Tag Archive | Relationships

Dr. Anorexia: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my body

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.

Fat.

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.

At the halfway mark: What I looked like, and what I felt like.

At the halfway mark: What I looked like, and what I felt like.

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.

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                               Still not as thin as I wanted to be

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.

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Why is India obsessed with marriage?

There are a few things Indians (or at least Indian advertisers/TV show producers/filmmakers/corporates) seem to be obsessed with. Cricket, Bollywood and sex are the three that come to mind immediately, and lately, I’ve been thinking marriage is the fourth. [Be warned, however. I’m not particularly fond of marriage or weddings in general, so if you’re likely to be offended, I don’t really care.]

I’m one of those people who watches the IPL for entertainment. Sort of like a Hindi film where you already have a beginning and an end and you just go to watch how it gets from one end to the other. (Also like digestion.)

Anyone who watched edition 5 of the Indian Premier League (and really, even anyone who didn’t) has been besieged with ridiculous, ridiculous ads. There are at least a billion of them that are related/refer to marriage in general, most of them for products, but this one caught my eye, and not in a good way.

First, watch:

In the ad, a relative (I’m assuming the granddaughter) is giving her grandmother a pedicure as the woman sits comfortably in her plush armchair and munches on a bar of chocolate. The daughter-in-law is in the same room. Suddenly, the granddaughter/pedicurist suddenly pipes up, saying “Bahu gaai hai na” – which directly translates to ‘the daughter-in-law is like a cow’. I’m not really Prem Chand, so I had no idea what that meant. Neither, however, did anybody I knew for whom Hindi was a primary language.

Finally, somebody told me it meant the DIL was ‘decent, calm and quiet, like a cow’, which made ME the polar opposite of calm.

Anyway, before I go on my long-winded, extremely angry tirade, I should explain what the ad is about. So, granddaughter/pedicurist asks her grandmother WHY exactly it was that they were looking to ‘have the DIL married’ if she was, ahem, cow-like and ‘Krish’s choice’. The grandmother gives her a stern glare, the granddaughter wilts, and Miss Cow comes in with steaming tea for the poor old lady on the couch whose feet are being expertly pedicured, and who just happens to be munching on a massive, massive bar of chocolate. Poor, poor thing.

Then there’s another ad for this TV show:

This made me even angrier than the first one. Of course, the ever-dutiful Miss Cow is sari-clad and conducting prayers (the epitome of the perfect daughter-in-law in traditional, patriarchal families). The mother-in-law is standing around there somewhere with yet another woman, who I’m going to assume is a visitor. THIS vomit-worthy, absolutely abhorrent conversation ensues:

Visitor: “Doesn’t she take care of the home?”

MIL: “More than she ought to”

Visitor: “Oh, really? Then does she have any faults or shortcomings?”

MIL: “No, she’s perfectly OK”

If you want to know what they’re getting at, I have no idea, so I would be absolutely the wrong person to ask. What sickens me is that there are people who still hold these sorts of beliefs, the ‘dutiful daughter-in-law’, the woman whose only goal in life is to be married, take care of a home, and pop out a kid or two. Sure, a lot of urban India (my family and thankfully most of the people I know) find this sort of crap vile, but I know people who believe in this tripe, buy into the ideal, and then get sucked into the world created by these soaps, deluded into thinking they’re real.

This isn’t the only marriage-related thing on TV, though. Skoda came out with a ‘Big Fat Indian Wedding’ Campaign a while ago, where the car was responsible for really, really important things, like taking the bride and her giggling friends to the salon, the wedding planners, the makeup artists (wtf?) and other wedding-related people around. It was along the lines of the old MasterCard ads, where they mentioned the price of a couple of things and then ended with ‘Priceless.’

The final shot, before they told everybody how amazing the Skoda really is?  The girl, looking at her jewellery as her husband picks up and fastens her missing earring. WOW, how romantic. *Rolls eyes*

Speaking of jewellery, there are at least 4 advertisements on television specifically marketing bridal jewellery, with the Bollywood brigade dripping in gold and diamonds, and of course, as the typical North Indian bride is expected to look, demure, shy and to quote the pedicurist, ‘domesticated’.

