By: Simar Dhaliwal
Right before I started high school, my family and I moved from India to America. The first thing I noticed when I walked on to the concrete that would support my footsteps for the next four years was how much everyone resembled barbies. With their straight hair, straight bodies, and defined thigh gaps, I felt shame and fear and insecurity because I looked so different. The second thing I remember doing is bursting into tears and frantically texting my older sister to regain some semblance of control over myself. I had never experienced feeling so uncomfortable before and it didn’t take me long to understand why. I hated my body, and I despised it so much that I couldn’t stand looking at myself in the mirror because all I saw was inadequacy. I remember feeling very anxious about walking in front of people, and this included being called on in class, getting something from the front of the class and going to the bathroom. I had severe anxiety about being late to class because it meant walking in and having people look at you. I unconsciously began the habit of hunching to avoid attention and crossing my arms over my stomach in hopes that it would hold me together. My only goal before starting high school had been to achieve straight A’s, but here I found myself in class unable to move, let alone focus on anything apart from the way I looked.
I sought acceptance and peace from the internet, and instead, I received the message that my feelings were expected because I was not good enough as I looked but I could be good enough if I changed how I looked. I read articles and articles on ways to lose weight, to be healthier, to look your best, to decrease the amount of food consumed, to hide body fat, what to avoid when trying to lose weight, ten exercises that guarantee weight loss, and so on.
My mother began to monitor my meals closely but my family never realized the full extent of my starvation. My parents tried to tell me that I didn’t need to lose so much weight, that they didn’t see anything wrong with me, but my eyes would roll over before they could finish a sentence and my legs would start walking away faster than they could say, “you’re beautiful just the way you are.” They noticed that I ate little, that I could list the calories in any item off the top of my head, that I was exercising frequently, but they didn’t know it all. They had no way of knowing that I would frantically chew gum whenever my stomach refused to stop growling, hoping against hope that my body would be tricked by the chewing into believing it was full. They didn’t know that I exercised off every single calorie that I consumed, that I overestimated the calories to fool myself into consuming less and exercising more. They didn’t see me at night, feeling my stomach, relishing in its flatness and reveling in the noise it made. They didn’t see me measuring my thighs with tape or marking the points on my body that I wanted to erase.
At school, I was terrified of someone seeing me eat and judging me or even worse, whispering to their friends about how I didn’t need more food. Looking back now, I know that I was projecting my thoughts onto others and that the possibility of these words being said was small. But at that time, paranoia and anxiety were my best friends because they helped indulge my disordered eating. I wish that even if people had noticed and judged me, I could have had the strength to choose my health over their fatphobia.
Compliments, instead of bringing me validation, brought me close to tears. I wanted to believe them so much, but I could not see how anyone could honestly compliment the way I looked. What I did believe was that I was receiving this attention because of my lifestyle and I knew that I could never stop because finally, I was desirable. It didn’t matter that my eyes would be on the floor in front of mirrors, or that I heard the sound of my stomach growling more than I heard the sound of my laughter, or that I felt dizzy sometimes. I didn’t think that I had a problem, that starving myself to the point of consuming less than 500 calories a day was an issue. I looked at it as a lifestyle, a path that I had chosen. A path that got me results, made me look good to others, and feel worthwhile when it was noticed by other people. How was I supposed to find the words “Anorexia Nervosa” and “Body Dysmorphia” amidst so many articles filled with why I wasn’t good enough, or how I could change myself?
It took me years to stop the vicious cycle of starving my body and counting calories, and even longer to stop feeling guilt and shame around food. Once I was able to eat the way I truly wanted and needed to, I gained back all the weight and then some. For years, my sisters and my best friend had told me to embrace myself. But it wasn’t their words that helped me heal. It was the body positive models, and fat models, and body neutrality models who helped me face my fears. If these people had never taken the step towards talking about their experiences, and their journeys, and if they hadn’t dared to pursue their dreams in a world that actively works against fat people, then I probably would never have seen what I could become. This is why representation is so important. Them refusing to put limits on who they could be because of their bodies showed me how I didn’t need to either. It wasn’t as instantaneous as it sounds, but the work it took to unlearn everything I thought was right was worth it. Ironically, I used to be horrifyingly paranoid that someone would see me following a fat person on Instagram and assume I did so because I was fat, and now those very models are the reason why I feel so deeply and completely whole in any size.
