Beyond the Facade

by Change Maker, Michelle Shobana

It has never been a norm for my family to talk about issues of gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, body shaming and dating violence. Of course, this does not mean that these issues were not faced; it just meant that no one could ever talk about it in the house.

mich1Having spent my childhood around my elder sisters, I grew up quickly. At a young age, I observed in silence the issues they faced. When my sister was physically assaulted by her partner, I couldn’t understand why she still wanted to stay with him so badly. But I remember holding her hand and telling her she deserved better. The rest of my family preferred a different approach, hitting her as well as threatening to disown her. I know this is never a good way to solve any problem; my sister left him eventually and that was what they wanted.

During my own adolescence, I had to face my own issues. I became aware that my sexual orientation differed from other girls. I felt differently and could never quite find the words to say when they talked about boys, I just nodded and smiled. It was also around this time that I found myself comparing my body with other girls. I was always a chubby child and never though much of it until then. This was when things started to change.

I picked up the habit of vomiting after a meal. It never really made much of a difference to my body, but I always felt better after doing it. This was a habit of mine for three years. In addition to this, I started self-harming and did it every day before school started. Because I did not know how to, I never talked about these issues to anyone.

I knew my sexual orientation would never sit well with my family, because they had expressed such strong negative sentiments towards anyone from the LGBT community. This intensified my other issues, and my eating disorder and self-harming continued.

However, it started to become clear that my issues were affecting me.  I had constant headaches that would last for weeks at a time and had no medication that could alleviate it. My poor physical health affected my grades. My family found out about my bulimic and self-harming behaviour and called me attention-seeking. I was beaten up for my issues and because they saw my behaviour as an act of disobedience. They threatened to disown me if I did not fix myself.

By this time, I knew I couldn’t tell anyone else because being hit by your parents is used as a common “disciplining” tool in Singapore. When I voiced these issues to my family, I got hit even more and was told that I was not an “American”, but an Indian and I should stop thinking of freedom. This comment still affects me today because it shows how narrow their idea of my future is, without any consideration of individual expression or freedom.

mich2Gender stereotypes also play a part throughout my life. Till today, I am forced to put on makeup so that people wouldn’t be put off and will have a good impression of me. The shorter my hair got, the more makeup I had to apply. The more I was forced to apply makeup, the more I refused to do so. So caught up with what people would think and say, my family refused to see the possibility of actual happiness as a diverse family, with each member being able to express themselves freely and help one another achieve their dreams. I hated the idea of living in a box. That was not me.

I only stopped my bulimic behaviour and self-harming when I was enrolled in tertiary education, and I met the woman who put my life back on track. She threw away my blade and applauded when I finished my meals. She told me I look better without make up, and ensured that I always did my best in everything I did. We fell in love, which made me stronger than ever. It was then I realised I had to fight for freedom, no matter how small the scale.

There is little to no talk about gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, body shaming and dating violence within families. Any attempt to discuss these is met with awkward excuses, negative comments or even violence. As Change Makers, we need to break the taboo and make it communicable to individuals from varying backgrounds. Violence is not necessarily physical, it can be emotional abuse too. Victims face all sorts of emotional turmoil when unable to communicate their feelings to their family.

I know because I have been there.

michelleAbout the Author: My name is Michelle, doing my 2nd Year of Information Technology in Republic Polytechnic. I aim to be a teacher, to help individuals in their education academically, and through self-awareness. I see a future where my partner and I can live happily, without being called out for being different. In my spare time, I listen to rock music and take each day at a time. 


Beauty and Body

by Charmaine Teh, Change Maker

rbk-empowering-illustrations-carol-rossetti-whitney-deWe live in a society where our appearances are constantly under close scrutiny. Due to rigid societal standards, picking on someone for their weight, whether they are plus size or skinny, is common. The media portrays the perfect female body as a skinny physique with killer abs or a flat tummy with the infamous thigh gap, and for the guys, a chiseled, muscular body. This sends the message that these features would automatically make you happier, more popular and more desirable.

Beauty is constantly being redefined. Currently, the media equates skinny to beautiful; and if you aren’t skinny, you can’t possibly comply with society’s standards of beauty. Anything other than that, you are not fitting in. It has become so ingrained in us that we may find ourselves alienating or disliking a person simply because he or she is fat. And if you are not skinny, you may be called names like ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’, which are meant as insults.

