Ashley Tan

I Am Worth More Than A Number

Is my weight really the only thing that dictates my worth?

For most of my life, I’ve believed that my worth is pegged to a single number, that my size is all that counts. The tape measure — which snakes around my waist and hips each year with a vice-like grip, as if mocking the width of my every curve — is the tool my family uses to reduce me to a mere numeral, as a warden would a prisoner. The mean machine called a scale is my final jury: score low and I might still stand a chance; anything high is an immediate death sentence.

But this is my reality. To them, this is my identity. This is the struggle I face every Chinese New Year.

For Chinese families in Singapore, it is customary to celebrate the Lunar New Year with friends and family. This celebration is supposed to be a joyous occasion filled with festivities and cheer. And don’t get me wrong, it is! But there is one thing about it that I absolutely dread: Each time I greet a relative whom I haven’t seen in a while, my aunt takes it upon herself to declare, “Tai pang le. Ta yao jian fei.” Translation: Too fat. She needs to lose weight.

Each time I hear her comments, I am deluged with a tidal wave of acute emotions. But I suppress it, keep it in, don’t say a word. I just plaster on a smile and quickly attempt to change the subject.

At the dinner table, every spoonful of rice I shovel down adds to the shame I feel, magnifying the weight on my heavy heart. The air always thickens with a stifling tension, and I feel 20 pairs of eyes burning holes into me, scrutinizing my every bite, as though the mere act of eating is, for me, an unpardonable sin.

But why should what I eat matter to them? Why is the size of my body so important? What about my other achievements? What about everything else that defines me? Do none of those things matter? Is my weight really the only thing that dictates my worth?

Whenever this happens, I think about the other things in my life that define who I am as a person. The first thing that jumps to my mind is music. Each time I step on stage for a violin recital, the same sets of eyes that shame me at the dinner table buoy me with a different energy. Instead of suffocating me, they make me feel strong, empowered, liberated. In those moments, I breathe in cool, crisp air before exhaling a breath of confidence and allowing my fingers to do their dance across the fingerboard with dexterous grace. My bow glides along the cusp of the strings as I lift my arm to produce unique tunes. Occasionally, someone complains that my music sounds “scratchy” — and it’s true, the melodies I create aren’t always perfect. But to me, each harmony is still scintillating, because it’s my sound. It’s my voice. It’s my melody. I wouldn’t change one note of it for the world.

But if this is how I feel about my music, which is such a crucial part of me, why can’t I feel the same way about my body?

We constantly face an inordinate amount of pressure to live up to societal expectations to look a certain way, to appeal to a certain group. Trying to break away from this need to conform is an exceedingly onerous task because desiring validation from others is built into human nature. But I have come to realize that unquestioningly accepting the labels other people place on us based on our physical appearance is unhealthy, unfair, and, most importantly, unjustified.

The famous aphorism by Eleanor Roosevelt really rings true: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Although my relatives’ critiques about my physical appearance have always made me feel small, I have unknowingly been complicit in allowing them to make me feel that way. Unfortunately, in life, people will inevitably voice their criticisms against us. But if we can block out their words of disapproval and learn to accept ourselves — flaws and all — I believe we can find peace and truly love ourselves completely for who we are.

We should be good enough for ourselves. We can be good enough for ourselves. In the words of the gorgeous plus-size model Ashley Graham, “People come on my social media pages and body shame me because I'm too big, because I'm too small, because I'm not good enough for their standards. ... But at the end of the day, I'm good enough for me.”

As for myself, I may not yet fully love my body as it is, but I am okay with just being okay. I understand that sometimes, it’s even okay not to be okay.

So when the world attempts to pigeonhole me into nothing more than a number, I choose to take it in stride. I choose to accept myself for who I am. Because, finally and unapologetically, I choose to choose me.

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