Beautiful in their own skin

Looks do not define a person, as six women, each with her own challenges, can testify

A nip here and a tuck there, it is no longer taboo for women to talk about plastic surgery these days, compared with 10 years ago.

It is increasingly common for people to go under the knife to fix what they deem as body imperfections.

Picture-perfect models do not appear only on the glossy pages of fashion magazines, but also jump out from Instagram and Facebook.

Women and beauty are a never-ending conversation topic.

The beauty industry sells the idea of youth and external perfection; girls grow up struggling with body image issues linked to confidence and identity.

A personal trainer, a cancer patient, a mother with stretch marks, a woman with a skin condition known as psoriasis, an "active ageing" grandmother and a yoga studio operator who used to cut herself - meet the women who have struggled and emerged beautiful in their own skin.


Stretch marks and no make-up - but kids are her beauty marks


Mrs Cheong with son Gordon and daughter Ferlyn. She says motherhood has made her more patient, confident and beautiful because she has the "greatest job in the world". She believes stretch marks will fade over time. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

MRS EILEEN CHEONG, 33

Mrs Eileen Cheong juggles two jobs - being a mother to two children and a real estate salesperson.

GAIN OUTWEIGHS LOSS

By giving birth to your kids, you have already done a very great thing in this world, so don't be sad if your body or your figure is not the same as before.

MRS EILEEN CHEONG

Thankfully, her job allows her the flexibility of time to embrace her role as a mother.

Without a maid at home, she sometimes takes along her children on property viewings, and her clients are generally understanding about that.

Her daughter, Ferlyn, is two years old and her son, Gordon, is six months old. They were too big to be delivered naturally, so she underwent caesarean sections.

Stretch marks cover her flabby tummy after she put on 10kg during each of the two pregnancies, tipping the scales at 74kg when expecting her son. Still, she has no time to be self-conscious.

"Having two kids, I really have no time for make-up. If we go out, I have to get everybody ready, except myself. My priority is to take good care of my children and make sure they are healthy."

She struggles to find time to exercise. When she does, she goes for babywearing ballet - a post-natal fitness ballet class that involves carrying her baby in a baby carrier. That helps to strengthen, tone and stretch her body while strengthening her bond with her baby.

Motherhood has made her more patient, confident and beautiful, said Mrs Cheong, because she has the "greatest job in the world".

She believes stretch marks will fade over time, so one should stay positive and healthy.


92-year-old with bloom in her cheeks


Grandma Lily, as Madam Tan is affectionately known, has activities every day of the week, from singing and music lessons to walks in the garden. The matriarch, who has four children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, says ''as long as your leg is strong, you must use your leg''. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

MADAM LILY TAN, 92

For her 90th birthday, Madam Lily Tan received a ukelele printed with a white lily as a present. The 92-year- old started ukelele lessons at the age of 88, and recently learnt to play the ocarina, a type of vessel flute.

STAYING BEAUTIFUL

As a girl, you must keep yourself beautiful. My face is my fortune.

MADAM LILY TAN

Grandma Lily, as she is affectionately known, has her own Facebook account and uses an iPad for updates and to watch cooking videos. The matriarch, whose husband died about 20 years ago, has four children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Age, wrinkles, regular coughs and a weak knee do not keep her from exercising regularly. She has activities lined up every day of the week, from singing and music lessons to walks.

A former Girl Guide from Singapore Chinese Girls' School, she calls herself "a live wire".

Her grandchildren like her sense of humour and her jokes. They enjoy taking bus rides with her, going with her to the beach, listening to her read fairy tales and eating the food she prepares.

Granddaughter Lee Chang Xi, 28, says she is an inspiration, "very enthusiastic about life" and "not afraid to try new things".

Grandma Lily is the ambassador and adviser of The Golden Concepts, a firm Ms Lee co-founded to provide innovative and mobility products to the elderly.

Grandma Lily, who loves to travel, says: "As long as your leg is strong, you must use your leg. You don't use your leg, and when your leg is weak, you're done."


'Keep fighting, keep smiling'


Mrs Recordon was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the end of 2014. She underwent three operations which left her with scars on her stomach and back. Her hair has fallen off after chemotherapy sessions. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

MRS JULIET RECORDON, 37

At 37, Mrs Juliet Recordon is fighting for her life, battling cancer. She was diagnosed with Stage 4b cervical cancer at the end of 2014 and was given less than a year to live.

BEAUTY FROM INSIDE OUT

It's the energy that we give off which then comes through in our faces. So for me, smiling is a really big deal. I think it's having genuine happiness and genuine positivity that comes across in the energy you have, and that can make people beautiful.

MRS JULIET RECORDON

She has since had three operations, which left her with scars on her stomach and back. Her brunette locks have dropped off after sessions of chemotherapy.

Her one-year-old daughter, Elsa, was born extremely premature at 25 weeks with meningitis. She spent five months in intensive care.

Then, even after being discharged from hospital, her daughter has had multiple operations and is left with half a brain and only one eye.

One would think that there is no reason for Mrs Recordon to smile, but the Briton, who moved here six years ago and is applying for Singapore permanent residency, begs to differ.

"I think I was lucky growing up with my parents, who always encouraged me when things went wrong - maybe not to the extreme as they are going wrong now.

"They would always say to me that there are always some people out there who have it worse. And they're right."

