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Is ‘Casual’ Racism Really Casual?

By Natasha Sadiq & Tan Jing Min

“How long does it take for an Indian woman to pass motion?”

“How long?”

“9 months”

Cackles of laughter ensue. I look around the group of friends encircling me. I seem to be the only person who didn’t find the joke funny.

I’m going to go out on a limb here (I might be completely wrong) and guess that it’s because I’m the only person of Indian descent. I tried hard to conceal the indignation coalescing on my face.

I failed. I suppose they couldn’t miss my suddenly darkened face.

“But it’s just a joke, don’t be so sensitive la.”

And they were right: it was just a joke. But the jokes we tell speak volumes about our subliminal racial biases and standards of beauty. Colour is the subject of much banter among youths and even some circles of adults especially in multiracial Singapore, but the light-hearted irreverence belies more insidious undertones: body shaming and body image issues.

Body shaming is the practice of making mortifying and demeaning remarks about a person’s body size, weight, or appearance. The prevalence of body shaming in societies should not be trivialised – anxieties about one’s beauty and appearance are rising exponentially.

According to the Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report, Dove’s largest-ever study on women’s perceptions of beauty, research shows that women’s level of body confidence is at an all-time low. The study, which involved interviews with 10,500 women across 13 different countries, showed that a large majority of women struggle with body image issues.

The study also showed that body image issues are not confined to a mere lack of confidence and physical insecurities. These issues do pose consequences on a much broader and larger scale. For example, the study showed that about 85 per cent of all women and 79 per cent of girls admitted that they choose to absent themselves from important life events when they do not feel confident about their appearance. Additionally, 9 out of 10 women skip meals and compromise their health when they feel insecure about their bodies.

The problem of body shaming can also manifest in tangible third-party harm: a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that bullying in Singapore is worryingly high compared to other countries – the third highest, to be exact. 18.3 per cent of students experience ridicule a few times a month. Spreading of rumours, being left out, and having things taken away from them were among the other forms of bullying cited by students.

This is telling of a mindset internalised from early childhood: we are entitled to judge others, and ostracise others if they fail to meet the mark.

In Singapore, casual racist remarks about one’s appearances may also constitute body shaming. One can even argue that these remarks are more damaging to a person’s self-esteem because changing one’s race or skin colour would be arguably more difficult than altering one’s weight. Here, body shaming is a reality not merely for girls and women, but for boys and men as well.

Indeed, body shaming and racial stereotypes share a symbiotic relationship. Racial stereotypes and colourism contribute to a culture of body shaming (and vice versa) when people associate a certain race with certain physical characteristics, and then conceive of a narrow standard of beauty based on certain “undesirable” traits found in one’s race or physical appearance.

One example of this is when we attribute certain physical traits like fatness, darker skin tones and even unkempt hair to certain races, consequently branding them “lazy” or  “unprofessional”.

What we need to be more aware of is the fact that individualised instances of casual racism have the potential to affect how we perceive broader social groups and communities. Here, something as personalised and singular as casual racism helps build the foundation for larger issues of social prejudice.

Because skin colour can be such a visceral reminder of how one individual differs from another, it is especially important that we take heed of our latent biases. The issue of race regularly arises in national discourse for good reason–from racial politics to majority privilege, it is clear that while Singapore embraces diversity, it also poses a constant potential source of tension.

Whether we are concerned with seemingly superficial issues like physical appearances or those that entail greater social implications like race, we need to understand that they are all connected by threads of influence. The seemingly light-hearted jokes about race we pass around as pleasantries carry more poison in its arsenal than we think.


About the authors: 

Natasha graduated from NUS with a degree in Political Science and dislikes empty niceties. She is currently looking for her job. Please inform her if you find it.

Jing Min is waiting to begin reading Law at Cambridge University, but looks like she could be starting primary school. She tries to use this to her advantage (with little success).


Featured image by Natalie Nourigat.