I used to be a victim of ridicule because I was chubby and stood out from my group of friends like a sore thumb. I had thighs that rubbed together when I walked and a tummy that bulged out when I sat down. Someone thought I was “ugly”, and saw fit to ridicule me. I was constantly humiliated for my size and it was a huge blow to my self-esteem. Even though I weighed 51kg standing at 1.57m, I started feeling ugly and believed that I was severely overweight. I turned to starvation by surviving on only one meal per day. On days when I felt ugly and fat, I would binge on food and then exercise excessively to account for the calories I had consumed. I became increasingly self-conscious about my body. I would never leave home in clothes that could not conceal the extra bulges I was trying to hide.

Although I was never medically diagnosed with any eating disorders, it did not mean that I was not harming my body. Within a month, I became obsessed with losing weight. I ate nothing but a plain toast for breakfast and drank water to stave off my hunger for the rest of the day. I felt weak all over but I saw it as something I had to overcome in order to lose weight. To make things worse, I was participating in intensive trainings for my extracurricular activity thrice a week. I was constantly hungry after training sessions but reminded myself that the only way to be skinny was to stick to my strict regime of excessive dieting and exercising.

body image2Why did I allow my beauty to be defined by anyone else but myself? I thought that by being skinnier, I would become a happier and more beautiful person but I only felt depressed and disgusted at myself all the time. I had forgotten that I am an unique individual who deserves to feel beautiful because I am born beautiful, regardless of how I look.

What I am trying to say is that no one should feel ashamed of their body simply because they are not as skinny or muscular. Everyone should be able to feel comfortable in their own skin even if they do not conform to societal standards of beauty.

Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, not just the body type the media portrays. Therefore, my message to anyone out there who feels insecure about their body is that the next time you feel inferior because you do not have rock-solid muscles or a thigh gap, just remember that your body is unique and that you are beautiful. Don’t let the media or society tell you otherwise.

photo (2)About the Author: Charmaine is a final year student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic pursuing Psychology Studies. Her interest in gender equality first sparked when she mentioned that her ex-netball coach was a male and someone had exclaimed ‘Guys can play netball too?’ She holds strong to the belief that no matter how big or small a change is, it is still something significant and thus we should never stop trying to advocate change in the society.




Redefining Masculinity

A recount of the struggles of navigating and defining masculinity and what it means to be a “Real Man”
by Robert Bivouac

When I was 7, I had an operation done on my left ear. I couldn’t eat at all for 12 hours before that and I told myself I would never go hungry again. Back then I didn’t know what calories were and I got a dollar a day in allowance, just enough to buy a bowl of lor mai kai for recess. I knew it made me feel full, so I think I ate that at least twice a week, and on the other days I ate things like pork bao and those chicken-flavoured Petit Brunch crackers.

When I was 8 and our class was held back for recess I cried. I remember the teacher’s name. I think it was Mr Wong, or Mr Fong, or something. I don’t actually remember the teacher’s name but I remember what he did. He went over to my desk and looked me in the eye. He had this habit of puffing his cheeks up before he spoke. I don’t remember why I remember that but I remember what he told me. He told me that I was a boy, and boys don’t cry. I was a boy, and I was going to be a man in a few years, and men don’t cry either. I tried to stop crying and after I did, and he let us go for recess, some kid came up to me and told me I didn’t need to eat recess anyway. That was the first time I realised I was fat, and it was only the first time.

G44A0821In hindsight it was mostly the boys who bullied me, and in hindsight I should’ve known it was going to get worse in my all-boys secondary school. Literally the second week of class in Sec 1 someone had already broken my stuff. I think it was a pen, but eventually someone smashed my calculator. There was this thing going on where they’d take my stuff and run around with it because they knew I was fat and slow and I couldn’t catch up and when I couldn’t catch up they called me names. I remember being called a bunch of slurs strung together the way someone who doesn’t really know what they mean would use them. I remember my classmates pinning me down or slamming me into walls. I remember I was so physically weak that hitting back became an excuse for them to hit way harder. Someone threw a chair at me once and then someone threw me into a chair, and then into a table, and then into the lockers at the back of the class. I didn’t cry.

