Cover Stephanie Ng founded Hong Kong-based non-profit organisation Body Banter to promote conversations about body image and mental health in Hong Kong (Photo: Yankov Wong Production)

Five women from different walks of life share their experiences on the road to body acceptance

How do we define beauty in Asia? Many may sadly find it easier to define what is not beautiful, drawn from years of societal expectations, criticism on social media, off-handed remarks from those around us and the unrealistic standards of beauty and body image in media.

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Yet amidst this barrage of unwelcome opinions and ideals come the voices of women who are brave enough not only to challenge the pressures that confront them but to pave the way for meaningful, lasting change. Be it through grassroot body positivity movements or normalising diversity in the media, these are the women who have taken ownership of their long, and sometimes painful, journey to self-acceptance.

From a Filipino former beauty queen to a PhD student with her own non-profit organisation in Hong Kong, read on for their stories of struggle, strength and triumph.           

Rozella Mahjhrin, founder of True Complexion, Malaysia

"When I was younger, I was constantly bullied and teased because of my birthmark, and not just by other kids at school. Strangers also stared at me, sometimes even asking questions like, 'What's wrong with your face?' or 'Are you contagious?'. People have told me that I shouldn’t be on stage or in front of the camera because no one wants to see someone with a birthmark on their face.

This took a toll on my body image, self-esteem and mental health. Since I was 11 years old, I struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. When I was a teenager, I developed anxiety and an eating disorder. I also had a drinking problem in my early 20s. I was lost and broken for so long. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and I had to hit rock bottom before I finally got the help I needed to get better and heal my relationship with my skin and body. 

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Having a birthmark and being different is why so many opportunities and doors have opened up for me, and for that I am very grateful. My past is why I am so passionate about working with girls and young women to overcome their obstacles and unlock their inner potential by teaching them what I have learned over the past 10 years. 

Because of my work, I have had the privilege of giving talks and workshops to as many as 1,500 people. I have participated in a global beauty campaign, and as an indie artist, I have also had the opportunity to perform on stage in front of more than 3,000 people. In 2015, I founded True Complexion, a community platform that shares stories about people with disabilities, rare diseases, chronic illnesses, and mental health issues.

Sometimes I still struggle when life gets tough and knocks me down. The difference now is that I don’t stumble down the rabbit hole and lose myself there. Now I know how and where to find the courage, strength and support to get back up after a fall."

Michele Gumabao, volleyball player and Miss Universe Philippines 2020 2nd runner-up, Philippines

"I’ve been a volleyball player ever since I was in university. I never dreamt of becoming a beauty queen. In 2018, I joined a beauty pageant; making the transition from sports to beauty pageant life was hard as I had to re-learn a lot of things.   

For instance, I had a hard time learning how to walk gracefully. I was naturally stiff, probably because of sports and lifting weights, so I didn’t have that natural grace. If I didn’t look exactly like the other girls, if a picture of me turned out bad or at an awkward angle, people would be so cruel on social media. I had to live with that for the past four years and even today.  

Growing up, people's comments about me have always been: 'She’s bigger, she's thicker, or taller'. On a daily basis, I get comments about my height because I'm 5'10". As an athlete, height is a huge advantage for me, but once I step out of the volleyball court, it’s so different.

Here in the Philippines, I feel as if there’s so much pressure for women to look a certain size. Right now, we are slowly opening up and slowly embracing full figure models.

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We have to be the ones to love and respect ourselves first if we want to ask this from the rest of society.
Michele Gumabao

Despite all the criticism, I represented the Philippines back in 2018 as Miss Globe and last year I was second runner-up for Miss Universe Philippines. That was a very rewarding time for me. 

I love sharing my experiences with other people but I can’t say I’m bulletproof. At the end of the day, mean comments do hurt. But I have to constantly fight that thought that I’m not good enough, not thin enough or not pretty enough.

To women out there who are struggling with who they are and how they look, I would say learn to know who you are and love yourself regardless. That is the only weapon we can use against all the criticism we face in life. 