Body Image [email protected]

Paint me like one of your Instagram girls

By Tricia Ferdinandt

I remember when I was younger and in primary school, we started to learn about puberty in Health Education and how girls and boys alike would see changes in their bodies as they grow up. I did not really think much of it and instead, I welcomed these changes as they made me feel like a woman and not a little girl anymore. I started getting these changes when I was 9; I remember that not many of my classmates caught on as early as I did. I wore a singlet under my clothes, but I didn’t look into it much. I still went about my gymnastic and ballet classes all the same.

Over time, as I transitioned into secondary school, I was not as lean and skinny as I used to be. I weighed steadily at 55 kg pretty much throughout secondary school, which was acceptable for my height. I never really gained or lost weight. We ran a lot during P.E. classes to train for our 2.4 km run. Other than that, I did not really look after my diet or health. That would go on to be something that I regret.

Members of my family would joke about my weight and observed if I had lost or gained weight at practically every family gathering. I did not look to them for their approval nor did I understand why they were policing the way my body looked as if it were of any concern to them since it was my body. I would understand their genuine health concerns for me as they advised me to take less sugary drinks and eat less junk food. Other remarks like how my hips would get more round in the future once I had kids of my own just fell upon my deaf ears. Honestly, I loved my hips. I had a small waist and I loved the way my rounder hips would complement my figure. Of course, that’s a different story now that I gained almost 30 kg in the last 4 years.

I have been struggling with depression and anxiety over the course of my adolescent years. I have difficulty coping with my emotions, leading me to sometimes harm myself and others. There have been many low points in my life, some of which I brought upon myself. Others habits include horrible eating habits, a disruptive sleeping pattern, and a non-existent exercise routine. Looking after myself was not important to me at all. As the number on the scales kept increasing, I chose to avoid it and run away, like I always do with my problems.

The comments from family, friends, and even partners kept coming. They were mostly hurtful words stitched together with good intentions. I would think a lot about what people said after, about the “burger going down to my butt” or oil creating more “moon craters” on my face. Not only did I struggle with my weight, I hated my acne-scarred skin. The acne on my cheeks, forehead, and even my back could be connected with a pen to create constellations. I was extremely sensitive about my body, weight, and the way I looked. Something as simple as someone staring at me too long could send me into a frenzy. I remember my boyfriend staring at my protruding stomach when I asked if we could have our lunch at my favourite American fast-food chain. Although he had no ill intentions and did not mean it in the way I interpreted, it scarred me.

I wished with all my heart that I could just be like the girls of Instagram, with the killer figure and perfect skin. Beautiful, stunning, but not realistic. While praying hard to look like someone else, I learnt the hard lesson of acceptance and self-love. We are all beautiful and unique in our own special ways. Ironically, it might seem like the grass is greener on the other side, but I can assure you that everyone has their own insecurities. People who pick on others’ flaws and faults and take joy in bringing someone pain are battling demons of their own. That is why instead of getting upset with a classmate of mine who made a rude comment about my weight or appearance, I prayed for him. He can make 1000 comments to bring me down, but I will not give him the permission to hurt me. These people in your life are nothing to you and one should never give them the power to make you upset in any way, shape, or form.

My goal in this journey is not about the numbers or seeking a thumbs up from  others. If I do this to seek approval from others, then I will never be happy. I am doing this for myself, to be the best version of myself. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have flat abs or a bubble butt. Girls on the covers on magazines have their bodies photoshopped and retouched. Love your love handles, muffin tops, and thunder thighs. Treat your body right and it will treat you right too.

Author’s Bio: Tricia Ferdinandt is your resident brown baby. Her hobbies include adding memes to her album collection and binge-watching makeup tutorials. When she’s not stuDYING in school, she’s probably at Starbucks trying to convince the barista she has 60 stars to redeem a free drink.

Featured image by Colleen Clark.



News & Updates

Free muralling workshop for the public!


