One of those things is still integral to my life. The other has not been for nearly two years now, which is an extremely positive change.
Writing about my experience is an extremely difficult thing, and reconciling my own beliefs with the way I behaved was even more difficult. How does someone who strongly believes nobody should be defined by others by any metrics, and especially the metrics society chooses to define us by – which are often external – judge themselves by them?
I grew up being called ‘ugly’, ‘hideous’, ‘unattractive’, especially to boys at an age when that was somehow all-important, an essential part of being a true girl, woman, whatever it was. It taught me several things. First, as I was becoming a teenager, and then a young woman, I believed strongly that I was ugly, and at the time, it mattered.
It mattered that nobody looked at me a certain way, or at least I thought it did. At 13, it began to consume my life, and I was told I was also too ‘nerdy’, and with that came the F-word that would go on to haunt me a good decade afterwards.
Looking back, I don’t think I was ever fat, just a regular kid with an inherited chubby face that I hated. It was a face I would grow to hate more and more in coming years, to the point that I would put an extra towel over my bathroom mirror.
Even if I were ‘fat’, according to whatever definition of that word suited people to use, that should not have been reason for me to hate myself. But I did.
Words have a far stronger effect than the people who say them ever seem to realise, and that effect is seriously amplified with time. The nickname my bullies gave me, although neither insulting nor complimentary in and of itself (it was in fact from a chunk of my name), came from them with the connotation of being fat. Unlike its namesake, however, I felt anything but jolly and cheerful.
“Oh, he wouldn’t like you,” said one person. “Oh, that weirdo,” said a boy my 13-year-old self, who had just discovered feelings for the other sex beyond Shah Rukh Khan and Chandler Bing on the TV, had a crush on. It devastated me, and it should not have.
In looking for that body type, I, and several others, begin in search of a quest. A quest for some form of belonging to something we crave. It is the beginning of a search of acceptance, a desire to not be the outcast.
For whatever other combination of metrics, I was always the ‘weird’ one. I was what I believed, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, to be a very round peg in a too-small hole.
The lessons begin quite early, and in this case they did for me. It starts with one person telling you why you’re not ‘good enough’, and another, and another. Even if it has ‘stopped’ by then, you have begun skiing down the slippery slope of self-loathing and are headed dangerously off-piste.
I missed out, as so many others who have grown up this way do, on formative years of discovering myself, which were accelerated later and learned eventually, but missed nevertheless. Instead of being outside playing, I spent my time away from books crying. The time that was not spent drowned in mystery novels and science fiction was spent wondering why I was not ‘like the others’, why ‘he’ thought I was ‘yucky’, and other things teenagers will do.
Food began being watched, and not for anything related to my health. Lunches would be brought back home, given to the poor kid and his mother round the lane, fed to the dog, flushed down the toilet, any way to not have as much food pass my lips.
The behaviour began with not being ‘good enough’; this ‘not good enough’ applied within the home and at school. It reflected in all of those young teens in the throes of puerile adolescent romance that I seemed to want and could never have, that unattainable, unachievable ideal that eluded my grasp because of the way I ‘was’, the way I ‘looked’, who I am.
This entire attitude was then predicated on the ideal that who I was, or how much I was ‘worth’ in the world, was either defined or circumscribed by whether somebody cared for me, and how much. That that meaning, that value, lay in somebody’s desire to hold my hand, to laugh with and kiss me, and as I grew older, to have sex with.
In light of my avowed feminism, which I continue to feel strongly about to this day, how was I allowing myself to define my value, or in this case, the lack thereof, by the men I had loved not feeling anything in return?
And it may not have been all of the answer, but a big part of it lay in the desire to control, a key word for anybody who has struggled with any form of addiction, which eating disorders are. In controlling what went into my mouth, I could control the way I looked, I could control what others thought of me, how they perceived me, and be found ‘attractive’, which I had never been.
Fitness had never been a problem – long walks and jogs with the parents and being a trained swimmer had helped with that, and helped immensely. But it wasn’t enough to be fit, because looking fit mattered far, far more. The thighs and calves I had earned running were too manly, too masculine, the strong arms from benching and lifting too big and broad, the muscled shoulders too thick.
