If anyone has ever made an unwelcome comment about your weight, Steph Ng can relate and wants you to vent. The former Chinese International School student, weightlifter, and body positivity advocate once blogged as Muscle-Up Munchkin, but now is widening the discussion with her new project, Body Banter. She set up the online forum to encourage people to share videos and thoughts on their bodies and spark much-needed discussion.
Sizeism – judging someone based on how they look – is a deeply entrenched mindset in Hong Kong, and Ng believes that talking about the issues will help relieve some of the stigma around body shape. Since launching in the summer, Body Banter already has two videos. In one, Catherine Wang, who is also a Young Post junior reporter, narrates her story and offers advice to others through quirky and clever doodles.
It can be tough asking people to open up about an issue like appearance, let alone go on camera and subject themselves to the internet. That’s why Ng also accepts submissions in the form of anonymous articles that will be read out by a Body Banter volunteer. “The point of Body Banter is online discussion. You can submit something really professional, or just a 30-second rant, and it will still bring something to the table. I’m hoping people will buff up to the banter.”
Studying at Tufts University near Boston, in the US, and moving to a different country made Ng realise that Hong Kong was lagging behind when it came to acceptance of different body sizes. “In many Western countries, the body image movement is already happening. I really look up to that,” she says. “But it’s not really happening in Hong Kong. It’s a taboo topic. When you see an overweight person walking down the street, you’ll hear a lot of whispers making fun of them.”
The struggle is personal for Ng, who recently recovered from an eating disorder that gripped her only two years ago. She feels that societal ideals, particularly Asian ones, can be damaging for young people whose bodies are changing. That’s why Body Banter is aimed at the local community, with videos and stories in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. “Hong Kong is not a friendly place to be if you’re not a certain ‘Asian size’,” she says. “The States is more supportive of different body sizes, and it made me realise how sizeist Hong Kong is.”
“It’s a problem for adolescent girls because they’re still growing, but so many are told to lose weight when they should be eating as much as they need to,” Ng says. “If you feel great and your body functions perfectly, you might feel comfortable being a size others deem overweight.”
Ng received conflicting messages from those around her while she was ill and during her recovery. “Even at my deepest point, when I was starving and emaciated and only eating vegetable sticks, people were still telling me ‘you look so healthy’ ... and I thought they were right.”
She says discovering fitness and weightlifting helped her see value in what her body could do, over what it looked like. But at this crucial time when she was rebuilding her self-confidence and her body shape was becoming more athletic, a doctor asked her whether she wanted to get married, as “men don’t want to be with someone who looks like them”.
“I now have a better perspective, but I can’t say I know exactly what being healthy means,” Ng says. “But I’ve reached a point when I know when my body is functioning well.” The voices in her head that tell her thinness equals self-worth are still there, she says, but it’s now easier to block them out. “They’ll come and say ‘oh, you shouldn’t be eating this’, but in a recovered state you can answer, ‘but, actually, I’m hungry’.” Everyone is welcome to the Body Banter discussion – not just girls or teenagers. Having lots of different views represented will help the forum reach deeper into the Hong Kong community. “I don’t think a lot of guys realise how much they’re affected by body image ideals – for example, the muscular ideal. Men are expected to be larger. If they’re skinny or not big enough, they’re seen as inadequate.”
“Message your friends, share the page, submit anything!” is Ng’s advice for those wanting to join the debate. One of the most striking things about Ng is her infectious enthusiasm, optimism and sense of fun. But she wasn’t always so upbeat: “There was a time when I wasn’t so happy and I forgot to be happy,” she explains. “Every day is a day to smile, that’s my motto for life. Always be happy you’re alive and healthy – that’s the best thing a person can have.”
Video: from struggling with anorexia to self-love through crossfit