We Can! Singapore and EtiquetteSG are organising FREE muralling workshops for the public! The 3-session workshop will provide participants with the opportunity to learn a new art form as well as express their unique identities and stories through it.

These interactive workshops run by experienced artists and facilitators are designed to create safe and stimulating spaces for people to have conversations about various aspects of their identity, share experiences and bond.


Duration: Three 2.5-hour sessions

Dates: 16, 23, 30 August 2016

Time: 4 – 6.30pm

Venue: AWARE Centre

Cost: FREE

Sign up here:

Feel free to contact Gracia at [email protected] for more information.

Don’t wait any longer–sign up now! 🙂


Registration closes: 14 August 2016
News & Updates

Free muralling workshops!




We Can! Singapore and EtiquetteSG are organising FREE muralling workshops for the community! The 4-session workshop will provide participants with the opportunity to learn a new art form as well as express their unique identities and stories through it.

These interactive workshops run by experienced artists and facilitators are designed to create safe and stimulating spaces for people to have conversations about various aspects of their identity, share experiences and bond. The content can also be easily customised to fit the needs of a particular group.


Duration: Four 2-hour sessions

Pax: 10 – 20 participants

Venue: Your centre/space

Needed: A wall space for muralling (preferably indoors)

Cost: FREE

Feel free to contact Gracia at [email protected] for more information.


Proving our “manliness”

 Anonymous post, as part of our “What does being a man mean to you?” blog series. Submit your responses to [email protected]!

31IYZh9qGnLBeing a man means so many other things than just body shape, and these perceptions have been shaped by my family, my friends and society at large. Being a man means being tough, loyal, intelligent, fit and sporty. If you are a man, you are also expected to be a natural leader and a gentleman. My father would always remind me that boys should play sports and keep fit at all times, and that the performing arts is more for girls. He wanted me to be more involved in sport and stay away from “girly” activities.

I never understood why he acted as if the interests that one pursues has anything to do with one’s gender identity. While I do play sports and exercise regularly, it is only because it is necessary for health and fitness. This has nothing to do with what society expects boys and men to do or trying to achieve that coveted muscular body. It is unfortunate that sport is seen as an activity that all boys and men are expected to engage in in order to be seen as manly, tough and strong.

man-boxSociety tends to think of a man as having to protect women and show leadership over them. He must never appear weak, or else he will be ostracised and looked down upon by society. He must never cry because only girls cry. He must always appear confident, walk in a confident posture, talk in a confident manner. He must have a lean and strong body that exuberates an aura of confidence and dominance. He must always be dominant to females or else he would look like a joke.

With all these restrictions and expectations placed on him, he must be very careful to not just be a man, but also appear and act like a man, or else he would be labelled weak, gay, sissy and a variety of other names. Not only is this image highly damaging to women in society (conversely, women are seen as the weaker sex who should be subservient and obedient to the whims of men), it is clear that such a misguided attitude of what a man should be hurts every single boy and man who isn’t like that, and that’s most of us right there.

I say that boys and men should stop doing all the things that we do only because we feel it is expected of men. I have a good relationship with my schoolmates, but I sometimes feel pressured to “be a man” in their presence. For example, when we go to Universal Studios together, I will be pressured to go on intense roller coasters even though I do not want to and I do not like the feeling of riding them. Of course I would always refuse and my friends would try to persuade me. Men should be daring, courageous and adventurous, so does my refusal make me less of a man? In the end, this is just a small matter and they do accept my views eventually, but this is just one of the many examples of how men face pressure in different ways to prove their worth in manliness.


What Makes a Man

Written by Leow Yangfa, Change Maker, as part of our “What does being a man mean to you?” blog series. Submit your responses to [email protected]!

Being a son means I am grateful for my parents’ loving support, good health and continued presence. Being a brother means I am fortunate enough to have two women with whom I will have life-long relationships. Being a nephew means I have aunts and uncles who are there to remind me I’m part of a larger family. Being an uncle means I have relationships with five very different young women whom I will risk my life to protect.