I didn’t cry, but I was short, I was soft and I was physically weak, and to top it off I was in choir. I spoke a lot in class, did better than every single person who came at me and went up every week to challenge the principal during assembly. I didn’t know my place, apparently. In a school full of boys I was not a man, and I didn’t know my place, so that was all the excuse they needed. When the school counsellor and house head were brought in to investigate they told me what they’d heard. My “friends” thought they were training me to be a real man, as if all the insults, stealing and hitting could “fix” me; as if I needed to be “fixed”.

10458342_775298422505091_3667291884959981461_nThe thing about being “fixed” is that if you need fixing, that means you’re broken, as if not being a “real man” means you’re broken. See, if you’re a man, but not a “real man”, it seems you’re doing something wrong and if you’re doing something wrong, you need to be taught a lesson. It’s not just kids who do this. Like, turn on the television some time and you’ll see a bunch of “real men”, doing really manly things. “Real men” are strong and violent. “Real men” work hard and protect their families (which, of course, they want). “Real men” are attractive, or else “real men” are heroic, and “real men” always get the woman (and it’s always a woman), even though sometimes they really shouldn’t. It’s not all the time, but the implication is this: this is what a “real man” looks like, this is what he does and this is how he does it.

Guys, we’ve been caught. We’re told by these so-called “real men” to “be a man” when we’re hurting, when we’re sick, when there’s nothing else you can do but they want us to do it anyway. We’re told that if we don’t look or act like “real men”, we don’t deserve to be men at all. We’re something less than men if we aren’t “real men”, something they have permission to dominate, to hurt and to exploit. Frankly, guys, I’m tired.

I’m tired of this “real man” crap. All men are “real men”. We are men simply because we choose to identify as such, and nobody gets to decide otherwise. Not your parents, not your friends and certainly not anybody who thinks taking your stuff and hitting you is a good idea. We need an understanding of manhood that doesn’t exclude people who don’t fit the traditional idea of a man. We need to acknowledge that men who can’t or don’t want to find a partner, who aren’t straight, who were told they were something other than men at birth but consider themselves men, are real men. And yet, we also need to acknowledge that the men who do bad things? The men who hurt other people? The men who hurt me? Are real men too.

If we want a more inclusive understanding of manhood, we need to accept it’s for everyone, not just the good guys, and we need to do our part, as men, to fix it. Real men still do bad things, but good men stop them. and you, every single one of you boys and men in the crowd, can be a good man.

If you see a man who’s angry because he can’t get laid, tell him he’s got a problem. Tell him his problem is not that he can’t get laid, but that he believes he needs to get laid to be a real man. Tell him that he’s already a real man, and that no matter what he does, he will never deserve to get laid. Tell him that maybe he’ll find someone, or maybe he won’t, but either way it’ll be alright. He’ll still be a real man.

Youth at the event came up with different gender stereotypes they'd like to break. Warning: images in this mirror might be distorted by socially constructed notions of beauty.If you see a man going off about women, saying they’re the cause of all his problems, tell him he’s going in the wrong direction, and maybe ask him why he feels that way. Take his rage and point it at whoever told him women were to blame, because they’re lying. Tell him that’s who he needs to be mad at. He needs to be mad at everyone who told him being a man meant getting his way, meant automatically getting more respect than women, meant not being told he’s wrong. That’s who he needs to be mad at.

If you see a man harassing someone else by being sexist, homophobic or sexually aggressive, tell him to back off. Tell him he needs to back off, and that he doesn’t have the right to demand they shut up or do things just because he’s a man. Tell him being a man doesn’t make him more correct than anyone else, and that he really needs to stop. Say it firmly and with conviction and maybe the threat to report him to his teachers, or his superiors at work, or, if there really is no choice, the police.

Your voice is a vote, guys, and these are only some of the issues. All men can, and all men should, work together to make being a man something less aggressive, less exclusive, less sexist, and more proactive. We need to save our brothers from this myth that only some men are real, and other men are less real, and women are perhaps even less than that. We can play our part to help end violence by and against men, but only if we try. And we really have to try.