However, despite making so many steps in the right direction, I was still struggling. I had forced myself to conform to society’s standards of beauty by making them my own, reveled in my success, only to realize my mistake and work my way back to health. But still, what other people thought of me mattered to me more than my need to take care of myself. And yet, how could I have thought any differently when the people around me made sure to express their discomfort with my weight.
One summer in high school, we went to India for two months. While visiting my aunt and cousin, along with being put on a diet, I was forced to go to the “best” dermatologist in the area for my offensive acne. The last time my cousin and aunt had seen me was amid the eating disorder and so the contrast between what they approved of and what I looked like now was enormous. I had had acne then too, but it had spread as it does as you grow into your teens. My cousin accompanied me to the appointment because she knew the dermatologist and spoke highly of him. This esteemed dermatologist weighed me, a highly humiliating experience in front of my fatphobic, diet encouraging, disordered eating cousin, and turned to her and told her to make me sweep and mop the floors every day because by doing so I would lose weight and my acne would disappear. If this respected dermatologist had bothered to have a proper, confidential appointment with me, he would have learned about how bad my sleep quality was, how I knew nothing about skincare, and how much stress I was dealing with to succeed academically where I hadn’t before. Acne is frequently caused by stress and hormonal imbalances, and therefore these questions should be imperative in skin evaluations. But, he only saw my weight.
The year after that, while playing soccer with my family, my uncle, though on my team, kept up a steady stream of insults about my width, comparing me to a panda, until I was blocking goals blindly because of the tears in my eyes. Another year, one of my friends remarked that I shouldn’t attempt sitting on a bench lest it breaks from my weight. Last year, my boss’s receptionist commended how much weight I had lost from the last time she had seen me. I was shocked at the unprofessionalism and frankly, the audacity. I had lost weight because of depression, and for something born out of hopelessness and despair, to be complimented so proudly was almost too much to bear. These happenings, and so many others, reinforced to me again and again that my insecurities were real, that no matter where I was, no matter who I was as a person, no matter how hard I worked- the way my body looked was what mattered the most and I could never exist in peace as I was.
All through the last few years, I have been constantly shamed for the way I looked. On social media, I presented the image of happiness, and in turn received validation, but in reality, it took everything in me to never show how destroyed I was by these taunts. I felt that I would emotionally burst at the seams at any moment, and as weird as it sounds- I was amazed at how much internal pain my body could endure. Many people know me to be outspoken but when it came to being bullied about how I looked, I had no voice. I was too emotionally battered to fight for the space that I took up in this world, and mostly I was afraid that if I showed them how much it affected me, I would have to defend why having fat on my body was okay.
The problem is that fatphobia lives in all of us. My mom is my biggest inspiration for everything. She has taught me what it means to be confident and strong and loving. And yet, she is fatphobic. There have been countless times over the past few years when she has told me not to wear something because I “look fat in it”, or how I shouldn’t wear that because I have thick thighs. And yet, she is my strongest support system. Culturally and societally, what she says is both acceptable and expected. Despite the trauma that fatphobia has inflicted on me and so many others, I don’t believe that being fatphobic or acting on it inherently makes you a bad person. It’s just a belief that’s been fed to us repeatedly from nearly every avenue. It is so very important to look into your beliefs about being fat. It is so important to examine how you talk about fat, whether it be the fat on your body or someone else’s. For years I was scared that my fatphobia might have affected the way my younger sister thought about her body, and I was agonized by the realization that she might react the same way I had. Telling my story means laying my trauma and shame on the table for all to see, to show just one person that maybe their thoughts are leading them down a dark and unhealthy path, maybe their beliefs are born out of a toxic, ableist and fatphobic system, and maybe their actions cause deep-rooted trauma and pain.
