The playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks
Think: “There was so much good-natured banter at Body Banter today! I’ve learned so much about how to speak about body image and mental health, and now I know how to start a conversation about it with my friends."
That is precisely what the founder of Body Banter, Stephanie Ng, wants us to do – open a dialogue.
Body Banter is a Hong Kong-based non-profit organization focused on helping youths find a voice in conversations on body image and mental health. Deeply rooted in her journey with body image issues, Ng initially created Body Banter through her curiosity to learn more about people’s experiences with their body image and relationship with food. From there on out, it grew and grew – starting with blogs and rolling stories, naturally evolving into workshops and talks.
Stephanie Ng sat down with TMS to talk about her work with the youths of Hong Kong. Her bubbly personality and passion for her work are hard to resist, as she speaks about spreading awareness of body image and mental health.
First, let’s get serious
Mental health challenges generally originate from a combination of three factors – biological, psychological and social. Body image issues are no exception. When all three come together, a person is most at risk. As COVID spread around the world, body image issues have become more prominent as the three risk factors increase.
“I definitely think that with eating disorders and body image issues, a lot of the time they are rooted in a sense of fearing losing control essentially," Ng explains. “That is one of the main themes that cut across different body image and eating concerns. And as you can imagine, during COVID, nothing has been within our control." She explains further that during the pandemic, strict restrictions combined with seeing triggering content on social media and pre-existing psychological factors such as perfectionistic tendencies may all tip a person over the edge into an eating disorder.
During Ng’s own journey into recovery, she found getting support to be the most challenging. “This was a challenge, it continues to be a challenge, I think because we are quite resource-deprived," she says.
According to an article by Mind HK, “the number of public sector psychiatrists per 100,000 people is 4.8 in Hong Kong, versus 8.59 for high-income countries." This means that Hong Kong has around half the number of recommended psychiatrists, an important mental health support, than what is recommended by the World Health Organization.
“Compounding that issue of low resources is the fact that we don’t have a lot of conversation surrounding these topics," Ng adds. “There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues in general. We don’t have language, we also don’t feel comfortable sharing them."
She explains that the Chinese language in itself lacks a mental health vocabulary. For example, people often use physical descriptors to describe mental states – ‘I’m feeling tired’ could well mean ‘I’m feeling stressed,’ or ‘I have a headache" could mean ‘I’m feeling burnt out.’ Even within families, many are no stranger to comments such as ‘you’ve gotten thinner,’ or ‘you’ve gotten fatter.’
“Their intention is rarely to attack," Ng says, explaining that for those commenting, the intention could simply be to express concern or the idea that they haven’t seen you for a while. Due to this lack of emotional terms, there is also a lack of discussion surrounding mental health. Thus, people start to develop stigma related to these issues.
Rays behind rain clouds
Due to the recent pandemic, though, mental health awareness seems to be on the rise. A research survey by Mind HK showed that 97.3% of people agreed that mental health was important.
As a Ph.D. student in a joint program between Mind HK and HKU, Ng works with the anti-stigma team at Mind HK to develop and deliver ‘ambassador training’ programs, “which essentially trains people with lived experiences of mental health conditions to share their stories in public settings … Let’s say the media asks for a story, we would delegate an ambassador to share it," Ng says.
“The best part about the training sessions is that we offer that space [to share their whole truth]. And it is a safe space within the training sessions. Because everyone there is either part of the Mind staff or is someone with lived experience. And so in those safe-space sessions, we are able to share the stories in their raw form," Ng says.
From there on, they can guide the ambassador in crafting their narrative so that they feel confident in the structure of their story, as well as the content that they are sharing. They educate and advise the ambassadors on what they should leave in or leave out and why.
“I think that there is a really beautiful balance because they are able to share all of their experiences or as much as they want during the training sessions and see that as almost a therapeutic, cathartic space. And then move into a space where they are empowered with their stories and their experiences and do that in a different capacity," she says.
The mindful practice of forgiveness
Exploring deeper into the inner workings of Body Banter, we come to explore mindfulness, led by wellbeing director Yinki Wong. An arguably significant part of recovery can be supported by being more mindful. “[It’s like] having lots of cars in your head and it being a busy street, and then watching the traffic pass instead of hailing down 10 cabs or something. Watching things pass instead of interacting with it," says Ng.
The first time Ng discovered the importance of mindfulness was during a Kundalini yoga class in college, where she found herself holding uncomfortable positions for extended amounts of time. Her teacher guided her to focus on her breath entering and exiting her body, her belly rising and falling. That moment was her transition moment, and she noticed that her stomach was a place where she held much of her emotions. She realized that there was no other place in her body that was so dynamic and could change from one moment to another.
A useful practice for being more mindful is mindful eating – the act of purposefully paying attention to one’s food while eating, moment by moment, without any judgment. “The goal is not perfection," she says. “I think a lot of people might feel like ‘Oh, I wasn’t mindful enough, or I wasn’t mindful as I ate. I was distracted by a bird or something, or I got a phone call in the middle. Oh! My practice has been dissolved by a bird or a phone call.’
“I think the mindset shift that needs to happen for us, and I think that has been conditioned by diet culture in many ways, is that when we are practicing these things, the goal is to be aware, to know, ‘Yeah, today there was a bird, and yesterday there was a phone call, and this is how I responded at that moment. These are still the ways that I have made the intention to be mindful.’
“Every day is a practice. You know, I always say, practice makes progress, not perfection."
A message of self-love… and onions?
When asked to give a message to those who may be struggling with body image issues, Ng uses an onion as an analogy. “Relapses are not representative of stepping back or failures. When we have relapses, I like to think about it as traveling along the same onion and being at the same intersection of the onion but at a different layer. Just seeing that as ‘Hey, you know, I’m at that same intersection, the trigger is very similar. But I’m not stepping back. This time I have a different set of tools. I have my experience in the past to back me up and learnings from that experience as well…
“Because I think it can feel so discouraging to feel like you’re back at square one, and you’re not. You’re always at square one point one. You’re at the parallel but not at the same spot."
Onwards and up
In the future, we can expect Body Banter to share more stories as more lived experience advocates join their team. The more stories shared, the more awareness spreads. Local educated advocates are also joining the team, as they help expand imagery and vocabulary linking to mental health. As Ng put it, “collecting language."
She also hopes to expand workshops to be in Chinese, allowing more local educated ambassadors to be educated on how to share their stories. Ultimately, through increased life stories and the sharing of stories, there are the hopes that the social stigma surrounding mental health will decrease and eventually vanish.
There are two main ways one can react to a challenging life throws at you – either by wallowing in self-pity and being utterly consumed by it or by rising to it and emerging stronger than before. Ng chose the latter – not only by rising up and learning from her own recovery journey but also by helping others through theirs.