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Why punish your body?

To the dancer friend who cut calories so drastically that he fainted the day he came over for dinner. To the colleague who goes to the gym hoping her lush body will become skeletal. To the friend whose strong shoulders carry her laughing daughter, but will not fit into a size 4. All of you and me too: we were not made to be small. We were made to be magnificent.

Why try and shrink to fit some arbitrary idea of what you should look like? If you are fit, you are fine, at least to your doctors and the health-care system.

But health is not the reason you go to a gym or take up athletics. Like so many others, you think of it as a penance offered to the dietary gods in exchange for looking a certain way. You lift weights to sculpt your arms and snarl at every fold of flesh, ignoring the fact that it is now so much easier to lift your children. You run on a treadmill for hours and curse the stubborn scale instead of appreciating the fact that you sleep better now and can sprint towards a departing bus and catch it without getting out of breath.

Beauty for women today means long legs, a thigh gap, thin arms but of course not muscular, a tiny waist and small face. The world is kinder to men, but only slightly. There are dad bods and hirsute lumber-sexuals, but tabloids and Instagram still explode over defined abdominals that taper into muscular hips. A little extra flesh is a bad thing today, especially for those in the public eye.

This was not always the case. Look at the squat wrestlers or voluptuous dancers carved into marble and sandstone in Greece and India. Look at the fleshy thighs of the Winged Victory Of Samothrace, the headless statue of a legendary female warrior cherished in Paris' Louvre Museum.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Today, a similarly fleshy Lena Dunham makes headlines for daring to bare all in the HBO TV show Girls. Perhaps you also think she should have first whittled her butt and belly down through cardio and weights.

What do you think of the recent outrage after she and fellow Girls star Jemima Kirke modelled for New Zealand brand Lonely Lingerie? The Kiwi company's Instagram account is full of models sans air-brushing. To me, they are beautiful even with cellulite or droopy flesh. You would probably think the same of them even if you could never bring yourself to pose the same way. At least not until you have lost those last five kilograms.

I admit there is a global marketing campaign to tell people that heroin chic or defined muscles are the gold standards of beauty. This campaign to tell people what they should look like is constant, insidious and, in my eyes, ridiculous.

To my friends who wish they were born smaller or starve themselves to reach an unrealistic weight or shape goal, what I find most beautiful about you is not related to your ability to fit into a size 4. Your smile radiates, your kindess warms my heart, your ethics give me a gold standard to benchmark myself against.

If you don't believe me, ask your parents, children or partner what they like most about you. I asked them in front of you and again, the answer had nothing to do with your size or shape.

You are alive, you are strong, you are healthy. Why is that not enough? Healthy people are not all the same size or shape. It would make no sense for them to be. The human genome has a near-infinite capacity for variations on shape and size.

This is an evolutionary advantage meant to ensure the success of the species - during a famine, fat-storers survive long enough to find food; during the hunt, lean runners chase the prey animal down. Interestingly, a study of an African tribe found that it was the stocky endurance runners who ended up finishing the hunt after the sprinters tired.

You say that I do not understand the constant pressure to look a certain way. You, the 1.7m-tall girl whose swimmer shoulders are too broad for chain fashion, or you, the 1.7m tall man who wears secret heels to look taller.

Why do you open yourselves to this pressure? Why buy or read the magazines that celebrate thinness over health? Why trust the unseen marketers over the words of those who love you?

Look at the people playing basketball in your HDB playgrounds or pushing through to the end of one of Singapore's many racing events. There are whippet-thin sprinters and also stocky runners whose short, squat legs eat up the miles. They may have muscular arms or stringy limbs, round or lean torsos, but the smile after a hoop shot or crossing the finish line is the same.

It is a smile I would like to see more often on your faces too, my friends. We were born to live life enjoying our bodies, not punishing them for failing to meet unrealistic standards. Your bodies will never be small - just like your hearts.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'Why punish your body?'. Print Edition | Subscribe