On an average, for every 5 minutes of TV Viewing in India, you WILL necessarily see an advertisement for  a matrimonial website. There’s the stupid one that’s been on for a while now, where a father follows men around with a wedding turban (which, funnily enough, is not an all-India thing. In fact, it’s only in very, very specific bits of central and northern India). In the end, they find a picture on the matrimonial website.

At least the ending is funny. I don’t think the guys who edited the ad realised in time that the photo they used was, in fact, this certain hilarious, awesome guy named Matt LeBlanc. I still crack up EVERY time I see the ad. [ I also whisper a little “How YOU doin’?”]

Then there are the others, about ‘finding your daughter a groom within the community’ (someone please, please get me some medication before my rage gets out of control) and another I’ve seen not only on the telly, but in Reader’s Digest, too. [For shame.]

It’s about a privileged little girl, and how her parents want to ‘do right by her’ and find her a groom. You’d think doing right by her would be spending their apparent scads of money on a quality education, but no. According to these guys, ‘the best thing you can do for your child is give them a happy marriage.’

Watch the ad here(and try not to be absolutely scandalised):

Additionally, marriage is somehow associated very closely with sex in parts of India, because a) premarital sex is ‘immoral’, but female foeticide is not, and rape is ‘justified because the victim was “provocatively clad” ‘ according to these men

and

b) Marriage is the only way they think they have ‘access to unlimited sex’. That’s not just me talking, though – it’s every sexual advice column in every single newspaper.

Marriage, however, is not just two people who love one another deciding to spend the rest of their lives together- here it is a woman who marries not the man, but his entire family, whom she is expected to be a quasi-servant to, the rest of her life, all while looking gorgeous, of course.

There are at least a dozen television shows themed around the Big Fat Indian Wedding (a kind I especially hate), which I also think happens to be the title of one of these shows. It involves fancy, shiny designer dresses, professional makeup artists (like in that Skoda advert), and makeovers that include medical things like dental procedures.  Who cares about the actual marriage? The wedding is where it’s at, man. It’s all about an album full of pretty pictures, not the other human being you’ve been ‘fixed up’ with.

More importantly, according to Indian advertisers, marriage is a girl/woman’s ultimate goal, and that, her looks and her baby are her crowning achievements. [Not her education, her intellect, or anything of the sort, mind you. Because what does all that stuff mean if you’re not MARRIED? You’re 30 and not married yet? Oh, the humanity!]

In the meanwhile, I still cannot reconcile myself to the fact that I live in a country with two ‘types’ of marriages. ‘Love Marriage’ and ‘Arranged Marriage’, where a groom/bride will be ‘found’ for you, either in the pages of the newspaper, in disgustingly shallow specs, or, for the slightly more tech-savvy, all over the internet. I absolutely fail to comprehend why one should even have to marry someone they do not love, or MUST marry if they do not fall in love. If anybody reading this has any idea where the modern version of this system came from, I’d love to know. Please enlighten me.

It’s bad enough there are idiots out there who actually believe in these ideals of permanent servility, ones who believe nothing matters unless they have a marriage to show for it, ones for whom NOTHING in life matters unless it is pushing them in the direction of marriage, where marriage is being covered from head to toe and fetching people’s tea and biscuits. (Take a training course and waitress if that’s all you want to do, at least it’ll earn you some money.)

What makes it about a billion times worse?

This:

There are already enough older people with these ridiculous, patriarchal, outdated, sexist ideals. The morons that conceptualised this ad have now successfully managed to introduce ridiculously retrograde ideals of marriage to a new, impressionable generation, a generation I am genuinely afraid for, as I sit back and watch the idea of marriage (and mind you, marriage only for the beautiful, fair, or if you’re a guy, an MBA at the very least) aggressively marketed to anyone who will have it, and anyone who is watching.

So basically, everyone.

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