I’ve had body-image issues for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I was always on the chubbier side, which probably wouldn’t have bothered me had it not been pointed out at every extended family reunion. “You’ve put on weight” or “You’ve lost weight” were often the first things anyone said to me – even as a child – and that set the foundation for what would become the biggest struggle of my life so far.
I also grew up around women who were always talking about their weight. There was the regular expression of guilt after a big meal or as they reached for another slice of dessert, the incessant experimentation with one diet or another, and the frequent commenting on other women’s bodies.
I remember being nine years old and the teacher pinning up our medical-test results on the wall. The first thing I looked for was my weight, and I was mortified to find that I was heavier than all my friends. Growing up, I recall going through phases of experimenting with different eating disorders. One particular memory that sticks out is obsessing over calories, which I wrote out in a small notebook after every meal; I remember the control and pride I felt after successfully eating under 300 calories a day for a week. As it turns out, a can of Heinz Macaroni & Cheese is roughly that amount, and it’ll keep you full for a pretty long time.
I was very fortunate, however, in that I went through phases. For instance, I don’t recall worrying too much about my body during my years at university, but I developed a serious binge-eating disorder when I started working. I remember standing in the aisle of my local Sainsbury’s, mindlessly ripping through packs of Mr. Kipling cakes and making my way through them as I added more and more items to my cart, only to have eaten most of them by the time I had reached the check-out counter, where I would sometimes burst into tears. Even today, however, I’m still not sure what the catalyst for each of those phases was.
All of a sudden, thanks to social media, I was closer than I ever had been to women whose bodies I would never have.
When I moved to Dubai and joined the fashion world, any insecurities that I had about my body were awoken and amplified, teased out of me and stoked by all the different ways this industry glorifies one specific physique. Coincidentally, that was around the same time that I joined Instagram. We all know how that story goes; what started out as innocent fun soon became a borderline obsession – and if you haven’t admitted that to yourself yet, you probably should. [More on why I quit Instagram, here.]
All of a sudden, thanks to social media, I was closer than I ever had been to women whose bodies I would never have. Yes, I wanted to be able to wear a napkin around my waist like Chiara Ferragni and call it a skirt, but my big butt and thunder thighs prohibited me from doing that.
During my time here, I also learned to disguise my binge eating under the more socially accepted guise of stress eating. Everyone stress eats, right? In fact, we’ll go through multiple packs of chocolate as a team when a deadline is approaching, except that I can’t just stop at the chocolate. Every waking minute of that day will be dedicated to finding more food to eat – almost in autopilot.
Why do we feel the need to comment on each other’s weight?
In my culture at least, we remark on each other’s weight as often as possible. In fact, we even congratulate each other on weight loss. “Bravo! You’ve lost weight,” is something you can expect to hear at almost every social gathering. A friend of mine recently lamented, “I haven’t seen this person in a year and she is congratulating me on my weight loss, but I’ve accomplished much more important things than drop a few kilos since the last time I saw her.” Word. So why do we feel the need to comment on each other’s weight?
I took this up with my mother recently, after she had made one such comment, and her answer made complete sense. “I was congratulating you on your weight loss because I know how much losing weight means to you.” She was right. I had been projecting this image of dissatisfaction with my body for all my nearest and dearest to see.
I’ve been in Dubai for six years now – almost to the day – and I can safely say that I have spent at least five and a half of those years on some form of weight-loss mission. Vegan, Paleo, intuitive eating, Intermittent Fasting, restrictive diets – you name it, I’ve tried it. And guess what? I’m still not skinny.
Looking back today, I have to admit that I feel a lot of remorse over the amount of mind space, hours, and tears that I have allowed my weight woes to demand of me. What could I have accomplished had I not been obsessing over this? Who might I have become?
More importantly: Why was I dying to conform to this ideal of the perfect body that, genetically, I wasn’t even designed to achieve? Today, I weigh 83 kilos. My body-fat percentage is 21% and I am the strongest I’ve ever been. I can sprint pretty fast, and I can lift pretty heavy weights. I eat a mostly plant-forward and whole-food diet. I have a great digestion and my periods are perfectly regular (no PMS or cramps either). I am, by all accounts, a strong, fit, and healthy woman. Why isn’t that enough?
What could I have accomplished had I not been obsessing over this? Who might I have become?
I wish this were a story of how I had kicked body-image issues in the butt years ago to bask in self-love and acceptance ever since then, but the truth of the matter is that I have just embarked on this journey and I am a long, long way from reaching that goal. Earlier this month, I wore pants that don’t camouflage my hips. Last week, I told my thighs for the first time, “I love you. You’re sexy.” Yesterday, I deleted FaceTune from my phone. I am working on getting to a place where I acknowledge the beauty of every human body, mine included, for its sheer power and magic. It’s a place where I am okay with never losing a single kilo for the rest of my life, where I love my body just the way it is at this very moment.
I read an interview with a celebrity nutritionist recently (although don’t ask me which one; I’ve read so many). In it, she attributed weight problems in women to a number of things, from hormonal issues to an overconsumption of calories. One thing, however, caught my eye: she also listed pent-up emotions as one of the five leading causes. I’ve thought long and hard about this, looking at specific incidents that I could recall, and I have to admit that a lot of my binge/emotional eating happens at times when I am not being honest with myself or with the people around me. Yes, stuffing a bag of nuts down your throat is a lot more socially acceptable than telling someone what you really think about them or how down you’ve actually been feeling lately. That’s another thing I have to work on.
Turkish author Elif Shafak said, “Every human being is a work in progress that is slowly but inexorably moving toward perfection.” Whether we ever achieve perfection is a debate for another day, but I wholeheartedly agree with the first part of her statement.
If you had asked me to write this article two months ago, I wouldn’t have, because that would have meant admitting that something was wrong. It’s only in the past few weeks that I have begun thinking about this differently, and if I hadn’t typed up this article while sitting in the lobby café of a hotel in London, waiting for my room to be ready, and sent it to my Editor-in-Chief for immediate publication, I don’t think it would have ever seen the light of day. In fact, the regrets will probably set in within seconds of it being live, but there are two reasons why this is important: First of all, it is a vital exercise in self-reflection and in honesty. And secondly, I spend my days asking people to tell their story on Goodness, and to do so honestly. If I can’t do that myself, what right do I have to expect it from them?
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