Young women are taught to measure themselves by the weighing-scale and in doing that we encourage eating disorders in women. Mindless dieting, meal-replacement and social shaming turn into mental health issues that we continue to ignore, but what happens when your body retaliates? What happens when eating disorders eat away at your existence?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I was at a burger joint with my mother, sister and some friends. I could not have been older than ten. We had just eaten a burger when one of my friends asked if he could get another, normally I would never ask for more food but because he did, I asked if I could as well. My mother offered to get him another burger even as she simultaneously told me that I couldn’t eat more because I would become even more fat. My friend said he would share half of his with me but my mother loudly insisted that I couldn’t be allowed to eat any more because I was so fat. At some point so much had been said by her, my friends and the people around us that I had to excuse myself to go cry in the bathroom. Along with the tears, out came the food as well. That was the first time I felt better after throwing up my food. I didn’t force myself to vomit, but I think the emotions were so strong that a wave a nausea just came over me, I couldn’t help but throw up. I went back out to the restaurant and didn’t tell anyone. I pretended I didn’t want any of that food anymore. I started pretending I didn’t even need food anymore.
I was a chubby kid, right from age six or seven, and I cannot say with certainty how old I was the first time I was told to lose weight but most of what I remember of my childhood is shrouded in tales of weight-loss and my body being up for public discussion by everyone and anywhere. All of my “recreational activities” were dictated by the fact that I needed to lose weight and so I swam, skated, played tennis and generally maintained a very active lifestyle. I was a terrible tennis player, I still am truly horrible at it, but I loved to run and swim. I would run around the court and my coach would encourage me to do it because I would lose more weight, I would swim endless laps at the pool and everyone around me would ask how I could still be fat when I swam so much. Once I won a trekking award at adventure camp, and all our school sports trainer had to say about that was he was shocked I could be fat and fit. I loved doing those things but I stopped doing them because I hated being the fat girl doing them. I hated that no matter what I did, it didn’t truly seem to have an impact on how I looked and that’s all anyone cared about. Sweating is attractive on beautiful people, but when a fat girl runs around a track, we only see a pitiful struggle (even if that fat girl would beat you hollow). I didn’t want to be the fat active girl so I stopped doing the things I loved for the most part.
Instead, under the garb of health, my family decided I should focus on diets instead. The irony of that is lost on everyone. I must have been eleven or twelve when I started my first diet but even when I wasn’t on a prescribed diet, I felt like my food intake was always being monitored. Whether I ate at home or outside it, there were always eyes on my plate. Often, when we were around company, my mother would take me aside and tell me when to stop eating. Complete strangers would analyse the food on my plate and tell me which parts of it to eliminate so I could be thin. “Elders” would tell me that because I had already gotten my period it was unlikely I would ever be thinner so I should focus on never gaining another kilogram even though I hadn’t even gotten to my full height at that point. I don’t think it happened in one day, but I just stopped eating in places where I could be seen. I didn’t eat in school, I didn’t eat at restaurants, I tried to pretend I had already eaten when at home, I didn’t eat with friends. I only ate in secret. From my teenage years till I was twenty-two, I ate in the bathroom as often as I could. I hid all evidence of things I ate because I got into a lot of trouble if they were found. Even when I started to live alone at eighteen, I would turn the lights off when I ate. I feared throwing my leftovers in the garbage because I didn’t want anyone to know I ate. I never ate on dates. I would go to lunch with my friends in college and just sit there while they ate, pretending that I never got hungry.
In our world, women are rewarded for choosing not to eat and fat women are punished for being seen while they eat. I didn’t want to be the joke anymore, I didn’t want to be seen as the size of my body, so I rejected the notion that I was human enough to eat. I hated myself for being hungry. I hated my body for how it looked. The hate reached its peak at fourteen, I was taken to a man known as an endocrinologist who told me I had way too much testosterone and if I didn’t become thin immediately, I would become a man. Modern medicine is a miraculous thing dispensed mostly by fucking idiots (although I’d still pick them over ayurvedic surgeons), because the solution to this apparently was to give me diet pills (which have since literally been banned) and oral contraceptives to “regulate” my cycle. Apparently medical school teaches that an oestrogen/progesterone blocker/inhibitor, lowers.. testosterone? I can’t even figure that out, but I was young, my parents were concerned, he was a renowned doctor (and well contraceptives are a well know “treatment” of PCOS), so on the pills I went.
I felt sick all the time. There wasn’t a moment in my day when I wasn’t nauseated. I felt bloated and disgusting. Random people who had no business looking at my body expressed their concern about my body-hair growth. So while inside me, my hormones wrecked havoc, I had to look good (because, duh, woman, who will marry me otherwise?) so I went to dermatologists to get laser to remove all evidence of testosterone from my body. It burnt my face but the hair stayed. I went to sweaty rooms with vibrating belts that were supposed to..melt fat? No matter what I did, nothing worked, because we were never addressing the real problem. We were always focused only on making me look like a beautiful marriageable girl who wasn’t fat and didn’t have hair growing out of her chin but I could never say anything because everyone around me kept telling me they were destroying my sanity in the interest of my health. The people who were “helping” me never taught me to love my body, and I only learnt to hate it. Each time I failed at diets or other fads, I was told I was wasting money I never asked to be spent on me and I felt worse about myself.
