can kill you. I am very honest with him over the details of my struggles which keeps me accountable in treating my body better and reducing lifestyle stress and potential triggers.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced? How did you overcome it?
I would say it is overcoming my current mental illnesses (bulimia nervosa and bipolar disorder type one). I am still in the midst of managing them with the right medication, enough rest, social support, psychotherapy and adding more fun into my life.
Q: What would you have changed about your journey to recovery?
I would have sought help much earlier when I just had my eating disorder at fifteen. However, I didn’t have the money and didn’t know the steps to receive help. This could have saved a lot of my money spent on binge eating and more importantly, my health which my eating disorder behaviours have destroyed.
Q: How has living with an ED shaped who you are today?
It has made me more empathetic and less judgemental as you don’t know what people are struggling with just from how they look. It has also made me an advocate for mental health and holistic wellness, incorporating it into my purpose and career.
Q: What are the misconceptions surrounding EDs?
It’s sad that society still has fatphobia and regards thinner as better. Little do they know that many are not naturally slim. We can be healthy in all shapes and sizes. Ironically, I am considered attractive the more I engage in my eating disorder behaviours such as starving and purging.
When I was addicted to clean eating and exercise, I was praised on having self-discipline and being a health freak. However, nobody knew how my intrusive eating disorder thoughts and behaviours were hurting my body and psyche.
Most people think skinny people have anorexia or that normal and overweight people do not struggle. However, that is totally untrue. It hurts to just throw the term “anorexic” around to naturally slim people as it is the mental illness which has the highest mortality rate.
Q: What sort of stigma did you face when you tried to seek help? What was the worst type of discrimination you encountered to date?
I’m lucky in the sense that I did not receive any stigma. I’ve been very open in sharing my diagnosis and progress in recovery on social media and have received a lot of kind words and encouragement. I’ve definitely been discriminated when I am on my heavier side, being called chubby, heavy and more. And just generally not being treated as well.
Q: How can those around a person with an ED support them?
They can have meals with them to model regular eating and generally show care as a regular friend without placing an emphasis on food and exercise. It also helps not to mention shape and weight by associating foods or losing weight as good and other behaviours as bad. Just taking the pressure off the addiction to the ritualisation of eating behaviours as a self-soothing mechanism is good enough. Focus on having fun together can be a good distraction from the eating disorder voice that constantly bombards the sufferer’s mind.
Q: How can we be better advocates and friends for those struggling with mental illness? How can we make a difference?
We need to have more compassion and empathy as a society towards those who struggle. Before that can happen, we have to be educated as there are still many misconceptions surrounding what mental illnesses are. The mysteries and intangible nature of brain disorders add to the stigma and we have to treat mental health equally with physical illnesses and disabilities. Because it is invisible doesn’t mean people are not suffering. It is sad that people even regard suicide as selfish. This shows how ignorant the general public is. I know many friends who struggle but don’t have the knowledge, support or financial means to receive help. Or their disorder tells them they are not worth it to deserve help and are better off dead. Most are afraid how others would view and label them for being psychiatric patients.
Q: Many young people, both males and females, struggle with issues of body image these days. Being a model and a yoga teacher, what advice do you have for any of our readers facing this issue?
I would advise them to be aware of comparison and jealousy, especially with the increased use of social media. However, out of all who diet, only those who are genetically predisposed to mood and eating disorders would go down the slippery slope and develop a serious mental illness. There are shades of grey in terms of severity in poor body image and this is due to a complex mix of sociocultural and biological factors. If you are struggling, seek professional help by searching for a psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor who specialise in what you have and confide in friends who are on the path of recovery.
Q: What does being healthy mean to you in terms of your physical and mental wellbeing?
Being healthy means to feel a sense of wellbeing in an all-rounded way. Physically, it would mean to have a certain level of fitness that allows us to pursue the activities we enjoy. For me, that would entail a constantly improving yoga and martial arts practice as well as my free dive and surf performance. Mentally, it would be to have stable thoughts that contribute to stable moods and not cause a roller coaster of emotions, a balanced self-identity, healthy confidence, a positive self-image and little rumination. Self-worth and acceptance are high, with both contentment in the moment and the desire to always grow. We also have emotional, social, spiritual aspects of our lives to take care of.
