Filling the hollow within: One girl’s journey with body image

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I remember the first time I looked in the mirror and hated what was looking back at me. It wasn’t self-consciousness, it was literal self-hate. I looked into the mirror and touched the stomach I felt was gravid. I felt my hips weighing my entire body down. I was fourteen years old.

I remember the first time that I looked at the plate that was sitting in front of me, disgusted. I was disgusted by the nourishment that was supposed to go into my body. I played with my food. Moving the fork back and forth, hoping it would just vanish. My mother sat across from me and told me to eat my food. I told her I wasn’t hungry. That was my first lie.

I remember the first time I felt tired. Not the I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep tired, it was the tiredness that fogs your mind. It makes you move slower throughout the day and makes you unhappy. It was as if sadness had crawled into me, hollowed out my stomach so that I felt hungry, without an appetite. It hollowed out my eyes so that the light was there, flickering on and off. The sadness overwhelmed my body, adding pounds to my flesh. My collar bones began to hollow and my ribs began to protrude. I stopped getting my periods. I kept shedding pounds until the scale on the weight machine wouldn’t move.

I remember the first time someone told me that I looked “good.” It was at a party and everyone marveled at the fact that I had lost so much weight. “You look amazing! You lost so much weight!” I smiled. They didn’t know that I forgot how food tasted. They didn’t know that when I looked into the mirror I felt my hips weighing down and my thighs remained hefty. They didn’t know that I didn’t think that I looked amazing. I felt the way I did when I was fourteen.

I remember the first time I skipped lunch. I threw away the lunch bag that my mother had prepared for me with love. I would come home and say that I had a lot of work to do. When it was dinner time, I pretended to fall asleep so that I wasn’t forced to eat. When I was forced to eat, it resulted in toilet bowl sessions and watering eyes. I had one thing I could control and that was how much I let myself get nourished. But, my body felt like it was infused with sin, so how could I let it eat? I wanted to self harm without leaving evidence on my skin. So, I left internal scars. My stomach kept shrinking. My brain fell asleep more quickly. My limbs didn’t have the energy to move quickly. Yet, I smiled. I smiled to hide the scars.

Society tells us we have to look a certain way. A society that is cleansed with paintbrush images and posted with facades of what bodies and lives are “supposed” to look like. Society is also riddled with complexities, obstacles, and weights of our past that often demand us to try and resolve problems in unhealthy ways. I wanted to share my story so that we may bring into conversations about what society demands of us and what we should strive for in our individual lives. There came a point within my journey when I realized that if I believed in God, how could I have inflicted so much pain onto His creation? We are often told to show compassion towards other humans, show them love and try to understand where they are coming from. But, we forget to do this for ourselves. We forget that we are human and are deserving of self-compassion.

My eating disorder came from the desire to control something in my life when I felt like I couldn’t control anything else. My demand for control within myself, paired with this disease called perfection, led to years of my body and mind not being able to achieve what it was capable of achieving. Health is a blessing and a privilege, and taking that health away from oneself is taking a privilege away from yourself.

I remember the first time I actually saw an emaciated body that didn’t have a choice. Didn’t have a choice of giving itself food and something clicked within me. I realized that my body was made the way that it was made. No amount of deprivation would make my legs longer, or my boobs smaller, or my hips narrower. I was created the way I was created and I had the responsibility of nourishing that body so that it could be a vessel and use its privilege to serve others. I realized this when I came to a point where my mind stopped working. It took me five times longer to understand something because I did not feed myself enough for my brain to actively work. When I had ambitions and passions, I couldn’t achieve them because I was holding myself back. My relationships worsened because I was consistently irritated. I couldn’t form relationships with anyone, even God, because I felt like I hadn’t reached perfection so what was the point? We must understand two things, perfection does not exist and will not exist. So, I began to question what I was actually striving for.

I have noticed within the Muslim community that there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of eating disorders. As a hijabi, I’ve noticed that some people view my muscular thighs as immodest even though that’s how my body takes its natural form, no matter how much I work out. And, don’t get me wrong, it’s beyond the Muslim community, because we are plagued by this disease especially in a generation that is drenched within social media. From make up tutorials to our own friends only posting parts of their lives that they want us to see. But, I think people in general forget the weight that words carry, especially for young girls. A family member or friend saying you look a little chubby while you’re going through puberty is not very gracious in any culture. And, for my Muslim sisters (hijabi or not), don’t ever feel like modesty is reserved for the women with narrow hips and a flat chest. Or that there needs to be perfection within wearing the hijab. Hijab is an essence. It’s the way you carry yourself. It is the way that you treat others and yourself. God does not intend for anyone to harm their own body in effort to achieve a certain physical appearance that has been created by the very humans telling you that you have to look a certain way.

I remember it was Ramadan, and I decided to finally feed myself during suhoor and iftar. I began to gain weight that month. For the first time in ten years, my mother looked at me and said, “your face finally looks like it’s glowing again.”

It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, for more information about Eating Disorders visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/. And, always reach out to a friend or a family member and be there for them. Tell them their soul and mind are beautiful. We’re more than the vessels that carry us. We are our essences and the radiance that our souls bring into this world.

Filed under Health

Zahra Rehman is an alumni of The George Washington University where she studied English and Biology. She is passionate about medicine, literature, and how the two fields are so beautifully intertwined. Her heart also lies deeply within the work she does at a local domestic and sexual violence center. She loves listening to stories and relaying the intricate narratives of extraordinary every day humans, who consistently inspire her. In her post-grad limbo, she loves to hike mountains, get lost in her city, and you'll probably find her in a corner of a coffee shop with headphones in her hijab, doodling or reading...most likely both.