Fitness entrepreneur and body-positive advocate Cheryl Tay wasn't always the bubbly and confident woman she is today. It took her a long, dark, and isolated journey for her to be comfortable in her own skin.
I need to lose more weight.
I’m not thin enough.
I’m not good enough.
These statements swirled around Cheryl Tay’s head for 10 years – thoughts she obsessed over daily, driving her to the point of self-mutilation and the verge of a nervous breakdown.
It is a far cry from the Cheryl Tay of today, who at 32, is the leader of an ever-growing body-positive movement called #RockTheNakedTruth that urges people to accept their own insecurities and become confident in their own bodies. An active Ironman Triathlete, Cheryl now competes in races regularly, documenting her training and race performances for her over 30 thousand followers on Instagram. When she’s not training, she maintains a busy schedule as a fitness entrepreneur, blogger, photographer, and freelance writer for several publications.
But this wasn’t always the case.
Dark cycle of binging and starving
In primary school, Tay was bullied and teased as the “fat kid” and called nasty nicknames. In junior college, she was teased constantly over her body. This carried over into her early relationships when she was always made to feel she was “not good enough”.
“The height of my body image struggles was when I was 18. That was when I was least confident about myself. It was a horrible time. I was fixated with digits on the scale and obsessed with being skinny,” says Tay, during our recent one-hour interview at Neue Fit Gym at Kallang Wave Mall.
“I thought that being thin will make me popular, that being thin will make society accept me more. I ran 20 kilometres every morning, 6 more kilometres in the evening. I was doing 2 to 3 hours kickboxing each day and ate just an apple a day so I wouldn’t put on weight.”
She lost 20 kilos in two months, but deep down she was unhappy.
“I’d refuse to meet my friends because they would ask me to eat. I shut my family members out. I was also self-harming too, scratching myself every time I put on weight. It was how I punished myself every time I would eat or binge – something I would end up doing because it’s not normal to not eat.”
Spiralling out of control, she eventually gave up on her strict routine and started to binge on food and put back all the weight she painstakingly lost– all in a month.
This cycle of starving and binging would continue over the next decade. Tay's weight would yo-yo from 43 kilos at her lowest to 65kg at her highest. She tried everything: low-calorie diets, over-the-counter pills, prescribed doctor pills, slimming centre packages, slimming creams, excessive diuretics, laxatives, meal replacements, fad diets, intermittent fasting, TCM, acupuncture, massages, mesotherapy and almost liposuction.
All in the hope of hitting and maintain an “ideal weight of 50 kilograms” on her 1.67-metre frame.
Her obsession with weight loss drove her to a dark mental place which negatively affected other aspects of her life– career, relationships and friendships.
The turning point
Eventually in 2015, mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted, she got tired of “chasing numbers” and resigned herself to “a fate of being fat”.
“It was just really stressful counting calories. I gave up on myself. I felt that I hated my body and I was going to be this size forever.”
Ironically, that’s when her life took a 180-degree turn.
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A friend encouraged her to go to the gym and introduced her to weights. Up until that point, Tay only viewed exercise as a means of losing weight, nothing else.
“I started deadlifts and squats. I learnt that the body can do a lot of amazing things. I started exploring fitness besides running and yoga, and realised there’s more to life than just wanting to be skinny,” said Tay, who has a weakness for all things pink.
“I started to travel, tried bungee-jumping, and Crossfit. It made me learn that the body is capable of amazing things and that made me appreciate it more.”
As she opened up her mind to new experiences, she started throwing out her initial ideas about being skinny.
Growing better and stronger
“At the back of my mind, I guess I always knew that being thin was not everything. Accept your body for what it is and not force it any other way. People can eat the same things and do the same exercises but turn out so differently.”
Tay has grown into her own woman since her teenage days of self-harm
For the first time, Tay realised her struggles were part of her denial to accept herself for who she was.
“I had to come to terms with my body and image. I was tired.”
“It came to a point in my life where I had a change of priorities,” said Tay. “There are better things in life to channel your energy towards, than wasting time and effort forcing your body into something it’s not. For me, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life buying slimming pills and stressing about losing weight. We only have one body and it’s on us to take care of it responsibly.”
And she has. Tay now channels her energy and finances towards triathlon races. culminating in the completion of her first full Ironman race in Langkawi last year – a gruelling race comprising of a 3.8-km swim, 180-km cycle and 42-km run. She has found newfound confidence and happiness in how she looks and what she does these days.
“When it comes to my body now, it’s all about performance (than appearances). I want to grow stronger and faster in the sport. I like challenging myself to see how far my body can go. The body always surprises you with new limits. It’s amazing how much potential your mind has.”
What’s next for you, I asked.
“After starting #RockTheNakedTruth for the last 3 years, I learnt that everyone is fighting a personal battle you don’t know about. I really hope to continue to spread the message of #RockTheNakedTruth,” said Tay.
And what is that message?
“Stop comparing yourself to others, and learn to love yourself so you can be who you want to be and achieve that bucket list of goals you have. Challenge yourself, and you’ll surprise yourself. You really don’t know how much is in you and how strong you are until you have to be. Get out there and just really be you.”
By Geraldine Mark
Geraldine has always been a mixed bag by nature. To her advantage, she has learnt how to identify connections across disparate subjects. Her interests include food and fitness. She also likes the smell of hot coffee, fried bacon and freshly-laundered clothes, in no particular order.