The heroines in Bollywood movies had soft stomachs, curvy thighs.
Growing up, I would watch them sing and dance their way across my TV screen and think about how beautiful they looked, the beauty of their solidity and roundness.
But as I grew older, my beauty ideals changed. I was flooded with images of thin women in commercials, on TV shows, in the magazines I read. I realized I was supposed to be fragile, skinny, like all the other American girls. The girls I knew at school had flat stomachs and toned legs. For many of them, it seemed to come naturally, so I couldn’t even hold a grudge against them. They ate what they wanted and still maintained the sort of leanness I had never seen in the mirror. I began to hate my body for its softness, for its curves. I wished for flatness, for muscle, to be able to feel bone.
Those girls didn’t have mothers that insisted they take a second helping of rice, did they? They didn’t have mothers who noticed if they left one crumb of food on the plate after a meal—food was not to be wasted, and every grain was to be appreciated, according to my parents. And how could I resist the rich curries my mother served every night, or the delicious dishes at restaurants I went to with friends? I considered not eating, or throwing up what I did eat. But it never seemed feasible, nor desirable. I enjoyed food, and I didn’t want the misery of these processes. Not to mention, I knew I could never get away with something like that—nothing escaped the eyes of my watchful parents. To be fair, I am thankful now, because they made sure I always ate, and ate well, so I developed relatively healthy eating habits. But the frustration was still there, the voice in my head telling me that I needed to be thinner, more muscular, fit into a smaller size.
The math of insecurities is that each one multiplies the other. During puberty, I was already self-conscious of my hair, the acne on my face, the clothes I wore, the braces that peeked out every time I smiled… I could go on. And each of these anxieties amplified the others. The way my body was growing became one more thing wrong with me that I needed to fix, one more multiplying factor.
The heroines changed in Bollywood movies too. Rani and Kajol were replaced by Deepika and Anushka, women who represented the thin body ideal I was so used to seeing in American media. The women in the movies I watched and the magazines I read—they seemed to keep shrinking. And me? I seemed to keep growing—my hips kept getting bigger, my thighs too. I wanted to stop the growth, to remain small, to resist puberty and my growth into a woman with a body that looked nothing like what I saw on TV.
The frustration spiraled into body dysmorphia.
If I could just find the right angle in pictures and mirrors where I looked “good”, then I would feel good about my body. I would constantly look at myself in the mirror, comparing the different versions of my body from different angles and different positions. How did I look when I sat? When I stood this way? When I turned that way? I would spend hours staring at my closet, too, trying to figure out what I could wear that would make me feel thinner, make me look thinner. Whenever I caught a reflection of myself in a store window or shiny surface, I would stop and stare at myself, trying to figure out if that was what I really looked like or if it was just because the surface was angled a certain way to make me look thinner or fatter.
I love people watching, and I always have. But back then, I didn’t just want to see how they dressed or interacted, or to analyze their facial expressions and movements. I also had an ulterior motive. I would constantly compare myself to other women walking by, sitting near me. ‘Am I skinnier than that one?’ ‘Her hips are bigger than mine, but she has a smaller waist.’ ‘That girl has nice legs, toned. My legs don’t look as good as hers.’ ‘Do I look like that girl in jeans? I wonder what size she wears.’ The barrage of thoughts continued like that for years.
I thought if I found someone with the exact same body shape as me, then, and only then, could I allow myself to feel good, because I would finally know what I looked like to the rest of the world. And until I knew what I looked like to the rest of the world, I couldn’t let myself feel beautiful. But it never worked. I would see someone with a similar body type, who looked happy and healthy, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to continue comparing myself, to continue staring in the mirror. I let the mirror control my self-perception, and I let my mind warp my body image till I had no idea what I really looked like.
The cure? Surprisingly enough, it was finding out I had cancer and having to go through chemotherapy and radiation. Treatment made me realize that my body was capable of doing so much more than just looking pretty, and that form was less important than function. I grew to appreciate my body for all the years it had functioned so smoothly, carrying me through so many adventures and experiences. And this appreciation eliminated the insecurities I had about my body, the dysmorphia that I had suffered from for so many years. I realized that moving forward, I needed to focus more on taking care of my body and less on what it looked like.
It is only now, looking back, that I see how distorted my self-esteem was by this mental disorder. In fact, for so long, I didn’t even realize I had a mental disorder. I thought these behaviors were normal, that these thoughts were just another facet of my insecurities. My friends and I rarely discussed the depths of our insecurities, preferring instead to boost each other with compliments.
And the truth is that it never ends. Even when Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj’s bodies began to influence beauty ideals, I still felt like I wasn’t curvy enough. My hips didn’t flare out enough, and my breasts weren’t as big as theirs. But I realized that I would always feel flawed if I compared myself to the unrealistic beauty ideals the media portrayed. I still people watch, but now, instead of comparing myself to the women I see, I appreciate their beauty. We each have a unique shape, one that doesn’t need to fit into the categories created for women. We don’t need to be told whether we are thin, curvy, or athletic, or those made up categories of pear, apple, or hourglass. These are superficial, simply a way to put women into boxes so we can be more easily marketed to and manipulated.
We live in a culture of comparison. We scroll through social media, looking through other people’s pictures and comparing the lives we live to the lives they lead. We put our best version forth, posting happy photos in which we angle ourselves just the right way, and posting statuses that only share good news. Instagrams are artfully crafted, and Snapchats are curated to display the prettiest parts of our lives: the fun vacations, the party scenes, the hangouts with friends, the good food. And surrounded by all this, I became obsessed with comparison, but I had to learn to shut off the little voice in my head that told me I wasn’t as pretty, as fun, as happy, as the other girls.
I am good enough. It’s such a simple thought, but I rarely allowed myself to think it when I was struggling with body dysmorphia. But I am as good as I tell myself I am, as I think I am. I am pretty enough. I am fun enough. And social media does not reflect my reality. I realized that I was the person allowing myself to keep obsessing and keep comparing, bringing my own self-esteem down and thinking those hurtful thoughts. So I have to keep reminding myself: I am good enough. I am beautiful. I am smart. I am talented.
And I am honest. Honest with myself, and honest with others. I don’t need to hide anymore. I want to be raw, to tear open the façade that I’ve kept up for so long. I am not perfect. I am human, and I struggle with my flaws and insecurities. And this honesty brings me catharsis. I am healing myself by being honest about my disorder, through this piece, and through talking about it with others. And I encourage you to do the same, to share your fears and weaknesses with someone you feel comfortable with. Whether that is a friend, family member, or therapist, being open can only make you stronger.