Being of Chinese-Hakka-Peranakan heritage means I am connected to a long history of culture, language and traditions. Being a Singlish-speaking Singaporean means I can be uptight, eccentric, arrogant, kiasu, kiasee and patriotic, all at the same time.

Being gay means I have an awareness of what it means to be feared, hated, demonised…and different. Being a survivor of suicide and sexual assault means I know how it feels to be vulnerable.

Being vegetarian means I would like to practise kindness in my daily habits. Being an atheist means I only have this life to live. Being a social worker means I am self-aware and seek purpose in my life.

Being a man to me means….all of the above.

About the Author: Leow Yangfa is the Executive Director of Oogachaga, a community-based professional counselling, support & personal development organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender & questioning (LGBTQ) individuals, couples & families.


What does “being a man” mean to me?

Anonymous post, as part of our “What does being a man mean to you?” blog series. Submit your responses to [email protected]!

binaryBeing a man has been a complicated experience for me. I am a genderqueer person in a body that very much looks like a man’s. But I am not, and will never be a man, and it’s not for a lack of people trying to teach me how to be one.

The last time I fought with my father, I was leaning against the kitchen countertop glaring angrily at him while tears rolled down my face. He was standing in the doorway, clearly frustrated and angry with what was going on. “Are you going to cry like this in front of your army commander?” he bellowed.

The last time I attended a school camp, my sweat-stained face was inches from the dusty ground as the unsympathetic National Cadet Corps sergeant, just a year older than I was, revelled in his ability to wield power and control over human bodies. He roared at our cowed forms to suck it up and take it like the men we were, because we were late coming out of the crowded showers.

The last time I spoke to a boy who was once a dear friend, he told me that he could not live with the fact that I liked boys even after trying all this time. He recommended that I seek treatment for my mental disorder, and that he never wanted to see me again. The last time I accidentally let slip about a boy I was crushing on, I received a text message calling me a faggot and threatening to beat me up.

tumblr_mh36f6KoMG1s1s8rgo1_500I have not yet figured out how to look less like a man. On certain days when I’m feeling particularly dysphoric, every assumption that I’m a man makes my insides squirm. On other days the same assumptions simply bounce off my belly, leaving nary a mark. Most of the time, I find myself drawing a box labelled “Other” under the Gender section on some form. When neither box fits, you can only make your own. In spite of everything, these few months after my coming out as a genderqueer person has been so much more liberating than the years I spent being a man.

The inconvenient truth for many of the men that have come and gone from my life is that really, nobody has to take anything “like a man”. Toxic masculinity – the kind that exemplifies violence, aggression, power and control over the other – makes me very afraid, and if you aren’t already scared about the lengths that men can go to in asserting their dominance and privilege, you really should be.


Bald = Beautiful

Written by Michelle Shobana, Change Maker

My hair has always been a big part of my life. As a young child, around the age of 4 or 5, I was already spotting wavy hair that went all the way to my knees. My mother loved styling my hair, and as such, I had various styles: braids, scorpions, pony tails, huge locks. So when she had to cut my hair because I got lice when I was 7, I was devastated. I felt the short hair made my face seem so round and unsightly. The growing process did not make me feel any better, as my hair grew out thick and rough. I always had it tamed into a tight ponytail, despite the headaches.

1bb As soon as I started secondary school, I started to straighten my hair every 2 years and never allowed a pair of scissors near my head for almost 4 years. I took so much pride in my hair as I thought it showed everyone the type of person that I am. I felt that modifying it in any way would change me internally. Even till last year, the changes I have made to my hair were either very subtle, or were made to complement my body shape. I always felt that my hair was the most beautiful feature about me, and without it, I just wouldn’t be ‘me’.

