Seeking 'Thinspiration': The hidden scourge plaguing S'pore teens

In a three-part series on “Seeking Thinspiration”, we turn the spotlight on the issue of eating disorders plaguing Singapore teens. Although eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating is not new, the importance of looking good – offline AND now online -- among the young has never been greater. Now more than ever, “Thinspiration” models such as Kate Olsen, Kate Moss and picture-perfect K-wave stars from Girls’ Generation and Wonder Girls serve as role models for their army of teen fans. Yahoo! reporter ELIZABETH SOH delves into their world and uncovers a worrying trend of forced starvation, weight-loss pills and three-apple-a-day diets.  

Claire Lim, happy and healthy today

Claire Lim is only 22, but she has spent almost half her life struggling with weight problems and eating disorders.

When Yahoo! Singapore met Claire for coffee, the shy polytechnic student looked just like any other school-going young woman. Weighing a slim 48 kg, she wore an ankle length skirt and tank top with her long hair clipped back neatly.

But it was not always so. Five years ago, Claire was a hefty 70 kg, crying herself to sleep most nights and starving herself by going on liquid-only diets that caused her to faint.

"I used to be miserable, and my self esteem was so low," Claire told this reporter during a wide-ranging, hour-long interview last week.

Remaining calm and composed throughout, she went on to describe the years of extreme binging and purging abuse that she was putting her body through.

She finally realised she needed to stop about two years ago after falling sick and fainting from sheer starvation caused by a liquid-only green tea diet that lasted for two weeks.

Self-esteem hit rock bottom

Claire, who told Yahoo! that she had always been a chubby child, said that her self-esteem hit rock bottom when she was 14 years old and bullied for her size. She then weighed 90 kilos.

"I was a UK size 18, and I couldn't buy my clothes from anywhere except Topshop because there wasn't my size -- I would only wear t-shirts and jeans, and I hated going out with my friends," said Claire.

Boys would use her to get to her prettier and skinner friend's attention, mocking her and calling her names like "King Kong".

Those nicknames kick-started her downward spiral into eating disorders. After losing only 10 kg by doing hula hoop exercises for an entire year, Claire decided she wanted quick results.

She went on a strict "three apple a day diet" with her friends and lost about 5 kg in a week. But once she came off the diet, she immediately on an eating binge, quickly putting the weigh back on.

"I just kept snacking. In between meals, I would eat a whole big bag of chips, a big packet of biscuits, oily food like fries. I just felt so hungry and needed to chew something," said Claire, who was raised by her grandmother after her parents got divorced.

"I would go to bed and cry and I felt so angry at myself for my lack of control."

Starvation

To punish herself and lose more weight, she embarked on a diet where she drank only green tea for two weeks. The diet left her so weak that she spent most of her days lying on the couch, with no energy to do anything else.

"My grandmother was very worried, but I only stopped when I blacked out one day and cut my chin so badly it bled," said Claire.

She also bought slimming pills and went on protein shake diets, consuming almost every variety of weight loss pills on offer at pharmacies here.

"If one didn't work, I would buy another brand, and then another brand. But it didn't work, because I would just eat it all back again," said Claire, who estimates that she spent over $4,000 in one year on slimming products. Most of the money she spent was earned during her between-schools job as a telemarketer.

"I had no savings every month," she said.

Despite losing some weight, she continued to refuse to meet her friends because she would imagine them gossiping behind her back about how she would eventually put it back on. Eventually, she lost contact with them, something that still makes her sad today.


Claire Lim at 70 kg

When she returned to school, she turned back to starvation to lose weight, and eventually dropped to about 50 kg two years ago. But her poor diet and lack of nutrition had also taken a terrible toll on her health.

Her hair had started falling out in clumps in the shower, leaving a bald spot near the back of her head. Her nails had also turned grey, a sign of malnutrition.

"I was so afraid once when I chewed and I felt my teeth making a loud clacking sound," said Claire.

Shocked into change, and with the encouragement of her boyfriend, she stopped starving herself and started to attempt to eat and exercise again.

She now does brisk walking for half an hour every day, and occasionally plays sports like badminton or does Pilates and Yoga at home to stay fit.

"I eat oatmeal, biscuits and Milo for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and for dinner, a plate of vegetables and some meat my grandma cooks for me," said Claire. 

Role model

Even today, Claire continues to take hair supplements to restore her locks back to health. She is currently pursuing a diploma in Sports and Leisure Management with Republic Polytechnic.

She has also started a blog about her struggles with weight loss to help other girls who suffer from low esteem and body issues.

"I get 20-50 questions from readers every month asking me about my weight loss, and I tell them there are really no short cuts. I hope my story can inspire them, a lot of them don't know where to go,” she said.

She described most of her readers as younger girls aged between 15 to their early twenties, who feel intense pressure from friends and society to be skinny to fit in.

Online blog shops, which are hugely popular among teens here, usually only bring in clothes or design fashion that cater to UK sizes 6 and 8, leaving less petite girls feeling that they are "fat".

"The kind of girls they want to be are super skinny runway models or bloggers on (blogging platform) Tumblr, so skinny you can see their rib cage and their wrist and neck bones. I go on the forums, and there are pages and pages of girls discussing the latest appetite suppressants and which doctors will prescribe them," said Claire.

She added that some of her readers, despite reading about how ill starvation made her, still wanted to try out her drastic diets, something that worries her.

"I want to try to help them be content with themselves and learn to be happy the way they are, not to hurt their bodies anymore," she said.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Thinspiration, where we speak to other young girls with eating disorders and medical experts on teens struggling here with body and image issues.

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