Stephanie (Steph) Ng is a sophomore at Tufts University who hails from Hong Kong. Passionate about raising awareness of body image issues, Steph is the Founder of Body Banter, a recently launched online video discussion platform that aims to expand the conversation about body image in the local Hong Kong community. Body Banter encourages its audiences to share videos, blog posts and anonymous articles about body image and in doing so, dismantle stigmas attached to body size and physical appearance. Previously, she also blogged at Muscle Up Munchkin, a blog she founded that aimed to not only raise awareness and dispel misconceptions of eating disorders, but also chronicle her recovery from an eating disorder through a passion for fitness and health. Steph is also an avid crossfitter and weightlifter, and enjoys competing in both sports.
What is your background?
Steph Ng: I lived in Hong Kong for the first 18 years of my life, and came to the US to attend Tufts University for my undergraduate studies! Being an international student really makes me pay attention to the differences between these two places – in fact, it was because I came to the States that I realized that body image is such an issue in Hong Kong. Body image issues are prevalent in both places, but the US has so many movements going on that are working to challenge these issues, while there are people in Hong Kong who don’t even know what body image issues are despite being surrounded and affected by them on a daily basis. My mission is therefore to bring the importance of body positivity, and mental health in general, to the attention of the Hong Kong community. A big future goal of mine is to make confidence-building/self-care programs part of the Hong Kong education system – learning to love oneself in a world that can often be quite harsh is hard, and I think that it’s important that adolescents of the next generation understand how to survive and thrive!
You are the Founder of Body Banter, an online video discussion platform that encourages critical discourse on body image issues. What inspired you to found Body Banter, and what motivates you to fight for increased awareness of body image issues every day?
Steph Ng: After taking a course called “Body Politics” at Tufts, I came to realize just how much body image ideals act as a form of female oppression. Very few women stop and think about the reasons why they have to shape their bodies in a certain way, and don’t realize that we are taught to hate our bodies and to make them smaller and to take up less space. It is so wrong that these norms are so often seen as an innate part of female identity, and my mission is to make sure that women see that defiance against these norms is not only allowed but needed. We were not born to be lesser, so why should we live like we are?
I founded Body Banter because I believe that speaking up about body image issues is the way to bring them to light and begin to dismantle these problematic concepts. Societal messages travel fast and hit hard – the more we wait to solve these problems, the more pervasive and invasive they will be.
Why are videos (and vlogs specifically) are important vehicles in instigating positive social change?
Steph Ng: I started my body positivity activism journey with a blog, which was definitely a great way to share my experiences, but I soon realized that social change needs to be a collective act. In other words, changing a societal mindset means engaging the greater community in challenging concepts that are taken for granted. I therefore created Body Banter as a conversation open to everyone – we need to be bold enough to speak up and discuss sensitive issues in order to make a difference.
What are some of your biggest concerns with the media’s role in fueling insecurity about body image, in both men and women?
Steph Ng: First off, the ideals perpetuated by the media are mercilessly unrealistic. What makes it worse is that many people actually know that these ideals are unrealistic, but are so pressured to conform to these norms as a means to feel socially accepted that they go to extreme measures to reach these goals! This is where people start putting their lives on the line, and only start regretting their decisions when it’s too late.
Another concern is how the messages of the media often contradict each other. Take diet food product advertisements for example. Advertisers promote eating the food item as a pleasurable experience that one should indulge in, but at the same time, tell the consumer that they should stringently control their food intake. This type of conflicting message is what often causes individuals to develop a disordered relationship with food, whereby they are constantly yearning for more but convince themselves that they are only a “good dieter” if they can restrict and restrain themselves.
Admittedly, weight-related social norms predominantly target women, but this doesn’t make the ones that target males any less harmful! The masculine body ideal of being muscular and “ripped” can lead to the consequences of the same severity as the feminine ideal. So many men think that they are not or even that they cannot be affected by body image ideals, but often it is this denial or ignorance that becomes dangerous.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Steph Ng: One of my young friends, Inez, who’s an excellent swimmer. We were having dinner one time and she was telling me about how she noticed that a lot of her friends were becoming very conscious about their bodies. I was expecting her to then ask me how to lose weight or something along their vein. But instead she said to me, “I have a belly. But so what? I’m still the fastest girl in my swim team!” And I was so completely stunned by her answer because in a society where body image ideals are so pervasive, you rarely see anyone, let alone young people who are the most mercilessly targeted by the media, exude such confidence and positivity. I am most inspired by the youths of the next generation, whose strength and determination are what will build a better social environment in the future.
On a personal level, why is women’s empowerment important to you?
Steph Ng: Having spent 2 years in the clutches of anorexia, another year recovering from the physical consequences and sometimes continuing to be pestered by the mental effects, I would say that my reasons to fight against body image issues are very strong! One of the biggest triggers for me to this day is the feeling of worthlessness. which causes me to want to find a way to somehow “do well” again, and the easiest way to do this is often to find something that is can be controlled and rewarded in a tangible manner: changing my body and being noticed for that. And this is where I see the role of societal messages come in – this decision has become so ingrained in our minds that it’s almost instinctual for us to gravitate towards shaping our bodies as the way to control things, to gain instant satisfaction, because it’s a way to actually see control happening.
Female empowerment comes in right here, to help women realize that control doesn’t have to be seen – no one needs to justify your control of your life – it is felt by you. It’s a mindset and a deep understanding of your self-worth, no matter what someone else may say.
What advice do you have for individuals who are struggling with body image issues?
Steph Ng: The first tip I would give is think long term. In other words, think about the long term consequences of your decision to change your body: will it somehow affect your health? Why is it so important that you attain this appearance right now, and will you be able to accept yourself in the future if you cannot maintain this image? There is nothing wrong with wanting to change your body, but there is a problem with hurting your health in the process, or basing your entire sense of self-worth on whether or not this change is successfully carried out. There needs to be a part of you that is aware that your body will change over time, that sometimes it will not be to your liking, and that sometimes you’ll have to learn to prioritize health over appearance for your benefit in the long term.
Secondly, I would just like to emphasize that seeking professional counseling for body image issues is NOT shameful. If anything, finding a form of professional therapy that you go to regularly and that works for you is something that you should be proud of doing, because it keeps you – and those around you – sane and happy!
What advice do you have for people interested in contributing to the conversation on body image?
Steph Ng: Join the conversation. Speak up! We can’t challenge a deeply ingrained societal belief if we don’t actively try! It sounds like a simple suggestion because it really is – all we have to do is be willing to put some time into working towards changing our perspectives and mindsets. That being said, changing a societal mindset is a collective act and everyone needs to play their part. The hard part, therefore, is getting everyone to try and put in the effort.