How a Singapore influencer stopped fixating on being skinny and became a fitness role model, body positivity ambassador and triathlete

“You have to be motivated to stay fit for health reasons, otherwise exercise will feel like a punishment. I genuinely love working out and over the past few years I’ve realized how amazing the human body is.”

Collage of photos of Tay from 1998 to 2015. Photo: Cheryl Tay

It wasn’t always like that. As a teenager, Tay was made to feel overweight by family and friends. She developed body dysmorphia, fixating on perceived flaws in her body.

She punished herself by over-exercising. At one point, for two months straight, she ran 26 kilometers (16 miles) a day, then did two to three hours of kickboxing. After those two months, she had lost 20 kilograms (44 lbs).

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During this time, she also had binge eating disorder, starving herself for long periods before giving in to her hunger and gorging herself on food.

Her biggest binge was two boxes of crisps; five packages of cream and chocolate biscuits; 36 chocolate and hazelnut truffles; and a box of butter cookies.

She often felt guilty and ashamed after a binge. To make herself feel better, she would scratch herself until she drew blood or bang her head against the wall.

Tay in 2011 when he was working as a motor sports journalist. Photo: Cheryl Tay

She refused to eat rice, convinced it would fill her up, and avoided water and soup because they made her feel “heavy”.

“I hated the way I looked, believing I was fat, even though at 167cm (5ft 6in) I weighed 45kg,” says Tay.

“I was insecure and had no self-confidence. I withdrew socially because I felt like no one understood me, and my parents urged me to seek medical help because they thought I looked like a scarecrow. I told them I didn’t need to see a doctor because I wasn’t sick.

Cheryl Tay in 2004 when she weighed just 45 kg, her lowest weight as an adult. Photo: Cheryl Tay
of Tay body dysmorphia lasted more than a decade. Obsessed with her weight, she did everything she could to be thin, including weight loss procedures and taking diet pills.

“I felt that being thin would make me more liked and accepted,” Tay says.

“I thought men would be more attracted to me if I was thin. Working in the male-dominated automotive and motorsports industry, I also felt pressured to prove myself.”

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When he finally got tired and stopped starving and over-exercising, the weight piled back on. She was freelancing at the time, and when she stopped getting work, she blamed her looks.

Her body insecurities made it difficult for her to maintain stable relationships and friendships; she pushed away friends who were naturally thin and could eat whatever they wanted without gaining weight.

“I would resent these friends and treat them badly or say hurtful things to them to make them feel bad about themselves – it cost me a lot of friendships,” she says.

I wanted to spread the message that there is more to life than the number on the bathroom scale, that we shouldn’t punish ourselves for eating

Cheryl Tay

Most people assumed she wanted to lose weight because she was vain, but none of them knew how deep her insecurities ran.

In 2015, after not working out for a while, Tay was introduced by a friend to a gym where she started lifting weights.

It made her feel empowered and led to an insight – that fitness isn’t about how you look, it’s about how you feel.

Tay in 2004, when he ran 16 miles a day, followed by long kickboxing sessions. Photo: Cheryl Tay

Her attitude changed and she began to see herself and her body in a new light.

In 2016, she created Rock The Naked Truth (RTNT), which she describes as a social cause and body positivity movement, to provide support to people like herself who suffer from eating disorders.

“I wanted to spread the message that there is more to life than the number on the bathroom scale, that we shouldn’t punish ourselves for eating and that food is not our enemy.”

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Tay organizes RTNT fitness events to encourage people to lead active lifestyles and try activities such as yoga, pilates, kickboxing and weightlifting.

She wanted them to understand that staying fit doesn’t have to feel like a chore, and if they do a sport or activity they enjoy, they’re more likely to stick with it.

January 6 will see the return of the RTNT Shirtless Run to celebrate the movement’s eighth anniversary. Last year, 150 people took part in the race in Singapore.

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Why we need to talk about eating disorders and body image in Hong Kong

Why we need to talk about eating disorders and body image in Hong Kong

At the age of 30, Tay decided to train to compete in a triathlon to challenge himself. Through this endurance sport, she learned a lot about her body and began to focus on a different set of numbers.

“Instead of worrying about calories, weight and inches, I started looking at my triathlon and marathon performance times. We have enough numbers to worry about—our savings, our paycheck, taxes and bills—so why give ourselves more numbers to stress about?” she says.

Tay and her partner Grace Huang (right) were all smiles at their engagement ceremony in October 2022. Photo: Cheryl Tay
Tay has competed in 13 Ironman 70.3 races. “70.3” is the total distance in miles (113 km) covered in the race: 1.2 miles (1.9 km) swim, 56 miles (90 km) bike and 13.1 miles (21.1 km) run – half the distance of a full Ironman raceand she has made two of them.

She has also run three marathons – 42.19km road races. Among her most notable races are the Challenge Roth in Germany; the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in South Africa; and the Berlin Marathon. She has signed up for the Chicago Marathon, among other races, in 2024.

Tay credits his life partner, Grace Huang, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu trainer and owner of Singapore’s Neue Fit martial arts studio, with his new approach to life. The two were close friends for over three years before becoming a couple; they had a commitment ceremony in October 2022.

Loving yourself is a lifelong process. For many years I hated my body, but now I’m proud of it

Cheryl Tay

“I found someone who really loves me for who I am,” Tay says. “She really helps me improve and brings out the best in me.

“Finding that comfort with someone I trust has helped build my confidence because I know she’s got my back.”

Tay no longer worries about her weight, nor is she obsessed with her appearance. She is happy, confident and not afraid to be herself.

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“It takes work, but loving yourself is a lifelong process,” she says. “For many years I hated my body, but now I’m proud of it.”

It’s normal to feel bad about your body sometimes, she tells her followers. When that happens, “remember your strengths, surround yourself with positive people who will lift you up, and be true to yourself.”

You don’t need anyone’s approval, she says. “You only have this one life; do you want to spend it miserable worrying about your weight or be happy living the life you deserve?’

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