Are bizarre beauty trends leading to eating disorders?
BOEY LYE WENG (firstname.lastname@example.org ) & ZACHARY SOH (email@example.com@sph.com.sg) investigate bizarre 'beauty measurements' trending on the Internet from holding paper to the waist to wrapping a dollar note around the wrist
An A4-sized paper. A 100 yuan banknote. And an iPhone 6.
These seemingly random items are now part of the latest online fad as "beauty challenges" for women to compare their body sizes against.
If a woman is able to hide her waist behind the shorter edge of an A4-sized paper, fully wrap a banknote around her wrist or cover her kneecap with an iPhone 6, she wins the challenges.
The idea has caught on among youth in China like wildfire, with tens of thousands trying them out and posting the results online, reported UK's Daily Mail last month.
Singaporeans tell The New Paper on Sunday that these challenges could be here too.
In a random poll conducted by TNPS among youth aged 15 to 23, 46 out of 60 respondents said they have heard of at least one of these trends.
National University of Singapore student Samantha Oh, 20, says: "They perpetuate the image of what an 'ideal and acceptable' woman should be. Those sensitive about their weight might be pressured by these trends to lose weight. As someone who sometimes wishes she were skinny, I would be affected by these trends and feel upset about my body if I were younger."
Cindy, 19, confesses: "These trends are ridiculous and crazy. But in the past, I probably would have tried them out."
She also shared her weight-loss experiences.
Several doctors and psychiatrists that TNPS spoke to rubbished these bizarre tests, saying that they promote an unhealthy body image.
Dr Tan Kean Jin, orthopaedic surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, says that two of the three challenges are inaccurate indicators of weight.
He says: "Your kneecap and wrist are in no way reflections of your body mass index. They are just made out of skin and bones."
Dr Lim Boon Leng, psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, cautions that such trends can cause people to be obsessed with trying to be "slim" or "small in size".
"Impressionable young girls can see it as a challenge to be skinnier," he says. "Coupled with peer pressure, they may develop eating disorders or unhealthy self-esteem issues."
Such beauty trends also come at a time when there is a steady rise in the number of Singaporeans with eating disorders.
Dr Ng Kah Wee, director of Singapore General Hospital's (SGH) Eating Disorders Programme, says the number of new cases the hospital sees has increased from 120 in 2011 to 180 last year.
The consultant at SGH's department of psychiatry says people have a misconception that eating disorders are a cause for concern only in Western countries.
A study published in 2008 compared eating disorders between patients and non-patients of diverse ethnicity in Australia and Singapore reported similar body image dissatisfactions in both countries.
Between 2013 and last year, the number of newly diagnosed patients with eating disorder at SGH's Eating Disorders Programme is at about 150 to 180 yearly, says Dr Ng.
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa remain the two most common diagnoses.
And these beauty challenges make things worse. "Such trends may form triggers for our patients who are already struggling with body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and over-emphasis on one's body size and shape," says Dr Ng.
"In receiving treatment and recovering from an eating disorder, it builds one's resilience to external triggers such as these trends."
The Health Promotion Board reiterates that maintaining a healthy body image is necessary.
"Do not underestimate the importance of physical health - when your body feels good, you will naturally feel good, too," says its spokesman.
"Have a healthy and balanced diet, keep your fitness level up with regular exercise and ensure that you get sufficient rest to rejuvenate your body and mind."
Self-esteem issues turned into depression
All Cindy wanted was to fit in with her slimmer friends.
At 70kg and 167cm, the 13-year-old girl was moderately overweight.
So, she controlled her diet, ate healthily and exercised regularly during her football co-curricular activity (CCA) in school.
It checked all the boxes of a healthy weight-loss plan.
But it still nearly ended in tragedy as self-esteem issues turned into depression.
Cindy, 19, declines to use her real name as no one in her family is aware of her issues.
She recounts to The New Paper on Sunday about her experiences five years ago in a girls' school.
"My CCA training sessions made exercising a habit for me, and I started to eat less," she says.
"My entire clique were girls smaller and fitter than me. I started feeling self-conscious."
Her meals consisted of one steamed broccoli for lunch and her mother's vegetable soup, cabbage and fishcake for dinner.
Cindy says: "No breakfast, no sweet drinks either. Just water and green tea."
She developed self-esteem issues as she compared herself to her more petite peers. Her schoolwork suffered badly, as did her social interactions and her moods.
"I was in that phase where I wanted to be popular in school," she says.
"It was terrible because I had trouble coping with school. I had few friends and I was feeling really bad about the way I looked.
"I felt repulsed when I ate something oily and even entertained the thought of purging. It made perfect sense to me then - eat and vomit so that I got to taste my food without piling on the weight."
Cindy kept her dark thoughts to herself, but she realised she needed to do something about it.
She read advice blogs about people with similar stories and watched videos of women suffering from anorexia.
She says: "Once I realised I was going down a dark path, I told myself it is okay to eat."
Today, Cindy weighs a healthy 66kg and stands at 170cm tall, with a normal body mass index (BMI) of 23.
It is not far off from her previous BMI of more than 26, but her psyche is far healthier than before.
She says it is important to "learn how to love yourself", and that there is "no set standard of beauty".
"Give yourself a break because you are your harshest critic."