I put two slices of barbecued pork into my bowl and shoved them around with my chopsticks. Mum stared at me, looking bewildered.
"Gee, mum, it looks real nice, but I've just had a big lunch," I said and then smiled bashfully.
"Really?" she replied, looking concerned. "Eat it later, maybe? Remember to heat it up beforehand. And take care, sweetie."
She stroked my head briefly and shuffled off to her night shift.
A guilty rush of excitement overcame me. My stomach growled, but I scooped my dinner into a plastic bag and dumped it on the backstairs.
Yes, I'd heard all the stories. If you kept skipping meals, you eventually withered away like autumn leaves waiting to fall from a tree. Without fat, you trembled like a plucked duckling struggling in a freezing pond. Without food, you barely had energy to do anything except think about losing weight.
Yet I wasn't silly enough to get myself into the wild battle against food that anorexic girls do. I didn't come first in biology for nothing. I just wanted to be in perfect shape for the forthcoming graduation dinner; to be slim, beautiful, loved and worthwhile.
I scrutinised myself in the mirror. A chubby face with pufferfish cheeks and a swollen belly with a disgusting ring of flab. Thighs bulging out of my denim shorts like fat sausages from a hotdog. I sighed ... but then clenched my fist in a Spartan-like way: "I need to be thin and gorgeous. No matter what it takes."
Every day I would carry only an apple in my pouch to the tuition school where I worked as a part-time teacher of primary school students. I had to endure the pain of looking at the delicious meals of the other tutors.
"Val, why are you so pale?"
Melinda touched my cold hands and observed the tints of blue in my nails. They joked about my 30-hour famine, but I just laughed along.
I stopped eating red meat, poultry, eggs and even my favourite - cheddar cheese.
"I'm going vegetarian," I proclaimed.
However, we all knew my acting sucked.
Mum's wounded eyes were always on the verge of tears. I didn't mean to hurt her, enrage Dad or worry my friends. I was just ... just striving to look perfect for more praise and love by fighting off my natural flaws. Why were they making such a big deal?
Despite all this misery, I found comfort in my improving statistics. I felt as light as a feather and foolishly happy.
My gaze caught the memo I'd stuck on my full-length mirror: "Perseverance is the secret of all triumphs" - Victor Hugo
A thinner, prettier figure appeared. Her face was creased in a sly smile and her eyes hardened into dark stone.
Then it struck me.
The moment I stepped in, the door behind me had banged shut. And there was no going back.
"Oh gosh, Valerie, you're amazing. How did you manage that?"
The dress fitted perfectly and with my sparkling make-up learnt from a YouTube tutorial, everyone was stunned at the transformation. Naturally, I was the centre of attention at the graduation dinner, feeling even superior to Mona Lisa in the Louvre.
In essay upon essay, we'd been asked to write how inner beauty is more crucial than outer beauty, and in numerous lectures we'd been told that thinness isn't tantamount to beauty. But even if they were 1per cent true, why was I receiving torrents of compliments simply because I starved myself and became slim?
They were obviously wrong.
I flung myself over the toilet bowl and puked almost involuntarily. Shooting pains raged through my ribs and skeletal shoulder and up to my head, which felt as heavy as plummeting weights. Anyway, I had become used to it.
I wouldn't be defeated easily.
"Val? Val! You OK?" Melinda's uneasy voice echoed over the hotel washroom.
"Fine ... fine. Just too many raw oysters and stuff." I pressed my lips to stop them quivering.
"Need some water or a tissue? Open the door and let me help."
"No, thanks, really."
"Val, have you been starving yourself lately?"
"What if I ... what if I say 'yes'?"
"Don't! You're not just hurting yourself; you're traumatising many others who love you."
"Love? I did all this to be perfect, to deserve your love. Why blame me?"
"We love you for who you are, not for your body. And where is perfect? You know where."
"Fine, you're just jealous. Get lost!" I screeched at her, and sensed Melinda's hurt outside the plastic door.
Remorse swept over my exhausted body. But why ... why couldn't anyone understand that, when all others were skinnier, I had no control over the unconscious, overwhelming hate?
When convinced that she was gone, I stepped out of the cubicle. My eyes were puffed up like overripe tomatoes and hot tears clung to my lashes. I edged forward and saw my face. It looked like a collapsed balloon. But the body shape I'd fashioned with labour was a thing of beauty - lanky limbs, tight waist.
