Body image issues are an offshoot of family and environmental stressors

A young woman's journey through coping with body image issues and other mental health issues

Anonymous, Woman, 30

I grew up as a chubby kid. There was the matter of genetic disposition, but there also was the fact that no one in our family ate healthy or worked out. These habits were passed on to me and my brother.

The first time I felt ashamed of myself was when I was 12 years old. I was regularly bullied by children in my class for being overweight. Today however, when I look back at the pictures, I was absolutely normal, and I wondered how I bought their emotional abuse. There also was the matter that I already perhaps was headed towards depression in my teenage years, having been raised in an abusive home. My self esteem was already fragile, I had no support system or friends, and the ground was set for the bullying to happen.

My depression set in when I was 15. And as I grew older, I was increasingly turning to food to cope with my stress. It was quite natural; my parents had always been emotional eaters, and I had picked up the habit. I had no friends as such - my family had always moved from place to place due to my father’s job transfers - and so I spiralled downward into grief, anger, and had only fiction for comfort.

I grew up hating myself. I developed a cold and detached personality from the fear of being bullied, and only once do I remember teaching myself to eat right, and work out - that was when I was 23. That's perhaps the only time I remember feeling fit. More bullying followed at workplaces; men felt they could comment on weight gain - even if it was just a couple of kilos. It seemed to me that men are conditioned to know that the easiest way to bring down a woman when threatened by any sort of competence was through ridiculing her looks or weight. I remember hardly ever being bullied by a woman for my weight. It was usually the boys, the men. I do understand this is because of larger gender issues, and that when a man feels threatened by a woman’s mere existence, he resorts to choosing the easiest way to run her down, which is her body. In a society which consistently tells women from a young age that their bodies only exist to be desired by men, fat shaming works like a charm to bring down a woman’s self-esteem.

This was a period when I put my body through excessive exercise at the age of 27. I would work out for two to three hours a day, I lost a lot of iron and couldn't shed the extra weight. I was also unemployed at the time.

It was when I moved to Delhi on a whim and found myself an excellent therapist for my depression and anxiety issues that I learned to appreciate myself as I was.

After two spurts of weight loss and gain through college and adulthood, today I sit at a steady weight, 20 kilos over a healthy BMI. But now, it doesn’t bother me. The body shaming automatically stopped the moment I began seeing myself for who I was, and grew more confident. I found that only when I felt insecure about my body, did others pick up on it and bully me as well.

People are constantly testing boundaries to soothe their own insecurities and fears. Few abusive personalities seek therapy and most resort to running down others to cover their own grief and shame. I convey that I am uncomfortable and reduce interactions with them, and that helps.

Now, I seem to attract men without any trouble with just my personality and confidence. This makes me believe that the stereotypes that people feed you about only thin women being desirable are false. Because even skinny women face so much hate. Body shaming is a result of the society's idea of perfection fed by the advertising industry and does not always hold true in real life.

I can better cope with my anxiety and depression with medication and constant therapy. I am becoming healthier, I am choosing to eat better, and have slowly started gentle workouts to get fit again. Yes, losing weight would be an added benefit, and I do sometimes still catch myself shaming myself, but I am able to recognize it and stop it - unlike earlier, when I would obsess over it. If I do lose weight now, it has nothing to do with pleasing men or society around me. But it's because I love clothes, fashion, and the lightness that being toned and slimmer gives. It is for feeling healthy on the inside and to stay active. At 30, my body is naturally rejecting unhealthy lifestyle habits such as binge drinking, binge eating, and eating processed and fried/sugary foods.

I still catch myself looking at photographs of myself and wishing I were back to my college level of fitness. But I now know fitness is a lifestyle, and your external body adjusts to reflect how one is feeling on the inside. I have begun making these changes by quitting my job, pursuing studies, going to therapy and surrounding myself with wonderful people. I often like comparing my body and life to a Municipal Garbage Dumpyard versus the Garden of Versailles. What you put in it makes you and your life toxic or not. Stress eating, or losing weight due to emotional and external life stresses are all symptoms of unaddressed underlying issues. This makes body shaming is extra-damaging. You do not want to make someone who is already feeling miserable and trying to cope in whatever way, worse.

I strongly feel body image issues do not occur in a vacuum, but always as an offshoot of your family, work, social environments and stresses in them. That is further reinforced by ideas of desired beauty, and what the dominant patriarchy wants. The moment I began rejecting patriarchy, adopted therapy, feminism, and constantly began questioning everything around me and became more moderate in my political ideology, the way I approached my life and relationships also changed. Today, I can say I am working towards becoming more healthier and putting in the routine to achieve what I want for healthier reasons.

Your body is deeply personal territory, and no one gets to tell you how it must look to make them comfortable. This also extends to people encouraging you and approving with a “good!” when watching you go for a workout. This patronisation is very rarely reserved for thin people. I have watched people claiming to be Yoga teachers compliment someone who lost weight from food poisoning. This, is the level of toxicity that exists around us which we must fight. Very often, people even dispense advice in the form of concern trolling with a, “I am worried about your health. You need to lose weight.” Frankly, your weight has nothing to do with your health. There are enough skinny models whose body fat ratio is as high as someone who is overweight. As a concept, BMIs too are faulty, because they do not account for muscle content.

When a person body shames us, it is important to realise that the issue is not us, but the person's own faulty perception of what is ideal. The easiest way is to make them realise there is nothing funny about someone’s bodily differences and not even seek approval from them for the sake of company, and to lay limits and boundaries in a healthy manner.

As told to White Swan Foundation. Names have been hidden for privacy.

This narrative is a part of a series on body image and mental health. You can follow the conversation through #ReclaimOurselves on Twitter and on Facebook.