But in the end, it is control that takes over. In this case, it was control over what I looked like. If I could control what went into my mouth, I could control what I looked like. If I could control what I looked like, I would not be thought of as ‘ugly’, and this would somehow enrich my life. Hindsight is always 20/20, but when you’re in the midst of a situation like that, everything seems right.
Far too many hours were spent in front of a mirror, plucking and pinching and slapping things that were ‘too big’. Far too much time was spent hurting myself over something ‘too round’, ‘not flat enough’, ‘too big’. In the quest for an unattainable, unfair, self-imagined ideal of ‘perfection’, you whittle yourself down to something you believe can be ‘loved’, or is in fact worthy of being so. In the end of the entire exercise, this quest of wanting ‘love’, ‘acceptance’, from oneself or outside, ironically makes you realise you hate yourself, and magnifies that hatred a hundredfold.
A teenage brain thought it was a good idea to eat that ‘one less paratha’ and smoke 3 cigarettes instead, because putting a nicotine stick in my mouth to suppress my appetite made more sense than cabbage and flour.
As I’ve grown older, stronger and become a more vocal feminist, I’ve come to realise how flawed it was, the very premise that the attention I may or may not have got from controlling obsessively what I ate, exercising 4 hours a day to the point where I felt lightheaded if I even stood up, was positive, was an indicator I was doing something right somehow.
That the clothes my teenage self wanted to wear but couldn’t because her breasts were ‘too big’ looked great now. That the male attention my younger self thought she wanted came with my younger self looking like she was about to snap in half as she ate two carrots and a cube of cheese for lunch because she was too afraid to eat any more.
I saw my bullies’ faces, heard their voices in the back of my head as I reached for food, laughing at me for even considering to be around them, because how dare my nerdy, lumpen self do that? How dare I think I was worthy of their male friends, or any male, really, giving me the time of day? And it mattered then, when it should not have.
Thankfully, I had a wonderful discussion with a friend last night, where he (correctly) argued that even insinuating male attention should be construed by women as flattering was ridiculous – the woman in question being a professional tennis player who was sledged on court in absentia.
In the years after I had spent most of my days forcefully tickling my throat and tasting bile as I downed Listerine to get rid of the repulsive aftertaste, I had begun to restrict. In the days after that, I saw change, and quickly. Lying down, I could feel my tailbone poking into me. I could feel and see my pelvis in the mirror and terrifyingly, I felt immensely proud. I could run my fingers over my ribs in the mirror, and those awful breasts had finally shrunk.
51kg. 47kg. 42kg. And finally I got down to 37, and then I thought I was happy.
It had felt then like a triumph, a victory over all the ‘ugly’ jibes, a victory over all of the rejection over the years, a victory over my own demons, when in reality it was only the beginning of a long and arduous battle, one helped only by the presence of my closest friends who had nothing but patience for me as I grated on them, breaking myself apart in the process.
Free of eating disorders or disordered behaviour for the most part, I am now nearly two years ‘clean’. Do thoughts still creep into my head, the guilt of that ‘one extra chocolate bar’? Of course they do. There are hours years later where you will look into the mirror and still see a ‘tubby’ stomach, too-big boobs, ‘man-thighs’, stretch marks and scars, and think of being that person again. Let those feelings pass.
They’re all part of your journey, a journey you need to let happen on its own.
Through nearly 5 years of disordered behaviour, the biggest lessons you take away are that the acceptance and love you need to give yourself are the most important things you will ever have in your life. Do not let anyone change who you are, and who you want to be. You don’t need to be ‘beautiful on the outside’, because that is not a way you should define either yourself or anyone else.
The next time that chocolate bar presents itself, it’s okay to eat it and not cry about it the rest of the day, or worry how much you’ve eaten. For those in recovery, your appetite will definitely shrink in the days after your recovery, and I find that a couple of years on I still cannot eat as much as I used to. But you’ll get there.
A human being is not a share on the stock market – you are not suddenly worth more if more people want you, or less if nobody does. What is most important is mattering to yourself. You can make little changes in your life that are good for it, but controlling it is impossible to do because that is just how life is. You are worth far more than the bits of your body you see.
