As a kid, I was always quite comfortable with who I was and what I looked like. I didn’t care much about anyone else’s height, weight or appearance, so why would I care about mine? Sometimes, the comments passed by a family friend about how I really needed to eat more would bother me for a second, but then I’d let it slide and go back to being indifferent. When you’re 8, these things don’t really matter. In fact, I think I would have continued being my content, blissful self if only I could have found a way to freeze time. Alas, that wasn’t the case.
The Curse of Adolescence
Before I knew it, I was a teenager and everyone around me was suddenly extremely conscious about what they looked like, especially the girls (thank you, unachievable beauty standards set by the media). I still didn’t care about my physical appearance till the girls around me started pointing out how skinny my legs were, laughing at how I looked like a “pile of bones”, and throwing many other flowery compliments my way. Of course, the guys would do it too sometimes. I remember, in the 9th grade, this one boy in my class started lecturing me on how I really needed to gain weight if I ever wanted to get married and have a normal future and blah blah. (Imagine a 14-15 year old having to deal with such a conversation – clearly, one of my early encounters with mansplaining, yay!)
Now I was a teenager who had recently hit puberty; my classmates’ harsh comments combined with the hormones going crazy in my body had turned me into an insecure mess. From the confident child, who would go for inter-school elocution competitions and recite speeches and poems without any stage fright, I turned into a meek little teenager who prayed the teacher wouldn’t ask her to read her essays out loud in class. I don’t blame my peers for the insensitive comments they passed though. They themselves were going through all those changes and, when you’re insecure yourself, you tend to remove all your anger and frustration on someone else. Why else do you think teenagers are the meanest people in the world? Bullying and clique culture were just part of this “beautiful” experience called growing up. Add to it the fact that I was growing up in a country like India, where almost everyone happens to be obsessed with other people’s business (and weight).
The truth is I tried to defend myself and stand up to as many people as I could, but I couldn’t go around telling the whole school the reason my body was just not ready to develop much while everyone else was blossoming into their perfect, adult versions. In addition, I couldn’t really blame them when there were ignorant adults all around, including members of my extended family, who were unintentionally (sometimes intentionally) body shaming me too. Honestly, I too would feel quite clueless at times, trying to figure out the cause. Was it my metabolism on speed or just one of the side effects of my health condition? It took me years to understand and make peace with the reason, and today, at the age of 26, I think I’ve pretty much accepted myself, flaws and all.
“But Why Don’t You Eat More?”
So here’s the whole story: I’ve grown up with a heart condition and a rare lung condition, known as pulmonary hypertension. I don’t want to get into the details, but rest assured, I’ve been lucky enough to have had endless support from my family and the supervision of the best doctors, with the best treatments. Coming back to the point, children with weak hearts and lungs often have trouble gaining weight because both organs have to work harder in order to meet the body’s needs. The metabolic rate is also faster under these conditions. Furthermore, as the intestines may not be getting enough oxygen, it sometimes becomes difficult for the body to absorb nutrients properly. When I came across these facts recently, I felt both relief and anger. Relief because I finally knew the reason behind my stagnant weight and anger at all the people who made me feel worthless because of something that had always been outside my control!
I’ve never had any appetite issues or eating disorders, so that was never the problem, even though the whole world and their grandmother would ask me why I didn’t eat enough (without ever actually seeing me eat, mind you). Like any other normal person, my appetite did get affected if I got the flu or a stomach bug or I just couldn’t eat because of monthly bouts of nausea (thank you, PMS). However, these changes would tend to take a toll on my weight much more than they did for the average person. Hence, the weighing scale didn’t budge much after I turned 19.
A Girl Can Hope!
Since puberty didn’t really bless me with curves, unlike all the other beautiful girls I grew up around (and secretly envied), I started working out in 2016, as much as my body could handle. I also began taking other supplements and doing everything I possibly could, keeping in mind all the limitations I had. There weren’t any major changes, because gaining weight (especially muscle) takes time, but I must mention that I started feeling great once I began working out. That’s something I never want to stop doing. Anyway, then I heard people talk about how one’s metabolic rate just slows down as a person ages. That hasn’t happened yet, but a girl can hope. Besides, I really do think I’ve finally reached the stage where I’m just going with the flow. The journey so far, though, hasn’t been easy at all.
My morale took a beating one too many times over the years. Once, an acquaintance I ran into, after months of not having been able to meet, asked me if I had lost some more weight. I really wanted to punch her because I weighed the same as before, but I just laughed it off like I always did. Then there was this one instance when someone took it upon themselves to get me to eat an extra piece of cake at a friend’s birthday because they truly believed they were indulging in some superior act of kindness! If I ever offered my lunch to teachers in school/college, they’d say things like “No, you please eat, you NEED it”. You have no idea how humiliating that felt. When I think back to those incidents, my blood starts to boil because I really wish I had spoken up! Perhaps I should have replied with snarky, superficial comments too. Instead, I just smiled every single time and let it go. In retrospect, though, I don’t feel too bad about it either – one lesson being bullied taught me is that just because people are shitty to you doesn’t mean you should stoop to their level and be a shitty person too.