I winced at the pungent smell of hydrochloric acid that had drowned the rose and litchi fragrance of my perfume. I tried to catch a breath from my weeping, but my head started spinning.
My feeble knees gave in and I fell to the marble stone, defenceless.
My weary eyelids fluttered and cracked open. It was dark and damp, like a cave without end. Out of nowhere, a sad, gentle whisper touched my eardrums.
"May your sin be forgiven. Please, before her fading gathers momentum, stop her torment."
"Aha! You're mistaken. She chose to step in, and how delightful she has been ... Beauty, confidence and attention ... these are what she has always craved," a deep, wicked voice bellowed.
"All are deluded thrills. Your interference will make her feel inadequate."
"Stop your nonsense! She is tough and won't easily waver. I will give her strength and she will grow into the slim, beautiful, self-assured woman she yearns to be. Rejoice! She can become sexier than Cleopatra if she persists long enough."
"No, sir, she begs your mercy. What ignorance drives her to pursue nothing but pointless fancy. What is the use of a hollow husk of reputed beauty when it will shrivel eventually? Truly, beautiful people shine from within and are filled with joy and charity, which last an eternity."
"Who cares? Survival of the fittest! I am merely helping her get fit for the market. She will attract boys, money, jobs and friends, and be loved and respected everywhere."
"Even so, such blind pursuit of fame will only leave her heart hollow. It is nothing but utter suffocation, a disease that clouds the mind and deludes people. Lydia Shum, though chubby, spread joy and cheerfulness and was affectionately nicknamed the 'Happy Nut'.
"See? Open your eyes and see! You see celebrities and top models securing their places and fans in showbiz because of their slenderness. You see beauty-contest judges tending to weigh appearance more than wisdom. You see boys swooning over pretty girls, but not plainer, smarter ones. You can't deny it. Outer beauty is the norm. It is another word for perfection!"
"Beauty has dimensions other than the physical attributes society has falsely laid down. Beauty is about courage, wisdom, skills that never age and contribute to greater fulfilment. Outer beauty grabs the interest, but it is inner beauty that holds on to us."
"Do you seriously believe people are more attracted to a fat boy than an attractive, slim one with a body to flaunt? It is wise to accept everything about ourselves - imperfections and flaws. What really matters lies within us."
Warm tears stung my eyes as the conflicting voices battled on and pierced my eardrums.
I know, dear reader, if I said, "You'll never guess what I just heard", and told you what I just have, you'd find it hard to believe. But every single word and syllable is painfully true.
Why did they sound so alien and yet so familiar?
I didn't want to look fat and frumpy. I didn't want to be imperfect and undeserving of love. But I also didn't want to die.
I didn't want to hurt others and I didn't want to be who I wasn't.
I let out a ragged scream.
I awoke to see Melinda, Mum, Dad and a circle of friends and teachers watching me, their eyes filled with sorrow; it hurt worse than the time I cut my knee on a flower pot and needed eight stitches. But it felt warm, so warm that my heart melted like ice cream left sitting out in the warm June sun.
From the reflection in their eyes, I saw the girl with unruly hair and ashen face lying there against the milky white wall of a hospital.
"Val? Thank heavens you're awake." Melinda's voice quivered with anxiety.
I nodded as Mum ran her soft fingers through my hair. My mind felt too full for conversation, my throat too sore to speak.
"Why did you do that? The doctor said your blood sugar level had dropped really low and you had been starving yourself to get thin. But you know that we love you, no matter how you look. We love you for what's inside you. After all, what really matters lies within each of us.
"Val, you're the sweetest and brightest angel we know."
It was as if I heard the sad gentle whisper again. I couldn't believe it. I'd hurt them and myself. I had been shallow, following the mob, and yet they were so forgiving.
"I'm sorry. I love you, too," I whispered, then burst into tears.
"He dumped me because he thinks I'm too fat."
Melinda broke into a violent, shoulder-shaking sob. It broke my heart to see her trapped in the same battle I had suffered and which almost beat me. This time, it was me holding her icy hands.
"I'm here, Melinda. He's not worth your tears. Remember the words at my bedside? '... We love you no matter how you look. We love you for what's inside you; After all, what really matters lies within each of us.'."
I know it might be difficult to believe, dear reader, but that same, sad, gentle voice came out of my mouth.
The battle had never been worth the fight.
Stories from the other finalists