Gender & Identity, Food & Drinks, Life

I’m Arab and I grew up hating my body – because of my family

I was only ten years old when I realized I completely and utterly hated my body.

Trigger Warning: Mentions of bad thoughts and eating disorders.

Growing up, I was always surrounded by at least one family member who was on a diet.

Eating restrictions were a common part of our everyday lives. I knew all about counting calories, ‘light’ products, pounds and kilos before I was 12. There was an obsession among everyone around me, no matter how old they were or what their gender was, to attain the “perfect body.”

Scrutinizing and analyzing each other’s bodies is a common occurrence in a lot of Arab families. My conversations with friends have made me notice that others struggle with body image issues too. We, as a society, focus way too much on looking a certain way rather than embracing the genes we were born with and treating our bodies right. We focus too much on what others might think of us, that we don’t notice how poorly we see ourselves.

Everyone wants to have that ideal body that is displayed all over the magazines. The washboard abs and the stick-thin figure has always been appealing. Unfortunately, though, many will do whatever it takes to get it. I’ve seen it in the women I grew up around who obsessively counted calories. I’ve seen it in friends who would go on restrictive diets just to lose that extra five kilos.

I’ve even seen it in myself when I’d spend hours analyzing every angle of my body.

At only the tender age of 10, I realized I completely and utterly hated my body.  In fifth grade, I ended up moving to a new school where I didn’t know a single person. It didn’t help that I was the only one in my entire grade who was of a different nationality (i.e. automatic exclusion). Until a few students warmed up to me, I spent most of the year sitting alone or having lunch with my English teacher (no joke, I was that kid for like four months).

It was then that I started turning to food for comfort. If I had a rough day at school, I would come home and eat snacks to make myself feel better.

I had an unhealthy relationship with my body. I would eat to comfort myself about how crappy I felt at school, but then I would end up feeling even worse when I would put on weight. I spent years losing and gaining weight continuously. They were full of tears, hungry nights, vomiting after meals, and negative thinking. I knew that I didn’t have the ideal body type and being criticized by my family wasn’t making it any easier.

I was really unhappy for a long time. It was only when I started university that I truly changed the way I saw myself. I started cooking healthy meals because I wanted to. I started doing yoga and working out a few times a week because it made me feel good. There are days where I still feel insecure about myself, but I’ve learned to differentiate my own voice from everyone else’s.

Whenever I have a bad day or think I’m just not good enough, I take the time to list affirmations in front of the mirror. It takes a little getting used to and it might be a bit awkward at first, but it helps.

I came to realize that the more you focus on loving your body, the sooner you’ll start to believe it. All it takes is realizing that the unhealthy mindset that so many of us have grown up with is detrimental. It all starts when we ignore the negative comments around us, focus on ourselves, and do what we want to do to make ourselves happy.

It takes time, and I, for one, am nowhere near feeling 100 percent confident in myself. But I know that I’m on my way to getting there.