Confused message finds it difficult to cut through the flab of Miriam Cheong’s one-woman show.
In her no-holds barred confessional play The Other F Word, Miriam Cheong admits that her body has always been an issue for her, ever since she was in school, to being an adult actress today.
Directed by Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit, The Other F Word is all about starting a conversation about the much maligned topic, particularly in today’s hypersensitive world. After all, how can one solve the ‘problem’ when you can’t even talk about it? To do this, Miriam begins by investigating where it all started, how it progressed, and where she is now.
Going off on a tangent, she becomes consumed by her passion for food, from introducing us to a killer rice cooker mac and cheese recipe (so good it’s worth burning your mouth over), to carb-laden cheesy potatoes, to mimicking what mukbang personalities would do. But this love fizzles when her friends question and criticise her dietary choices, and she begins to wonder about society’s perception of her body.
Delving into her past, she shares stories of being cast as a ‘before’ model in a commercial, told to change her CV photo because her face was too ’round’, and her eventual phobia of being judged when eating with other people. Throwing on her PE shirt, she recounts traumatic memories of TAF club, putting all her energy into engaging the audience as she asks if they shared in her traumatic memory of it, speaking about the various exercises the ‘club’ featured. Even in the world of theatre, where she can supposedly be anything she wants to be, she knows that she will always be cast as mothers and aunties and even grandmothers, but never the lead, the crux of a thesis she writes for school on the representation and erasure of the fat body in Singapore theatre (too afraid to ever let it be read by the public).
She slumps down into a chair, talking about how she’s journaled her food journey, and her fear of the dreaded word ‘BMI’. That fear is exemplified when she steps onto a weighing scale declaring her as overweight, while sirens flash red and alarm bells ring, as if calling her out. This is a world that rejects anyone outside of what society decrees ‘normal’, with even school uniforms from Bibi and Baba not carrying her size. It is a blessing that her mother had to impart sewing skills to her, and she changes into a midnight blue dress she sewed herself, as Eurhythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made of This’ plays.
As she now talks about the clothes in her wardrobe, she speaks about her body, and how it has been slowly dying over the years. She hates funerals, but now must write a eulogy for her impending weight loss, with the 19 years of legacy her body will be leaving behind. Visually, it’s as if she has buried the “body” of clothes, and it’s almost like she was lying down on her clothes, showing how she has buried herself in that and leaving it in the past. While her friends may praise her weight loss, she mourns it rather than celebrating, and vows never to let the fat self return. Throwing flowers on the “body” and saying goodbye to it, she carries her clothes like a dead body. A montage of photos from her “fat” days plays, and she considers how others perceive ‘fat’, and how it is always shown in a negative light and something to lose.
Changing into a workout outfit as The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’ plays, she begins working out, Richard Simmons style, but fails to lose weight. She rages against the system, blaming and criticising the Health Promotion Board for perpetuating the belief that fat bodies can never be healthy, and that there must be something wrong with her, having tried everything to lose weight, as she collapses in defeat. Her wish is granted – it turns out that she does have a pre-existing medical condition (polycystic ovarian syndrome) to explain her larger than normal body. But this does not soothe her; only makes her panic as she declares she wants to take out her cervix, while watching her struggle as an overhead camera pans over her body.
Having a reason to explain her body still isn’t a way of absolving her of the shame society has lumped onto her for years. Even though she proves to us she’s fit and flexible to do yoga and touch her toes, she remains fat because of her health issues, and will forever be labelled as ‘just a fatty’, even to her friends. She presents photos of her body and her face without makeup, and hangs up her clothes on flybars, lifting them upwards and out of sight, never to be worn again. While it takes courage open up to us and show off her most vulnerable self in such a public showcase, firm in her decision to move on from her past, Miriam knows that she will always have something to prove to the world, as tears fill her eyes, and has to remain stronger than this, almost daunted by the rest of her life.
As she puts on a brave front, she claims that she no longer needs to apologise for her body and can dress however she wants. The overhead camera showcases an outline of her silhouette, like a police drawing of a dead body, and we wonder how much of this burden she’s really left behind, before she reveals a second condition diagnosed by the clinic – a hyperthyroid, supposedly meant to help her lose weight. Her body then, is a paradox – meant to be slim, yet weighed down by her polycystic ovarian syndrome. She cannot win, trapped by both her body and society.
At the heart of The Other F Word is a desperate cry for help, a desire for Miriam to be accepted and given basic respect in spite of all her problems and appearances as an individual. There is no great message of hope or character development, as Miriam becomes a representative of ‘fat’ people in society, victimising herself and at a loss as to what to do, to the extent giving up altogether is easier. There’s no clear ending to this narrative, as Miriam now gives in to her primal instincts and picks up a tub of food, eating from it with no guilt. The audience applauds her for this ‘acceptance’ of her body, but as we watch her in tears, it seems there is still plenty more food for thought, as she drowns herself in sorrow and anger at the world.
Photo Credit: Ruey Loon
The Other F Word ran from 24th to 28th March 2021 at Wild Rice @ Funan.