words KARMAN TSE
photos LOVE, BONITO
i made change after change
on the road to perfection
but when I finally felt beautiful enough
their definition of beauty
what if there was no finish line
and in an attempt to keep up
i lose the gifts I was born with
for a beauty so insecure
it can’t commit to itself
What makes you feel beautiful? What makes you feel un-beautiful, or ugly even?
I have been asking my interviewees and friends these questions for years now. Here’s what I have discovered: The answers to the first question are never a physical feature. Everyone seems to view beauty—especially their own—as a quality that comes from a place deeper than the eyes can perceive. It’s a feeling. It’s an attitude. It is kindness. It is confidence.
On the other hand, the replies to the second question is almost always superficial: My butt is too flat. My face is too fat. Not tall enough. Too tall. Not thin enough. Too skinny. Too curvy. Could be curvier. Too much boobs. Or too little. Chunky thighs. Nose too round. Jaws too square… And then there are the physical changes we are either not prepared for or did not see coming when: You blow out another candle, you’re having/have had a child, a tragedy strikes…
Here’s my question, well, questions: What benchmark are we using? Who are we comparing ourselves with? Who set the rules and standards to what is beautiful? If you think you’re not tall enough, who’s your goal? Karlie Kloss? If you think your butt is too flat, are the Kardashians the ass-piration (pardon the pun)? And says who we can’t take the conch and speak for ourselves how to feel about how we look? There is no absolute ideal for what is beautiful. In the end, it is you, you alone, who decides that YOU are beautiful just the way you are. Stop the comparisons. Quit looking for external validation. Approve of yourself.
It’s funny, isn’t it? That we don’t compare our inner beauty more often? What would happen if we started to think: My heart is not big enough. My kindness is too thin. My love is not voluptuous enough. Too much anger, too little graciousness. Maybe the ugliness we thought we needed to fix all along is less nose job and more inside job. Chew on that.
While you do, I wish to segue into what I have been meaning to write about: The recent PowWoW panel conversation we did with our friends at Love, Bonito (read their coverage here). It was PowWoW No 4. I decided to do a sequel of PowWoW No 2: “Every Body Has A Story”. As the topic suggests, its focus was on body positivity, where we confronted how we really feel about how we think we look.
Reason: I was incredibly moved by that session. Humbled, too. I remember looking around the room when I entered it. There were 15 women. I saw 15 beautiful women. They were in yoga-wear. Most of them bare-faced and hair pulled back. It was pretty early on a Saturday morning, and we were going to kick off that chat with a yoga practice. A few of them are my friends, but the rest were complete strangers. I did not know who they are in the world, in society—if they had an impressive job title and apartment to match, if they had a five-figure following on Instagram.
Maybe the ugliness we thought we needed to fix all along is less nose job and more inside job.
I did not have to. That day, we connected as human beings. What I saw were human beings who were courageous enough to show one another their vulnerabilities, to talk about what lies beneath—and everyone in the room was stronger for it, one way or another.
What still surprises me, though, was this: The beauty that I saw in these women, is not beauty they see in themselves. They see the flaws, imperfections, they judge themselves, harshly, as the world has for years and years. Little comments on her physical appearance from childhood has haunted one woman into her adulthood, into her now, poisoning her self-esteem and relationships. What might have been an innocent remark or an expression of concern from an aunt or a teacher has made many of us feel like there is something wrong with us our whole life. So we try desperately to conceal and hide our bodies, our “flaws”, under too much clothes (jackets and trousers in summer? Guilty as hell.), or coping mechanisms like self-deprecating jokes (because if we point at ourselves and laugh first, it hurts a little less). Or we reveal too much of ourselves, only on the outside, to invite attention we mistake for love and affection. Then there is an assortment of eating and mental disorders that comes with, like a toy with your Happy Meal. Except, of course, this meal is unhappy and a lot harder to swallow.
Goodness, we have been doing this for so long that this negative self-image has latched on to us like a parasite we forget is not actually a part of us. It isn’t. It is what the world tells you you are. What’s the antidote? Decide who you are for yourself. Surround yourself with people who love that you, from the inside out, who see your beauty and remind you of it. And seriously, stop with the comparisons. Everyone is battling something ugly that is not visible to those who see only with their eyes, and not with their hearts.
When Love, Bonito floated the idea of working together on a styling workshop, I knew instantly that the conversation needs to be the heart of this collaboration. Style, ultimately, is about knowing who you are. The clothes are just pretty tools for self-expression. We can’t talk about our style without talking about our self.
