We boast of family values and a close-knit community, but these are also the components that can make a Desi community a toxic one. Yet we look the other way, refusing to acknowledge the problems that face our own people.
Throughout my high school years, I struggled with eating disorders and low self-esteem, especially when it came to my looks.
These problems didn’t just suddenly appear out of the blue.
They grew on me, as my community’s perceived image of beauty and societal pressure about how I should look a certain way increased. They all molded into a big ugly mush, forcing me into habits that I later came to realize were actually anorexic and bulimic. Forcing myself to puke after having meals, tasting food only to spit it out after a few minutes, binge-eating every time there was a sudden hit, and crash of emotions when I couldn’t control my hunger.
These were all extremely unhealthy habits that had become second-nature to me.
All because I was forced to believe that, unless I was stick-skinny, I could not look good.
I have a broad body structure. I wasn’t born with a petite frame or blessed with a fast metabolism, but almost everyone in my family was. Almost every girl in my family is extremely skinny and of medium height, whereas I’m the complete opposite.
I’m 5 feet 7 inches, which is considered insane for a girl, in my family, and I’m the family “dinosaur.”
I don’t exaggerate.
That was what most family members called me until I was 17.
I’m not sure if they ever realized how hurtful their own words were. To me, they are reminiscent of a dark time for me. I tried so hard to lose a lot of weight in an incredibly unhealthy way. I didn’t talk about it to my family because they just didn’t understand.
I’d often get the “Why don’t you eat less or reduce your portions” comments, or be called “paitu,” which translates to fatty in English. For a time I tried to follow that advice, and I tried to cut down on every portion I had. I went from feeling full to never quite feeling satisfied with my meals, but I wasn’t seeing it on the scale or the mirror.
In my eyes, I was the odd one out, and it had to be my fault: after all, I was the one in control of what food I ate. When the meal-size reductions didn’t work, I switched to starving myself.
I wouldn’t have meals, but I couldn’t let my family know what I was doing to myself because I knew they wouldn’t agree with it.
To a 14-year old, giving snarky comments or passing snide remarks and caring didn’t go together. And that was where I’d pretend to eat in a hurry, and then go to the bathroom and force myself to puke. Two fingers down my throat and feeling sick to the gut had become second nature.
And as I got older, it got better. Or I thought it did.
I was finally losing weight, and every time someone said, “you look great, you’ve lost weight!” it fueled my motivation. Motivation to continue on this path, because, so what if I’d lost 12 kgs in 24 months, as long as I was close to being skinny. That’s what everyone wants, right, to look great?
It’s what my 17-year-old self thought.
When I’d turned 17, I was nowhere near a size zero, but I had shed a considerable amount of weight, and I still had eating disorders. Looking back, I should have known better, but I didn’t.
I wanted to look perfect for college. I guess everything happens for a reason, though, because I ended up going to college in Texas.
Texas, the Lone Star state, with humongous food portions and extra-extra-large Cokes. From living in a place where people seemed to live off the air, I’d suddenly transitioned into a place where asking for a small or regular size made the employees at fast food restaurants do a double-take and ask you to repeat the request, just to make sure they’d heard you right.
Cultural differences aside, what I loved about Texas was that it was the first place where I felt accepted, and I didn’t feel like the odd one out. I was finally in a place where I actually considered beautiful, a word that had previously felt foreign to me. I joined a support group in college, and eventually got over my eating disorders.
It wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of time before I could accept my body and who I was.
It’s crazy how much of a role your perception of your own body can have in shaping your confidence and self-esteem. I realized this after my self-esteem starting building up again. I was done trying to force myself into fitting into a certain perception of beauty.
I was more than just a number on a scale or the size of clothes I fit into.
I didn’t need a thigh gap to look good.
I began to accept the body I had and ended unhealthy habits I’d forced myself into. Curves were not my enemies, and I slowly grew a thick skin about how I looked – to the point where it didn’t matter what anyone else around me looked like. If I thought I looked good, then that was that, and I didn’t need to fit into someone’s mold of beauty for me to feel beautiful.
Body shaming is so inherently submerged in Desi culture at times, that it is disgusting.
I probably would never have been able to get over it, had I not been thrown into an environment that was the complete opposite of what I’d grown up with. My eating disorders would have persisted, and I shudder when I think about the unhealthy path I used to walk.
It makes me sad, but I’m proud because I got through that difficult phase in my life.
I was able to deal with my eating disorders.
The truth is, countless girls still go through this. Every time I’m home, I make a point to be loud about this matter.
Power to everyone who’s suffered from eating disorders and have had to or continue to live through the pain.
I hope you all find the strength in you to work through them and come out stronger than your insecurities.
And for anyone that’s still body shaming: the time to stop is now.
Be supportive of people around you, and, for fuck’s sake, stop body shaming.