It was only after I recovered from the eating disorder that I realized just how much time, energy, and most of all, space it had taken up inside of me. After recovery, my fatphobic beliefs became crystal clear to me, as did the lens through which I had been peering at society. I realized how common fatphobia is, and how much trauma and bias almost every person carries with them. I realized how the idea of being fat is just another way for us to be distracted from what matters to each of us. For me, it meant not knowing who I was at my core. The core of who we are has nothing to do with the body we’re in and everything to do with how we use our minds. But if our minds are so focused on the idea of a body, on fitting a mold that doesn’t fit everyone, then we aren’t focusing on the important things that benefit us. Fatphobia is, directly and indirectly, to blame for people feeling insecure in who they are, and projecting those insecurities onto others, simply because the body they inhabit doesn’t fit a fake mold we’ve created. We don’t have access to our true selves when we’re obsessed with an idea of who we are supposed to be. Being thin does not equate to being healthy the same way that being fat does not either. Fat is not an insult, and nor is it a feeling (bloated is). It hurt me when taunted because of the cruelty and the connotations, but it is a body type just like any other. What your organs are doing inside of that is the business of the person whose body it is.
I don’t think this would be complete without acknowledging the privilege I have. I have privilege because I have not experienced the shaming and public ridicule that people who are fatter than me experience every single day. Along with that, I have not experienced the exclusion that they experience. Whether it be in ballet, or on planes, or in doctors’ offices. Whether it be in the line for food, or while exercising at the gym, or when being denied jobs because of the way you look. It may be while walking their pets, or at school, or enjoying in a pool. These are everyday occurrences for fat people, and my goal is for people who are impacted the most by these systems of oppression to be the center of advocacy. Especially plus size black women who are so often excluded from platforms of advocacy. It would not be fair of me to talk so much about my experiences without acknowledging this.
This article is written in hopes that everyone’s existence can be respected equally. I have privilege as a cis-gendered woman because I am allowed the space to express my feelings without repercussions, but also because it is acceptable for a woman to be insecure about and obsessed with her weight. But it is not seen as “masculine” in today’s society for men to admit to that they are struggling or that they are insecure. Boys and men have eating disorders, they have insecurities, and they are frequently ridiculed for not looking a certain way. They are objectified when they fit society’s standards of beauty, and loudly rejected when they don’t. LGBTQIA+ people are marginalized on levels that straight, cis-gendered people are not and never will be, and when they are fat in today’s world, the consequences are usually direr.
While people who are thin experience occasional shame for being skinny, they are not marginalized in society because of it. A doctor might encourage them to eat more and put them on a diet but the care and coverage they need will rarely be overlooked because of the way they look. They will rarely be denied jobs, or be shamed for lounging by a pool, or denied love because of their size. Their accomplishments will not be doubted, nor will their identity be whittled down to the way they look. Fat people’s very existence offends people. All pain is valid but some experiences are endured on a much wider, systemic scale.
When I realized how powerful I was in any shape, it changed the way I viewed everything, but especially the way I carried myself. Confidence and self-worth are not size exclusive. Ultimately, you should be whatever size your body is. I wrote this article because I wish I had stumbled upon one like it before I forced my body into starvation. I wrote it for the people who instead of receiving water (from the internet, from friends, from family) to quench their thirst for acceptance, found poison disguised as nectar. This topic is so complicated, so entangled with opinions and stories and reasons that it felt almost impossible to articulate into words why your size should not make you any less worthy or any more worthy. All I know and believe is that separating your self worth from your weight, and adding self-love and confidence to whatever size you may be, can make this world less complicated, and so much more inclusive. Your body loves you and that is enough.