I’m glad we made this sequel happen, and with a partner who believes as one of their core values in empowering women by giving them confidence to be who they are in clothes that get them, that make them feel good inside and out (see how individualistically the five of us rocked our choice of LB pieces?). Also with, oh my god, a panel of my personal her-oes—Rachel Lim (co-founder of Love, Bonito), Anita Kapoor (presenter/speaker), Hanli Hoefer (MTV VJ/model) and Linda Tang (co-founder of WeBarre)—who so generously shared stories of their body struggles, how they overcame, are still overcoming (because it’s a journey, right?), advice and practical tools—on finding the right clothes for different body types and peace in your own skin—that the rest of us could actually try at home. Change begins the moment you change your mind. To chase the idea of the perfect body is akin to chasing your own tail—it’s futile and foolish. Maybe it is when we embrace our imperfections can we finally feel perfectly at peace. Maybe it is when we stop focusing on what’s missing in us by comparison will we truly feel complete.
To everyone who joined us at the session, thank you, what a pleasure meeting you in person. I hope you have made it your daily practice to look at yourself with kind, compassionate and loving eyes (and heart). And if you didn’t make it, here are the highlights from our healing, honest, heartfelt and sometimes funny conversation with these truly beautiful people.
“Last year, my body changed completely. I’m in my 40s now—I turn 48 on Sunday (Feb 24)—so I couldn’t just get away with changing my diet for a month and working out a little extra. Everything was happening—all my curves that were there before were curvier, and my boobs were getting bigger, and I was like, ‘Ahh! What the hell! Whose body is this?’ I was in resistance and I felt it in my brain and in my heart: ‘You who have never had a body positivity issue now don’t like your body? What is this?’ So I really worked hard on it and I said, ‘No, you know what, it’s actually your body, and you’d better learn to love this body because it’s part of you, and this is your next stage of life.’ So now I’m at peace.”
“I’ll say this very plainly: Don’t get addicted to other people’s narcissism. What we have out there is a lot of narcissism. It’s not just women or men, it’s everybody. I think this whole scroll-and-see-what-other-people-are-doing, and ‘oh wow, my life is so shit’ thing—I’m sorry but nope. Because your life isn’t shit, you’re just looking at photos that are two dimensional and you have no idea what went into making those photos. That’s a form of narcissism when it becomes too much and you are getting addicted to that.
“Don’t get addicted to other people’s narcissism.”
Secondly, drink water and hydrate yourself. No really, I don’t think people are drinking enough water—at least to escape anxiety, to escape the state of feeling imbalanced. I am a big believer of really hydrating, and I have a big-ass bottle because I know that when I don’t, I get headaches, I can’t make great decisions, I don’t feel good about myself.
So, don’t get addicted to narcissism, drink enough water, and sleep. I think we’re actually addicted to this life of being busy and it’s really unnecessary. You don’t need to be that busy. For goodness’ sake, we’re all going to die, okay? Do we really need to push ourselves closer to the edge before we can feel happy and satisfied about where we are and what we’ve got? When you slow it down and you actually sleep better, you start to realise what your life is about and where you’re at. And these things, to me, are mindfulness, self-awareness. Take your life into your own hands.”
What is Beauty?—
“Beauty is a feeling more than it is a look. What I think is beautiful about me is, erm, I think I have a big heart and that heart has the capacity to take a lot, and include a lot, and love a lot.”
“There’s this ‘Instagram body’ that is only for Instagram.”
“I started out as a model, and one of the biggest challenges which I face, have faced and probably still will face, is comparing myself (with others). I think now more than ever, it’s just so in our faces. There’s this ‘Instagram body’ that is only for Instagram. It’s there and it’s there every day. But my experience with comparing kind of came 360 degrees. When I started modelling, I’ll admit, I was that Size 0, I was that skinny girl, that high-fashion sample size, and even then I had issues with my body. I would look at myself and I’d say, ‘Oh, you’ve got a weird bloat, your legs they don’t match, you look so gangly, or you’re so disproportionate…’ That was all I could think about. And now, when I look back at pictures of myself, when I was that size, I’m like, ‘urgh, you stupid girl!’ But that was happening to me then.
I am still human, I’ll admit I still make these comparisons now, but being able to take a step back and look at what was, and who I am now, there’s a natural acceptance—you know, your body changes, and I’m okay with that now. I’ve also struggled with height, I’m quite a tall person—I’m 1.78m in a country that’s petite, and always being around people who are a head shorter than me made me feel large. But what helped me was just positive affirmations—knowing that I am beyond my physical self, knowing who I am inside, and just learning to love my height.”
(Anita: Give me some.
Hanli: Take it, girl!)
What is Beauty?—
“What I find most beautiful is when people are genuinely kind, it just radiates through them.”
“I’ve been exposed to the fashion industry for over a decade since I started Love, Bonito. As you can imagine, I was constantly surrounded by a lot of young models, like Hanli. Fun fact: We used to work together, Hanli used to model for us.