Q: How do you incorporate fitness/nutrition into your work as a model and actor?
With a busy on-the-go lifestyle, it helps to have a few nutritious go-to eateries that I frequent, as well as to slot in classes and training sessions between jobs. I have a membership with my boyfriend’s MMA gym in town and am free to attend classes under the studios I work at. Understanding fitness and nutrition is the key to maintaining a healthy, sustainable and enjoyable regimen that suits your lifestyle. This is why I know why my eating disorder is so unhealthy for my body and mind. And it adds extra guilt when I lapse into obsessive behaviours to cope. The freelance and aesthetic nature of my work demands that I look and feel good in spite of an irregular schedule. It’s good in a sense when colleagues and students ask me questions and I get to share my knowledge and mistakes.
Q: Could you describe your exercise regime? How has it grown over the years?
I teach daily so I have at least one to five classes a day in various styles of yoga, high-intensity interval training and boot camps. I demonstrate the movements most of the time, so this keeps me constantly active. I also need to be a role model for my students but I have a history of exercise addiction and learnt that an enjoyable and sustainable way of keeping active is best. That is why I chose to be a fitness instructor. I love walking and my boyfriend is a martial artist, so I would attend some of his boxing, muay Thai and jiujitsu classes while training my striking skills one on one with him. When I travel, I love hiking, diving and surfing!
Q: You have mentioned intuitive eating in a few of your interviews. Could you tell us a little more about it and how you came to adopt it as a nutritional approach?
Alongside my plan of structured eating that takes my basal metabolic rate into account, I stay in the moment and eat more or less than planned and include or exclude small snacks. That’s what I call intuitive eating. Neither being too rigid that makes eating stressful or lax that I pile on the pounds or feel uncomfortable with what I have eaten or overindulged in. Trust me, this is my ideal and I often slip and relapse into my bulimic behaviours when I am triggered, bored or have unresolved emotions.
Q: How do you strike a balance between eating clean and being “too healthy” and obsessive about your food?
I try to do the 80-20 rule of healthy versus unhealthy foods. This means I keep to a generally healthy diet consisting of fresh whole foods balanced in macros for my body type and sticking to well-portioned meals. However, I still allow myself treats occasionally or split my portions to shave on sugar and calories.
Q: What changes did you notice in yourself once you started practicing yoga?
I noticed that I had more bodily awareness, increased intuition, mental wellness, self-compassion, spiritual connection, the study of yogic philosophy and a holistic lifestyle. This greatly helped with my negative thoughts as I could be the witness behind them. I also acknowledged how emotions were stored in my body and am able to release them consciously through a synergy of breath and movement through my practice. Taking up yoga teacher training one and a half years into the start of my practice gave me a strong purpose to empower the world with the scientific system of yoga that processed a lot of my inner turmoil.
Q: What are you hoping to achieve with your yoga practice? What do your healing arts involve?
I’m hoping it will continue to bring me the benefits I shared above. I have studied modalities such as reiki, qigong, reflexology, sound healing, kinesiology, shamanism, neurolinguistic programming and more. This interest came after I started my practice in yoga five and a half years ago. It somehow activated my curiosity of wellness beyond the physical. I mainly conduct sessions for my clients combining sound and reiki therapy.
Q: Who were your sources of support?
It all rests on my boyfriend. He says, “It’s a bit like taking care of a naughty kid…haha. But with higher stakes. Stressful sometimes but worth it…” I’m worried that I’m depending too much on one person because my family does not really understand what I’m going through and I’m not close to them. I have some friends who also have mental health issues and we support each other online. I attend group therapy meetings weekly to share my experiences with those who are also struggling and have my psychiatrist and psychologist for professional support and monitoring.
Q: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I see myself hosting seminars and retreats to share my love for yoga, holistic wellness and the healing arts, travelling to help more underprivileged communities and having had created a bigger impact on reducing stigma against mental illness. I also want to continue being involved in performing and interactive art as a form in communicating social issues to foster awareness. Hopefully, I would have my own creative space to host classes and workshops of all art forms.
If you, like Paul, believe that body image is an important issue that needs to be addressed, please support our book project “Building Body Confidence” by pledging an amount here. Every dollar goes into the publishing and distribution of the book and you will get a copy of it once it does get published!
Photo credits: Lim Lishan