Meanwhile, if loving yourself seems like an impossibility for now, begin with a deep, slow, gradual acceptance. Of how your body looks, how it feels, of the world around you. The most important relationship of any you will ever have in your lifetime is the one with yourself, and in the words of James Hetfield, nothing else matters.
Simple title, fairly straightforward. This is a subject that’s been extremely close to my heart and has worked on my mind subconsciously for many, many years. I’ve wanted to write about it for nearly as long, but I don’t think I had the composure or the sense or enough closure to do it, or maybe because it meant I’d have to face far too many demons in doing so. Which is a funny coincidence, because I was reminded of it while watching an old episode of Supernatural. [Episode 13, Season 4 – you can find the synopsis here.]
The lead characters, Dean and Sam Winchester [demon-hunting brothers (and so much more), for those of you who aren’t familiar with the show] visit their old high school when they find out about a murder.
The episode opens with a ‘popular’ girl being heckled and called a slut, so she goes over to the ” outcasts’ ” table, where the only other person seated is a ‘fat chick’. As someone who’s been the target of taunts and bullying for years, she sympathises with Ms. Popular and tries to make her feel better, only for it to bite her in the ass as she is called a ‘fat ugly bitch’ by the popular girl. She storms off. The scene then cuts to the girls’ bathroom, where ‘fat chick’ bangs the ‘slut’s’ head against a mirror, and then swirlies her (dunks her head into the toilet bowl and flushes, i.e) till she dies of asphyxia.
Sam and Dean head on over to investigate, and as it turns out, they were at that same high school for a few months, a little over a decade earlier. While they’re there, a bully shoves his victim’s hand into a moving food processor in a home economics class, and when Sam finds the tormentor, he finds ectoplasm leaking from his ear.
Now I’m not into all this demon mumbo-jumbo or anything, but they cut to Sam’s past, and that was the bit that really, really got me going. Sam was a quiet kid, and instantly befriended a stereotypical ‘nerdy kid’, a guy named Barry, who was relentlessly tormented – a bully twice his size sat behind him, flicking his ear till it bled, hitting him, provoking him without reason, and he could do nothing- and that is when I began to cry. (I continued, intermittently, until the end of the episode.)
I wasn’t your stereotypical nerdy kid in school (well, I probably was, though I wasn’t bespectacled/four-eyed/near-blind, like the kind they portray on TV and in movies) – I was academically ‘nerdy’ right up until the end of 6th grade, and that’s when everything went downhill, life in general that is. Funnily enough, this was when I won the maximum number of quiz competitions and quiz shows that I’d ever won. I won a brand-new mountain bike from the Discovery Channel one time, and was chuffed to bits. I got two new trophies. Plaques and certificates with my name on them. I’d just given two sets of Trinity music exams and aced them, and had my face broadcast on national television as one of the year’s biggest student achievers, throughout the country.
Then why didn’t I feel like one at all?
In my head, it’s like the whole chicken-and-egg argument, really, as to which came first, the recognition or the bullying. I’m not quite sure to be honest, and I suppose now that scientists have found the answer to the chicken-egg question, it’s a shitty analogy as well. .
I was never a particularly social kid – even as a two-, three-year-old, all my kindergarten/ primary school reports said that I needed to talk more to other students – I talked only to the teachers. (One thing that makes me immeasurably happy: My first ever teacher in primary school at the school I was for 14 years still remembers me. My name, my face, my behaviour, everything. It made me well up just a tiny little bit.)
I had maybe one or two really close friends then, one of whom was also a quasi-neighbour and a kindergarten classmate, and the other somebody who continues to be one of the people in my life that is closest to me, somebody who’s been there for me through quite a lot even though we had our rough patches, someone I’ve grown exponentially closer to in the last few years. Didn’t hang out with people all that much, but I wasn’t really unpopular – I was breezing through academics at the time, top grades in everything – upto the 6th grade, I don’t think I saw a single mark below 95. I took part in school plays, and just went about my daily life, neither here nor there. I remember one isolated bullying incident from the 3rd though. My best friend and I (the same one I just mentioned) used to keep one another company for lunch – we carried lunches to school, both of us, and we’d search for a place on the large field to sit and relax and eat in peace.