During my time in beauty pageants, I came across some of the most beautiful women that I have ever met, and even they were insecure and not always confident about themselves. So it’s really not about how you look. Confidence is about knowing who you are, not what you look like on the outside. We have to be the ones to love and respect ourselves first if we want to ask that from the rest of society."    

Dina Nadzir, singer and radio announcer, Malaysia

"I started singing professionally at the age of 19. When I started, the world still had a very limited set of standards on what a 'beautiful' woman should look like. I have to admit, it was tough.

But I feel it has become one of my purposes as a public figure to fight for the message of beauty in all shapes and sizes. Although there have been a lot of heartbreaks, I have a strong supportive team that checks in and keeps me on track. 

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Someone who used to be close to me once said, 'Do you want Dina to represent how Malaysians look like?'.

I used to lash back at comments like these but not anymore. I guess I'm too old for that drama now (laughs).

But I've learnt that not everyone wants to bring you down. There are people who want you to be better, and it helps to be open to their constructive criticism. 

See also: Fitness Entrepreneur Liv Lo On Defining Health And Beauty In Her Own Way

 

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Above Dina Nadzir

Stephanie Ng, founder of Body Banter, Hong Kong

My struggle with my body was less about not meeting certain societal standards, and more about trying to address the helplessness I felt in the face of immense life changes.
Stephanie Ng

"I struggled most with my body image when I was a teenager. This was a time in my life when I was going through immense physical, emotional, and social change. Naturally, I sought out any form of stability I could find, and dieting seemed to provide that 'solution'.

Micro-managing my food and suppressing my weight created the illusion that I was in control when in fact I was simply ignoring the ways in which I wasn’t.

My poor body image at the time resulted from a confluence of factors: my personal struggles as a growing teen, and the surrounding cultural messaging telling me that my body was a flawed project that constantly needed to be worked on. In other words, my struggle with my body was less about not meeting certain societal standards, and more about trying to address the helplessness I felt in the face of immense life changes.

See also: Malaysia's Top Models Shikin Gomez, Natalie Prabha & Nia Atasha

Living in recovery today, I still fall prey to diet culture messaging and experience body image insecurities. The difference is that today I know the voice well enough that I can recognise it as just that–another voice in my mind. Today, I’m the founder of Body Banter, a Hong Kong-based non-profit organisation that empowers voices in conversations about body image and mental health.

I think that to find a place of love and respect for ourselves, we need to practise compassion. Our existence needs to be the condition for feeling deserving. 

Instead of waiting to feel beautiful and fulfilled and successful (or whatever we wish we could feel when we attain the ‘ideal’ body), we need to find ways to feel all of those things now.

Find ways to make your body feel safe, nurtured, and cared for, now. Feed yourself well simply because you are alive. Move your body simply to celebrate the fact that you can. Love now. Live now."

Mary Victor, make-up artist, body neutrality advocate and founder of The Body Within, Singapore

"In school, I had difficulty accepting and loving myself. I even had trouble looking at myself in the mirror. My friends and family would constantly mock my weight, colour and body shape. I was constantly being compared to someone smaller in size or fairer, and it really made me upset about the way I looked.

Now, I’m at a place where remarks about my body and colour don’t bring me down. I’m on my own journey of healing and I feel a new sense of self. I'm 24 and and I've been a make-up artist for almost eight years. I honestly love making women feel good about themselves by showing them how beautiful they are. That’s why I created a body neutrality movement called The Body Within.

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Above Mary Victor

I am also my biggest supporter. I’ve grown into a confident woman who isn’t afraid to wear what I want and speak the truth, all because I found a place in my heart to start healing from the bullying I encountered in school. 

Yes, I don’t fit the conventional beauty standard but that makes me all the more beautiful, powerful and seen.

I believe today we’re at a point where all body types are embraced. Maybe you'll find it hard to love yourself every day. Do what feels natural to you and try being neutral towards yourself. Things might just start looking a little better once you do."

 

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