About a month ago, I was scrolling through  social media when I saw a colleague of mine post about her registering for Hair for Hope 2015. It intrigued me, and I read about how she felt joining this movement and making a statement would be another way of supporting the movement, especially since she couldn’t afford to donate a substantial amount. It sparked something in me, and I immediately started to research more. The more I read, the more I wanted to register for the event. Something I wouldn’t have even imagined doing 24 hours ago, seemed more real to me than ever at that moment.

I didn’t feel the need to ask anyone permission, but I decided to ask my close friends and family what they would think if I did it anyway. And to my disappointment, those closest to me were very much not interested in the idea. My sister’s engagement was set to happen a month after the event, and some of my family members were concerned with the image I would portray. I was asked, “You want to be bald? And wear a sari?” as if doing so would make me a spectacle. Some made me feel I would regret my decision the second I had done it, while others made me feel like they would be embarrassed or unwilling to handle being around me.

3bbThe reaction that I received was not something I was anticipating, but it gave me great insight into the social stigma that came together with shaving your head, especially as someone whom identifies as a woman. Femininity is usually portrayed or identified with hairstyle, causing hair to be seen as an important element of someone’s personality, attractiveness as well as a great indicator of their femininity. Though they are present, it is rather hard to find active representation of bald women as a norm in media. It is even harder to find representation of bald Indian women in media, especially on local television. Perhaps this was a reason for my initial thoughts about my own hair as well.

As advocates for a better and more accepting future, we must show everyone around us that being bald is not different from any other hairstyle, and that you are never alone in your fight. Children should be brought up in a social environment that does not ostracize anyone, especially for appearance.

Bald is Beautiful.

2bbAbout the Author: Michelle is a third-year student in Republic Polytechnic, doing a course in Information Technology. She aims to be a teacher and hopes to help individuals in their education through self-awareness. She sees a future where she and her partner can live happily, without being called out for being different. In her spare time, she listens to rock music and takes things one day at a time.


You get to choose what kind of guy you are.

“Be a man.” “Man up.” “Grow a pair.” Young men are constantly reminded that there is a definition of “manliness” they are expected to live up to and grow into. This year, We Can! wants to talk about that.


We want to start honest conversations about the men we are, the men in our lives, and the different ways that they choose to be men. We want to talk about how young men are boxed in, silenced, and forced to conform. We want to talk about masculinity, and how in its prescribed, prepackaged form, it has had a toxic effect on lives.

“Secondary school made me question my identity and existence. Secondary school gave me a look into how a culture of masculinity breaks down special individuals with unique personalities little by little, day by day. …I could not believe that this was how the world was meant to be. We are more than just printed lists of personality traits that fit neatly into prescribed boxes.” – Alvin

We want to talk about about how people are taught that being a man means being “not feminine” and how that makes femininity bad and shameful. We want to talk about how men are taught to see women and how slowly, those lessons are passed onto others.

“I was never one of the boys. I was never allowed to express how I felt — emotion equals vulnerability, equals femininity. I was told to bury those emotions and hide them from plain sight, to confine myself to a psychological prison. Because if a man sheds a single tear, he is no longer that. He is feminised. He is less than.” – Kelvin

And, most importantly, we want to talk about the assets men have and the difference they can make. Because we know men who do this every day. Men who can and want to change the rules of the game and carve out spaces where we can talk to each other about how to create a freer, safer society for everyone. Men who are allies, men who empathise with women and non-binary folks’ struggles, men who are inclusive and accepting of men who are different from them.

“Don’t be that guy. Like, that guy who doesn’t take no for an answer. The guy who calls at women in public places, on public transport, and gets mad when they don’t respond the way he wants them to. The guy who doesn’t want to hear “no”, and so waits until his target is too drunk, or high, to say “no”. The guy who keeps pushing until “no” becomes “yes”. Respect the “no”, and move on.” – Robert

It starts with you – your stories, your experiences, your thoughts on how we can start talking, listening, and making change. What does “being a man” mean in a society that tells us it is the same thing as dominance, aggression and power? What kind of masculinity do you want for yourself, your friends, your brothers? How can men use their strengths and position in society to boost the status of men who are less privileged, of women and people of other genders?