That was when I started to be aware of society’s ideas and standards of beauty. So, for a long time, I did struggle with myself even among my peers. There was a period of time when I would want so much to dress like them and be like them that I would really try to wear whatever they would wear, thinking that if I did that, I would look as good as them. For a while, I deceived myself that that was true, but of course I didn’t feel comfortable. I felt like I was walking around awkwardly because I knew deep down that that wasn’t me. It took me a long time to discover who I am, accept myself wholly. So this is me: I am petite, I have significant hips and narrow shoulders. The challenge then was: How can I dress to present the best version of myself? I started to really appreciate my small waist because with bigger hips, dressing up to accentuate my waist became an exercise in creating an illusion, and it was fun. I learned to pick clothes that gave the illusion that I have broader shoulders to even out my overall body proportion. I’ve also always wanted longer legs. Here’s the trick: High-waisted pants!
“My HEART really goes out to WOMEN who have come up to me and shown me pictures of models and influencers and said, ‘I’m not BEAUTIFUL because I can’t wear that.’ It’s sad, and it’s NOT TRUE, because there’s something for all of us.”
So, that was my personal journey where I overcame and learned. This is why Love, Bonito believes so much in journeying with women to help you discover who you are, to not try to be anyone else and to really advocate that we accept and embrace who we are. We are beautiful in our own ways. My heart really goes out to women who have come up to me and shown me pictures of models and influencers and said, ‘I’m not beautiful because I can’t wear that.’ It’s sad, and it’s not true, because there’s something for all of us. It’s really about getting to know, understanding and embracing your body, and I think the rest will follow, confidence will follow.”
What is Beauty?—
“This is one of my favourite quotes, one that I shared with Karman recently as well. It’s Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success, which I think applies to beauty, too: ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else—that is the greatest accomplishment.’ I hold true to that very much because I think that in my journey as an entrepreneur and as a leader, what I’ve discovered about myself is that I’m not like everyone else—I’m not your conventional definition of ‘leadership’ or ‘beauty’. My beauty (and success) is that I know and I accept me for who I really am, that I never stop working towards being the best version of myself. And that comes with time and a lot of intentional effort. This is an ongoing journey, but we can only get stronger.”
“When I was younger, I was naturally skinny. I only realised this when I was older: That actually the biggest demon is not everyone around you but you towards yourself. I still always look at myself in the mirror and like, ‘urgh, why is my tummy so much bigger than my waist, and why do I feel disproportionate?’ And people used to always say to me, “oh, you’re so skinny”, and I could never see what other people saw, so it’s like in your own mind, you kind of almost brainwash yourself to believe something that might not even be a reality because you’ve just been telling yourself that for so long.
And it’s funny because people think I’m confident. Like Karman told me the other day her first impression of me was like, ‘wow, you have such a confidence about you it’s almost intimidating.’ But when I was growing up, I was very insecure, and I was never popular. I struggled a lot with fitting in and loving myself in my 20s. I wanted to be something that I wasn’t. There were things that I liked about myself but there were things that I tried to change about myself for the longest time. For example, I thought I have a very flat butt and I’ve always wanted a perkier butt. I would do butt exercises, squats, but it would only change so much, right? It wasn’t until I started pole dancing that I learned that every body type is different, because you’d see people of all kids of shapes and sizes, I saw people who were maybe three sizes bigger than me, who were so much more confident than me. I was so inspired by how much they owned who they are in their bodies. That taught me that actually every single person is build differently. Every single curve, every single flaw is there because you are unique. From then on, I was like, ‘okay, this is me. Yes, I can improve on certain areas but I have to embrace this body.’”
“I struggled a lot with fitting in and loving myself in my 20s. I wanted to be something that I wasn’t.”
“A lot of body image issues result in a bad relationship with the way you eat. It’s a vicious cycle, because very commonly, we’re like, ‘oh, I’m going to detox. Oh shit, I indulged and cheated. Oh, I’m going to detox, again.’ It’s a never-ending cycle. I’ve been trying something called mindful eating, which is a tangible tip if it’s something that you’re open to. I use this meditation app called 10% Happier. There’s a whole chapter on mindful eating. The essence of it is that we often eat because we’re bored or we’re stressed, or it’s like, ‘I’m feeling really sad, I want to eat this whole pint of ice cream.’ What I found very enlightening about it was that you do a body scan, ask yourself: In this moment, is this something that I want to nurture my body with? Basically, you tune in instead of eat something mindlessly just for the sake of it. So just take a moment, stop and ask: ‘Is this going to nurture me right now?’ Bring that awareness into your body. So it’s a small and simple step that I’m trying to integrate into my daily life that helps me to be a little bit more balanced and mindful.”
What is Beauty?—
“What is really beautiful to me is when someone really values who they are as a person. It’s not about someone being taller or shorter, louder or quieter or whatever, but someone you can really feel in their presence that they are so comfortable with who they are and that they really value that.”
PowWoW is a conversation series hosted by Wear Oh Where with the intention of offering a safe space where we can talk about things that matter to us, our struggles and trade lessons learned. It is a space where we hope people, especially women, will feel less alone on their journey. We also try to invite friends and gurus we know personally who have stories, wisdom and practical tools that could be helpful you to join our panel for each edition. Sign up for our newsletter below to get updates.