The field was this huge expanse of tarred-road-like land, surrounded by grass. Tons of it. It had just rained the day before, and there was dark brown, squelchy, gooey mud all around the field, though thankfully not that much in it because the gardener managed to heckle kids out of the lawn before too long.
Two girls we knew and were more or less apathetic to (we had no feelings about them, positive or negative) got the soles of their black buckled shoes nice and mucked up, and came up to my best friend and I (both of us were in our white sports shoes, presumably because we had P.E that day), stamped hard on our feet, spread all the mud all over them, cackled in our faces, then walked away, laughing, like something straight out of one of those creepy, psychotic-possessed-kid films.
Friend and I were pretty shaken up, but we kept shut and thought about telling our classteacher. I don’t think we ever got around to doing it.
Life was fairly uneventful for a while, at least at school. (Home was a pretty different story, and one that I don’t know if I want to get into, ever. Just assume it was its own form of bullying, meted out by the last people in the world you expect to bully you at all.)
I was a terrified little kid that always needed to sleep with a night light on, and even as an 8-year-old, I had insomnia. My mind would think itself into some sort of negative spiral or the other, and bye bye, sleep it was. [Being hit and yelled at and told how worthless you are will do that to ya, I promise you.]
I started drifting further and further away from other people as the years laboured on, and I don’t know exactly how or why. It just happened.
Then came the 7th grade, and the chicken-and-egg bit that I don’t really remember. I do remember meeting an amazing girl then, though, quieter than even I was, positively mouse-like, and exactly a year younger. To the day. We bonded over our shared birthday, won a couple of quizzes, travelled together, and she’s still one of my best friends to this day, one of the people I consider family.
We came back from the local round of the quiz, ecstatic, with our new mountain bikes, and every teacher congratulating us – and not one student that I remember.
Months later, I was selected to participate in the Bournvita Quiz, which, at the time, was all the rage (I used to watch it religiously myself, every Sunday morning at 10.30, as my mum and I tried to answer everything.)
I saw a ton of sour-pussed faces glaring at me, tripping me up, generally being bitchy, avoiding me, going out of their way to call me names, be awful, and start all sorts of rumours about me. (Think I heard more about myself from ‘other sources’ than even I knew.)
One group of girls in particular, the ‘populars’, the run-of-the-mill loaded family/beautiful/empty-up-there chick you find everywhere, went out of their way to make me feel permanently miserable. Add to that the fact that I was a fat, ugly kid, and there you have it. The magic combination Nicolas Flamel was looking for, to turn lead into gold. The golden formula that will necessarily get you bullied. To deal with this, I swung between comfort eating myself into oblivion and not eating anything at all. I think, more than anything else, the stress got me fat.
As it happened, we won, and came back with cheques for substantial amounts of money and a humongous box of Cadbury’s chocolate each (it was the Cadbury Bournvita quiz). We got back to school post lunch-break, and I went to my classroom, not really expecting anything much – we got hugs from all our teachers, and then I trooped back to the classroom, still feeling euphoric, and to paraphrase Leo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson, like the Queen of the World.
The same bitchy populars came up to me and said ‘Oooh, you won? Congratulations, could we have some chocolate?’ [+100 for subtlety], and one of the worst tormentors ever, a girl who continues to this day to be a gigantic bitch (I never said all these people were behind me) feigned a headache and ate half the box. It didn’t matter. I was just happy I’d won.
I nursed huge dreams growing up – I always wanted to read literature and linguistics at Oxford (still do), and somebody found out. How or why, I have no clue, but I found out in a rather unpleasant way, when a girl I barely knew (read:was not even aware of the existence of) said to her entire class, ‘Oxford? Really, as what? A sweeper, or a janitor?’. Obviously it hurt me, because I wouldn’t remember it 8 years later if it didn’t. Still remember her face, too.
The next year, the school nominated me to take part in another event, also organised by Cadbury Bournvita- they featured one student at the end of every weekly episode, somebody they considered an all-rounder, an achiever and whatnot. The most exciting bit about the entire thing was that I got to skip my history exam to compete, so I got to chill in the lobby of a fancy hotel with my mum while everybody else was languishing in a hot classroom slaving away at writing about Mughal leaders.