I didn’t ever think of myself as beautiful, even now it never really occurs to me to do that. I didn’t ever believe there was value to my body or how I looked, that is also part of why I hated buying clothes because all my life, I had been taught to dress in a way that covered all the fat and each time I wore things that I liked, I was told they were “vulgar” because the unacceptable shape of my body was visible in them. My mother once, maybe it was causal to her, expressed a longing to take a knife and cut the fat off my body. That’s how much she hated it, and that’s how much I hated myself for it. I hated going back home because the first thing that was said to me was always an evaluation of my weight. I existed as an intellectual state of being and I ignored that there was any earthly vessel that ensconced me. If I ignored it hard enough, and I didn’t eat at all, and I destroyed my body with blades, I figured, eventually, I will disappear.
And I did.
One night, after 40 straight hours of working, I took a hot shower and came into my bedroom where I had my very first panic attack. I was convinced that I had died and no one was there to tell me that. I ran to the emergency room where I told them that I thought I was dying, I called my sister and told her I was sure I was never going to speak to her again. I couldn’t feel myself in there anymore, I touched my skin and it felt like I couldn’t register the touch. My heart-rate soared because of the panic but after checking my heart and everything else, the doctor informed me there was nothing wrong with me. I told him he seemed like a figment of my imagination and I wasn’t really sure if he was really there or if I was even really there. I was terrified that I would never stop feeling that way. Nothing around me felt real, I shook my head and pinched myself, but all I could see was a reality that was going on without me. I had tried to destroy my body and wish it away, and I had succeeded. I hated it and it hated me back. The doctor gave me an anti-anxiety pill that I pretended to eat and I went home with my sister who understood anxiety much better than I did. I didn’t really quite believe it was real, I thought it was a feeling, but it’s a sensation. You don’t feel it in your heart or mind, you feel it all over your body. Even as I fell asleep that night, I knew I wouldn’t wake up feeling better.
I didn’t feel better for almost a whole year. I didn’t feel real, and I don’t mean that in an abstract sense, I would look at the world and be absolutely convinced I wasn’t really there. I went about my work, my life, I met people because I harbour a deep fear of being a non-functional member of society, but inside me there was no one. There wasn’t a person in there. I had everything checked out. Hormones, brain, stomach, old injuries that I had ignored forever. Nothing was wrong with me in terms of numbers on papers, but I was constantly falling apart. I was walking to the ER four times a week to tell them I was dying. I went to a therapist, another thing I am loath to do, and all he told me after a 140 minutes was that I needed to find god. I went to a psychiatrist and he told me I should take some pills. I went to my boyfriend and he told me I was being overly dramatic. I went to friends and my sister, and some of them helped a lot, others encouraged me to find someone in my life to blame for what was happening to me. I didn’t want any of that. I didn’t want god, I didn’t want to blame, I didn’t want seratonin reuptake inhibitors. I wanted to feel one with my body. I wanted to feel myself really in there.
The real issue is that I had never been taught I was allowed to like and love myself as I am. Women are always told to love the body they want to have and never the one they are in. When women talk of intermittent fasting (which is just a fancy word for how I destroyed my metabolism) and eating nothing, we encourage them. We motivate them to do it for the specific cause of being thin. We tell girls to go to the gym and for walks, so that they can be thin. No other reason. All of that had crushed me, and when I couldn’t think of any other solution, I remember the little girl who loved running on the tennis court and just fucking ran. I ran until I felt pain in my body again. I ran until I couldn’t breathe. I ran so I could feel myself in there. I ran until my lungs ached and my legs became sore. It’s terrible not to be able to feel your own skin, I ran so that I didn’t have to live like that forever.
Over the course of the last 6-years, I gave everything I could to my body, and I never ever did it because I wanted to be thin. I don’t, I want to be healthy but most importantly, I want to be happy. I don’t care about thin anymore and I have no qualms about shutting up the fuck out of any person who thinks they deserve a say. I ran so I could be capable. I did yoga because the joy of movement made me feel beautiful and my body deserves that, it deserves to feel beautiful. I did push-ups not because I want sculpted arms but because that feeling of strength burning in my shoulders reminds me there is a whole alive person inside me. I focused on the beauty of all the people around me instead of their flaws. I focused on their strength. I stopped being scared of food and I allowed myself to be comfortable eating publically. I let myself eat three times a day from once in three days. The first time I admitted that I was actually hungry and agreed to go to lunch with my colleagues, I felt a part of myself come back to me. I let myself have the joy and pleasure of movement and strength for the sake of itself, and with no other agenda.
I’m not thin even today. I am healthy and my haemoglobin could break world records, but I’m still fat. Muscular, and fat. I don’t hate myself for it. I don’t think of myself like that anymore. I love myself for the things I do instead. I love that I can lift myself up by the strength of my arms alone. I love that I can put my knee over my shoulder. I love that I can run for an hour and then go for a three-hour walk. I love that, yesterday, I did bare fucking knuckle push-ups and it felt amazing. I don’t see my body in terms of size anymore, I see it in terms of strength, I feel beautiful inside it. I don’t feel like an alien. I feel like it’s mine and I belong inside it and that’s wonderful.
I had to learn to love my body to erase the years of neglect and hatred that I had been taught, and I couldn’t learn that by becoming thin. I couldn’t decide to love it on a condition and I am glad I didn’t. I love my body, for everything it does for me, and all the joy if gives me. I realise now it’s not my place to punish it, there are enough people in the world working on that.