She also credits her husband and family for their support and believes the important thing for her and her daughter is to keep fighting, keep smiling and keep finding things to laugh about.

"There are not many silver linings with chemotherapy. One of them is that it just gets rid of all your hair and it's so easy to manage.

"We live in such a hot country that sometimes it's just great to be able to just have no hair."


Big girl believes in having a big heart


Ms Sha, who is 1.81m tall and weighs 96kg, used to cut herself because of body image issues. Now she has learnt to embrace her appearance, and she wants ''to defy the stereotypes that fat people are just lazy and stay on the couch for most days''. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

MS SHA HALIM, 25

At 1.81m and 96kg, Ms Sha Halim easily towers over most women - and men - in Singapore.

JUST BE YOURSELF

Beauty to me is about being different... It's about being yourself at the end of the day.

I believe in kind words, kind hearts, kind thoughts... When you have kind thoughts, everything will show.

Big girl believes in having a big heart

MS SHA HALIM

The studio manager at The Yoga Collective used to be ashamed of standing out and felt ostracised because of her height and weight, and how big she is compared with the average Singaporean.

"I'm always the tallest and biggest person in any given room," she said.

She was 16 when she started cutting herself because of body image issues.

It started with scraping safety pins across her wrist before she used a penknife. She was 21 when she ended up with 15 stitches.

It was a wake-up call. "I was exhausted from waiting for people's acceptance of me, of how I am. They couldn't provide me flowers, so I planted my own garden," she said.

Over the years, she learnt to embrace the way she looks and love her awkwardly tall and big self. Recently, she joined Rock The Naked Truth, a body image movement that aims to help people overcome their struggles through fitness.

Founded by sports and fitness journalist and photographer Cheryl Tay, the body positivity movement gives a voice and platform to those who struggle with their image.

Said Ms Sha: "I am here to defy the stereotypes that fat people are just lazy and stay on the couch for most days. Regardless of your body type, you can still have an active lifestyle."


Drawing strength from bodybuilding


Ms Yeo was previously frail and did not have many friends, but when she was a student at National University of Singapore, she discovered her passion for bodybuilding and has since won bodybuilding titles. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

MS THARA BEGUM YEO, 29

A road accident when she was 14 left Ms Thara Begum Yeo with lower back and neck injuries. Her right jaw popped out. For a year, she did not attend school and had to go to the hospital for rehabilitation.

ACCEPT YOURSELF

I used to have this idea that I was always a failure, but I think what's important is to accept yourself. Whatever remarks people make don't matter. What's important is you love yourself and you have close friends or loved ones who accept you.

MS THARA BEGUM YEO

This made her afraid to go out alone and she used to have panic attacks when she was out alone on the streets. She also became very injury-prone and was thin, frail and did not have many friends.

She said: "I was envious of friends who are in co-curricular activities (CCAs) like the outdoor activities club and dragon boating. I was in the library CCA, and I wanted to be like them, strong and athletic."  

As a student at the National University of Singapore, she stepped into the gym to make herself stronger and discovered her passion for bodybuilding.

Ms Yeo, who is married with no children, is now a full-time personal trainer and has wonbodybuilding titles, like the 2013 Shawn Rhoden Physique competition.

For Ms Yeo, who recently became a vegan, beauty is something external and not important at all.

She got to know her best friend, Ms Chua Kai Xin, 29, at the gym and they have set up an Instagram account called vegansoulsisters to promote awareness of the vegan lifestyle.

"I just want to play a small part in minimising animal cruelty and suffering," she said. Vegans do not eat meat, fish or poultry. They also do not use other animal products and by-products.

"How kind you are as a person, whether you are able to put yourself in other people's shoes, and being compassionate and treasuring all lives and treating everyone equally. To me, that is beauty."


She used to cover up but now she hopes to raise awareness


Ms Chan has psoriasis, a condition that causes flaky and scaly skin, as well as red, inflamed patches. The condition, triggered by stress and other factors, at times left her in physical and emotional pain. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

MS YVONNE CHAN, 24

Ms Yvonne Chan has psoriasis, an incurable immune disorder that affects about 1 per cent of Singapore's population. The condition causes flaky and scaly skin, as well as red, inflamed patches that can cover the entire body. For Ms Chan, the red spots are all over her legs.

MORE THAN SKIN DEEP

From the look of my skin, it's not nice-looking or probably ugly, according to standards of society. However, beauty should be more than who we are on the surface.

MS YVONNE CHAN

It started with just one patch on her neck that did not go away. Her family doctor referred her to a polyclinic, where she was diagnosed with psoriasis at age 14.

The condition, triggered by stress and other factors, at times left her in physical and emotional pain. "My arms were literally covered in patches, like huge lesions, and the same for my feet, on my legs too.

"It was so bad that I couldn't really straighten my arms. The lesions were constantly dry, so even when I moisturised them, they would crack," she said.

The product development senior executive used to cover up her body in long-sleeved shirts and pants, and did not want to go out.

Now she does not hide the scars any more.

"Psoriasis is not contagious. If it is, I would have a social responsibility not to walk around. There are times when I cover up, but when you go to the hawker centre, it's really too warm to wear long pants."

After 10 years of coping with psoriasis, she hopes to raise awareness of the condition so that people know there is nothing to be afraid of.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'Beautiful in their own skin'. Print Edition | Subscribe