Coming back home a winner was rather exciting, and I got a cheque for that too, which I gave to my mum. And again, fresh floods of vitriol. Back home, things were getting worse by the minute, and I’d begun cutting at this point in time. It started with snapping rubberbands, trying to burn myself with freshly-extinguished matchsticks and incense, scratching and poking with pens and pencils, and then I graduated to scissors and old razorblades. It was as if someone was taking all that pain from inside me and purging it from me as the blood flowed out, like it was able to express something I couldn’t.
Morbidity was the flavour of the day for the next three years – I was bullied at school, my grades began slipping faster than a cartoon character on a banana peel, and as a result my folks got even worse – this time I was not only told I was dumb and worthless, I was also reminded how fat and ugly I was, how unlovable, how disgustingly, absolutely abhorrent, how much better everybody’s lives would have been if only I had not been born, in addition to being whacked round the ears with hands, belts, having stuff smashed in my face a few times even.
Hear that sort of stuff enough and you’ll begin to believe every bit of it. Between home, people at school thinking I was ‘fit to be a sweeper’, and being hideous and unattractive to boys (at that god-awful age of 13 where that seems to be so ridiculously important that it suffocates you), I went into my own shell. People would try and hit the shell, sure, but I knew somewhere I was safe, sort of. Except bullies will take your insecurities and multiply them a hundredfold. So not only did I get laughed at and become the butt of jokes about how no boy found me attractive, I had pranks played on me by people I thought were friends. They’d get random boys to call me up, put everybody on conference, and then ‘prank’ me. It was their idea of fun, I guess. Somebody found out about my first ever crush, then went and told him, and made me the laughing stock of whoever I wasn’t the laughing stock of already, even if it was just for walking, or worse, existing.
Those were the three worst years of my 21 so far- all I wanted to do, in all honesty, was kill myself. I tried to, a couple of times, and failed miserably. Maybe I didn’t really want to die and somewhere, I knew that. Wasn’t for lack of trying, though.
In the 8th, I found a kindred spirit, somebody that made me smile and laugh and want to actually go to school for once- an English teacher who shared my pure, intense love for the Beatles, dogs, and, well, English! She loved my writing, and would quote Beatles songs to me in class. My permanently crappy handwriting improved, and my short stories and poetry got considerably less morbid. I’d go home just a bit happier, and cried into my pillow far less than I used to. Of course, people just resented me more, and come the 9th it was back to the old drawing board, but thankfully, I had an amazing English teacher then, too, in love with the language. I drowned myself in that and maths because I loved them, and just laboured on with everything else.
Anyone who has ever been in a classroom will attest to the fact that the front row is the worst place to sit, and indeed it was. 15-year-old girls (who you’d honestly expect to possess some semblance of a brain, but clearly not in this case) threw pencils, erasers, compasses and dividers, protractors and set-squares and anything you could find in a pencil case, or anything that was handy at my head. During class. I went back to crappy, sad, morose me, and became like Mad-Eye Moody. Constant Vigilance!
Trust no-one. Be cynical, always.
It requires the patience of a saint to put up with people chucking stuff at your head and calling you names all day long, patience I didn’t have. But I had no spine either at the time, and so all I did was keep quiet and take it. It’s been years since I got away from them, much to my relief, and in my last year of school I found some friends, aced my finals, and moved on. Except maybe there’s still some annoyance there. I don’t resent any of the people I had to deal with, even though I may regret having ever known them. But now that it’s all happened, it’s all sewage under the bridge 😉 . None of them would even dream of talking to me like that now, and really, none of them do – everybody is somehow super-friendly and chirpy. Do I reciprocate? No. But do I pretend to? Occasionally. It makes it easier to move on.
I had nobody to talk to about being bullied as a kid, and the two people I thought I could trust bullied me too. But just find something you love (not a person, just a thing, or an animal) or something that drives you. I was lucky enough to have my writing, my books, and only the most amazing, protective supportive dog you could ask for. Cliché as it may sound, he’ll always live on in my heart.