Tell us, by:

1. Joining our focus group for young men

Through our focus group, we hope to identify some of the key experiences and issues that young men in Singapore face today and explore how we can make positive change to redefine masculinity. You will also get to meet other male Change Makers to have a dialogue on gender, identity and change-making.

2. Sharing your own story on our blog

3. Starting your own Change Maker project

Or just write to [email protected] to find out more!

The trauma of dominant masculinity in school

By Alvin Wong, Change Maker

Secondary school life can be an extremely stressful phase of one’s life. It is a period of coming of age; it is a period of self-discovery, and one finds that it is not just enough to do well in the end-of-year examinations any more. “Fitting in”, whatever that term means, suddenly becomes of great importance. Everyone wants to be part of the in-group, because the out-group is where the losers and nerds end up. Also of extreme importance: having friends. If you have no friends, you are nobody. If you do not “fit in”, you will have no friends. If you have no friends, you may very well find yourself bullied and harassed without any recourse or way out of your situation.

Programs_Military_Large We often think of dominant masculinity as one of the driving forces behind gender-based violence in all its forms. Dominant masculinity is about strongly adhering to the traditional male gender role – restricting expressions of emotion, avoiding being feminine, displaying toughness and aggression, focusing on achievement, being self-reliant and non-relational, being misogynistic and being homophobic. There is a clear correlation between masculine attitudes and gender-based violence; what may be less obvious, however, are the ways in which dominant masculinity is oppressive towards men in addition to women.

accompanying image 2I spent four years in a single-sex secondary school and for all four of those years, dominant masculinity never ceased to beat down on me. It was not just individual teachers making entire classes of 14-year-old boys do 20 push-ups in the parade square for not cleaning their classrooms well enough; it was my classmates uttering homophobic remarks directly at me as well as behind my back, being told to to “man up” and “suck it up”, my CCA seniors believing that physical punishment was the best way to fix problematic behaviours, my peers policing and taunting other students for feminine gestures and behaviours, the NCC sergeants subjecting their helpless juniors to endless rounds of push-ups and verbal abuse (which still counts as the smallest amount of power I have ever seen go to someone’s head) and my friend who engaged in self-injury for a time, partly because of the constant bullying he’d been receiving for not being on the bandwagon of dominant masculinity.

SafsongBan01ePerhaps you have fond memories of being in secondary school, but those are memories I would rather leave behind. In my secondary school, dominant masculinity was institutional – it was not just about particular individuals being aggressive and misogynistic, the entire school culture was poisoned by the apparent need to prove one’s worth as a man by behaving in supposedly manly ways. In many ways, it was a traumatic period for me as a queer boy; I tried my best to live through it, but the impact that those four years of exposure to dominant masculinity had on me is not up for debate. Five years may have passed since I walked out of that place, but the anxiety that I feel when being around gender role-conforming men will probably never leave me, and neither will my depression, onset by being forcibly drafted into the military, an authoritarian structure where dominant masculinity is rewarded with power and where one surrenders all personal agency and the ability to do what one thinks is right.

Secondary school gave me my first taste of how cruel and violent men can be. Secondary school made me question my identity and existence. Secondary school gave me a look into how a culture of masculinity breaks down special individuals with unique personalities little by little, day by day. Secondary school made me read up on gender theory and feminism because I could not believe that this was how the world was meant to be. We are more than just printed lists of personality traits that fit neatly into prescribed boxes. The enforcing of traditional male gender roles and stereotypes on a cultural and/or institutional level hurts everybody.

It certainly hurt me. I never wanted to be a man any more.

WP_20150505_20_32_18_Pro (2)About the author: A 21-year-old genderqueer person currently suffering from major depressive disorder, Alvin is in the process of piecing his life back together as he continues to face an uncertain future in Singapore. An independent writer and advocate for mental health awareness, gender equality and social justice, he hopes to make his mark on the world while he still can.