How Our Classrooms are Damaging the Female Body Image

by Choo Kai Lin, Change Maker

 “Math class is tough,” said Barbie. Those were the first words this iconic blonde symbol of the femininity declared back in 1992 in a segment titled Barbie Teen Talk. Clearly, gender stereotypes are not a new concept. Obviously, the world’s most famous doll agrees with the age-old cliché of females being intellectually inferior to their male counterparts. How often do we overlook the potential damage these stereotypes do, especially in an educational setting?

 In today’s society, gender bias influences each and every individual. As members of this gendered society, we recognize and accept characteristics of femininity and masculinity, moulding our bodies and altering our body images accordingly to fit social expectations.

 These gendered attitudes are emphasized in our system of schooling, creating and maintaining gender inequalities, part of which includes society greatly emphasising and controlling the female body. Young girls in Singapore today are at an increasing risk of negative body images and low self- esteem, which may be due to social stereotyping and cultural notions of female bodies that are reinforced within their schools.

 Stereotyping girls as intellectually-inferior to their male counterparts damages their notions of self-worth, and instead overemphasizes the importance of female physical attractiveness, instead of personal traits.  Hailing from a single-sex secondary school, my schoolmates and I were commonly described as “bimbos” and “girly” by others. The identity of an entire school community was reduced to simplistic, and not-so-flattering, stereotypes of femininity, often despite its evident merit in both academics and sports. In fact, it is common practice in popular culture for schools to be ranked based on the perceived physical attractiveness of their female students. This attitude assumes a woman’s natural state as an object valued for aesthetic appeal. Her potential as a person is undermined by sending the message that women are more valued for their appearance than for their talents.  What effects will the subtle, yet large-scale, objectification of female students in schools have on their perception of themselves?

 Perhaps what is even more distressing is the school administration’s growing role in imposing unrealistic ideals of the female body. At a recent family gathering, I found out that my seven-year-old cousin has been deemed overweight and forced to join a “Health Club” at school. Apparently, in many primary schools all over the country, it is becoming increasingly common for “overweight” children to be forced to join health clubs, skipping recess and partaking in physical activity as part of an initiative to combat childhood obesity. Essentially, “Health Club”, or more commonly, TAF (Trim and Fit) clubs, are premises to enforce rigid notions of ideal body types, and, perhaps even more dangerously, equate being thin with being ‘healthy’. As a result, adolescents are body-shamed into believing that being “skinny” is the ideal body shape.

In an interview with NBC News, a primary school girl expressed that she felt “sad…to look at people [because they were] so skinny and could wear so many clothes”. At just ten years old, this little girl has already developed a distorted body image and an inferiority complex. Demanding that she forgo food during recess in favour of dribbling a basketball, as in many such clubs in the name of ‘health’, will only worsen the problem. One could argue that these school policies, designed originally with good intentions, are now creating body image problems for future generations. By policing their bodies from a young age, these girls are taught that they must live up to society’s expectations of how they should look and dress. Damagingly, this then results in females themselves learning to measure their value by their appearance.

However, gender stereotypes are harmful to all, even male students. With emphasis on masculinity in the media, more boys are under pressure to live up to society’s notions of what a “real man” is. In a study conducted on participants who had undergone penile enlargement surgery, a majority of the participants had expressed previous reservations about going into shared school showers and engaging in physical activities in school–showing once again that the negative effects of gender expectations start from early on, most often at some point in school. Many participants cited anxiety about their peers’ perception of how ‘macho’, or masculine, they were as a prime reason for undergoing such an intensive surgical procedure. More and more young boys feel increasing pressure to have an idealised male body as popularised in the media, and uphold traditionally ‘masculine’ traits like strength. These attitudes are not helped by others in their peer group reinforcing and perpetuating these pressures on the individual. Gender stereotypes and expectations, if accepted as a normal, run-of-the-mill part of our society, may predict insecurities for the male population as well.

Obviously, society’s strict adherence to gender stereotypes and body ideals can be injurious to both females, as well as males. When education systems emphasize these suffocating constraints of gender inequality, there are potentially dangerous implications for one’s perception of self. Moreover, considering the power school wields over our youth, we, as a community, have to take steps to increase awareness of the harmful gender stereotypes we see in our classrooms, and everywhere else.