If you’re being bullied right now, know that it’s not you. It’s not something you deserve being meted out to you. It’s just people even more insecure than yourself, attempting to make themselves feel better while making you feel absolutely worthless, whether it’s to your face, behind your back, or the most cowardly, on the internet, anonymous or otherwise. Ever heard the phrase ‘feeding the troll’? Yeah, don’t do it. Bullies are precisely that. Insecure, grotty little trolls looking to get a rise out of you to feel better about themselves.
Please, please, please do not self-harm- I have been there, it is not fun, not good for your mental or physical health, and not a good way to deal with pain. I understand how tempting it is to just slice through your own skin and see that blood, but however good you may think you feel, it sucks, because you’re only hurting yourself because other people have hurt you, and that’s extremely counterproductive.
Talk to somebody you care about, or if you feel like you’re completely alone in the world and have nobody you care about, not even yourself, keep a journal. Write in it as you would to a friend. Just vent, and get it all out. Write. Play music. Sing.
If you’re suicidal, I’m not going to use beaten-to-death-phrases like ‘stop, there’s somebody out there in the world who cares for you, they’ll feel hurt when you die’. Depending on your situation, realistically, there may be and there may not be. The only one that matters is yourself. YOU should care for you. Allow yourself to dream and hope and wish for things, ludicrous as they may seem.
There will be days when you don’t want to get out of bed. They may stretch into weeks, they may stretch into months and years. Your reflection will be the last thing you want to see, and living the last thing you want to do. But you should.
Smile, even if you see no reason to. Read. Losing yourself in the world of literature is always a lovely escape. Food, however, whether it may be avoiding it or going crazy eating, is never the answer. Try exercising – not only does it help you get in shape, it releases endorphins that keep you going.
Know that keeping quiet and not retorting does not necessarily mean accepting defeat — it could mean being the bigger person in the bigger picture, the one that you will begin to see much after you’ve stepped away from it a little bit. Do not make the mistakes I made, and keep silent. Please, please let somebody know what is going on.
It may not seem like it while you’re being bullied, but it’ll begin to make some sort of sense later. You don’t HAVE to ‘forgive’ them, and honestly after years of being tormented, it’s pretty hard to. You can, however, let bygones be bygones, and perhaps look at the part of your life gone by and consider it a learning experience. Not all of them are pleasant but you learn from them anyway. It’s like when you were a kid and your mum told you that the most rotten tasting vegetables often were the most nutritious. Sort of like that.
The toughest, most hurtful experiences end up being the most useful as you grow older.
Writing may not come easily to everybody, but seeing your own thoughts on paper helps you arrange them more coherently and look at them more objectively, as opposed to what I visualise as a noodly mish-mash inside your head, a jumble of thoughts, none of them very nice at all.
If you’re considering suicide, please, please try to speak to somebody. A parent or sibling if you have an understanding one, a guidance counselor at school or college, someone you trust. Talking to your pet, if you’ve got one, is extremely therapeutic, as is simply just crying it out. VERY cathartic, much like writing this.
I’m an adult now, for the most part, and as I look back on my school life I don’t remember anything that I particularly enjoyed about it. As an adult, I have also been diagnosed with BPD and Bipolar Disorder, and was on medication for clinical depression for a while. Did I hate it? Hell yes. Do I think it had something to do with having a crappy time growing up? For sure. But at this point, I think I’ve more or less let it go. Cremating the corpse, as it were, and letting bygones be bygones.
Yes, growing up is awkward all on its own and bullies and awful people like them don’t make it any fun, but there’s always a way out, and it is not harming, hurting and/or killing yourself. Look in the mirror, and tell yourself you matter to that person. You’ll look back on it, years later, be stronger for it, and maybe, someday, exorcise your own demons, vanquish them completely, something I hope to do at some point in the future. For now, I’m quite content with how far I’ve gotten in this process — I have since discovered more of myself, made some wonderful friends and have amazing, positive people in my life who help to keep me going, no matter where in the world they are.
(In any case, if anybody reading this feels like they do not have a single shoulder to cry on, there’s a little box at the bottom of the screen with an email where you can reach me, even if all you want to do is talk.)
All in all, they’re just bricks in the wall.
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