I Hate The Word “Normal”
The fact is I was never comfortable telling most people the truth. I’ve always been afraid of being treated differently or with sudden pity – I have too much self-respect to be able to deal with any of that. (Also, it’s not fun to hear, “But you look so normal!” Yes, my friend, it’s called having an invisible disability or a chronic illness, look it up. Oh and I hate the word “normal”.) But I guess that’s where I was wrong. The people who are truly meant to be a part of your life – the ones who get you, the ones who are your family, the ones who are your good friends, YOUR people – will never judge you and will still look at you the same as before. Owning your limitations doesn’t make you weak, on the contrary, it strengthens you more than you could ever imagine. It strengthens your relationships too. And even though I’ve seen this to be the case time and again, I still cower away from sharing these personal details with those who don’t already know. Perhaps, it’s just the fear of letting my guard down and being vulnerable.
Last year, though, a friend of mine pointed out how every single person in the world has flaws. No one is perfect and, at some point or the other, most people go through some or the other health issue. She reminded me that there are genuinely good people in this world who won’t define you by the way you look or how your body functions. Without a doubt, every word she said hit home. I realized that all the horrible things people had said to me in the past, from asking me if I shopped in the kids section when I was a 20 year old to calling me “anorexic” when they themselves had no idea what the word meant, had made me look at myself as someone who could never be good enough.
This also made it difficult for me to socialize, which is such a joke, given the fact that I always have to meet new people in my line of work. Whenever I’d be introduced to someone new, I’d always be cautious while making conversation, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I would prepare myself to ignore whatever body shaming comment might come my way or get ready to laugh it off, knowing all along that I’d replay the comment in my head later at night, just before I fall asleep. I would actually be grateful for the people who didn’t bring up my weight during the course of the conversation. This fear was controlling me to such an extent that, for the longest time, I didn’t wear dresses, skirts or shorts because of what people might say. Unfortunately, in spite of how far I’ve come, that thought still gets the best of me sometimes.
Obviously, this took a toll on how I dealt with dating too. The second I developed a crush on someone or started liking a guy, my brain would start convincing me how this person deserved much better and how I would never be good enough. After all, what’s that brilliant saying – “men like curves, dogs go for bones”. Even now, though, I’m terrified about telling a potential date anything about my medical condition. Firstly, I don’t think it’s first-date conversation material. Second, I feel like I might scare him away if I don’t at least let him get to know me first. I’ve never allowed my disease to define me, so why should I start now? But I guess that’s where I’ve been wrong too. It’s high time I stop letting the fear of admitting something that’s always been a part of me hinder the possibility of forming any real connections.
“Stop Feeling Sorry for Yourself – And You Will Be Happy”
I don’t know at what point I pulled myself out of this pity party for 1, but I think it was around the time I was in college. The thing is no matter how supportive your family might be, if your friends aren’t, you still feel like a loner. I met some of the most amazing people who made me realize that the world wasn’t so bad after all. Sure, there were still some vile creatures who made it their mission to pass a comment about my appearance almost every single day, but it stopped bothering me by then. I believe I experienced a revelation of sorts – when I stopped caring, the haters automatically stopped spewing venom.
There are still so many things that I’m having to unlearn and re-learn, so many people I’m trying to forgive, especially myself for falling into this inferiority complex, for letting bullies define the way I saw myself, for letting society teach me what I’m supposed to look like. I don’t know if rebirth exists, but this is the only life I’m aware of and this body is the only one that allows me to experience it. I’ve been too hard on myself and made decisions based on what the world would think, but enough is enough! It’s taken me a while to get here and I still have a long way to go, but at least now I know, once you accept and love yourself, no matter how much the rest of the world tries, they can’t bring you down with their negativity.
In conclusion, I just want to say that I may have been a coward and not spoken about my personal struggles in the past, but today, I really hope that my story can help others who are going through something similar. Fat shaming is not okay, neither is skinny shaming. There are many reasons why someone may be unable to lose or gain weight. The intention of this post is simply to help people understand that there’s always more than what you see on the surface. It’s never okay to point and laugh at a person or make a casual, hurtful remark about anyone – you will forget about it sooner or later, but it may haunt that person for a lifetime. If you’re genuinely concerned, try to ask and get to know them. If they’re uncomfortable and don’t wish to give you an answer, let it go, it’s not your business. And just because your own circumstances may not be the best at the moment, it doesn’t mean you can be a crappy human being and take it out on someone else. At the end of the day, we’re all fighting different battles, let’s try and be kinder to each other.
P.S. If any of you ever want to talk about your own struggles with body image or anything else, please feel free to email me (on firstname.lastname@example.org) or send me a private message on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. I’m always here to lend an ear!