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It Wasn't Worth The Weight
"Takita, takida, din!"
I stumbled into kathak1 class wearing my lacrosse skirt and jersey.
My teacher shot me an angry look that commanded me to change into the appropriate salwar kameze and begin my footwork.
After I changed and came back, one of my friends approached me.
"Sweetie, what was that outfit you were wearing?"
"Oh, my lacrosse uniform. We have games every Saturday."
"You play lacrosse? Isn't that an intense sport?" Her eyes suddenly became veiled with a strange skepticism.
"Yeah, it can get pretty crazy. Why?"
She reached out her manicured hand and pinched the end of my stomach.
"It's just that you're a little chubby!"
We were interrupted by our teacher demanding us to begin our footwork.
I tried to forget about her honest observation as I spun around in dizzying circles. I temporarily allowed her comment to spin into oblivion as I drowned myself in the sound of the tiny bells at my feet.
But it was transient.
Within seconds, I dissected her caustic and surprising declaration.
Let me tell you, that I had never thought of myself as chubby up until this point. I suppose I had never really cared to classify my body at all and apparently, it was costing me. Was it possible that I had become too comfortable with the way I looked? Is this how I was seen by the world? A chubby girl who in no way appeared as though she ran up and down a field 5 days a week? I scanned all of the social events I just attended in the past month in horror. People all around me were probably mentally noting on my excess fat. I couldn't shake the fictitious thoughts that I imagined were running through their minds. Me, the social girl who lived off of being loved by others, was viewed as overweight.
My friend was blessed with that thin Indian body. The kind that has the metabolism of a 5 year old boy. The body that does not have to work to be skinny whatsoever. This made me take her more seriously. Surely anyone with a good figure must know a thing or two about being over the acceptable weight limit.
When I came home that afternoon, I analyzed my figure in minute detail. Perhaps she was right. My arms had unnecessary flab on them. I was hauling around a huge butt (this was before rap songs made them a commodity, mind you). The chub from my 4 year old cheeks had indeed found their way into my 15 year old ones.
She was blessed with the Indian girl body; I had the Indian auntie- after- one- child body.
Then came the comparison stage. I imagined my body next to my friends' bodies and surmised that yes, I was probably one of the bigger ones. They were sticks and I was far from one. And although I received compliments on my eyes and hair, I knew that no amount of eyeliner and hair straightening would make my body look better. My mind flipped through all the images in magazines and on the screen that were considered beautiful. They all had one common denominator: they were skinny. I thrived in being a people-pleaser, in being socially accepted, in wanting to be considered one of the pretty girls. And I was clearly failing at doing so.
So I began to change my lifestyle to see where it would take me. I halted on the after school chocolate chip cookies that I'd eat while watching Oprah reruns. I started running on the weekends. I did not eat after a certain time every day.
Within two months, I was pelted with compliments from every direction. My parents' friends, my own friends, my classmates. Apparently, people of all ages thought that I could afford to shed some pounds.
"Saumya, you look sooooo beautiful!"
"Saumya, you're sooooooo skinny. It looks amazing!"
"I am jealous of how gorgeous you are!"
I knew that I had lost 7 pounds and gotten this much praise. (Praise that had been quite foreign up until this point.)
So what would another 7 do? Surely there was always room for improvement. I already felt better in my clothing whether it was in the lower jean sizes or being able to share Forever 21 tops with my friends who had smaller chests.
I have always been a bit of a perfectionist and this was no exception. Over the next months, my lunches dwindled down to a piece of bread and carrot sticks as my running upped to 5 miles every other day. I lost another 7 pounds, then another .Every calorie was accounted for; birthday dinners were spent with the excuse "Ohh, I just ate. I'm fine." I would fall asleep with my stomach growling and feel a sense of victory, of strength. My mind could control the needs of my body.
Then something weird began happening.
The compliments transformed into concerns.
"Saumya, I think you're getting a little too skinny now."
"Okay, you're fine...no more weight loss, okay?"
"You really should eat."
They're just saying that, I thought. Everybody is just used me having extra chub and now they can't handle me looking good. I had worked way too hard to stop now. My parents and friends continued to drop worried remarks that I dismissed with the same excuses. I could control my beauty it was all in my hands and nobody was going to stop me. I won't quit. I will keep going.
So I did.
I ate an apple for breakfast, a piece of bread for lunch, and then an Indian dinner at home because my mother would not listen to my refusal. There was still lacrosse practice every day, so I began taking naps every afternoon to collect some energy. I was too entangled in my unhealthy routine to understand how flawed it really was. After all, I was just trying to look my best. I had no idea I was slowly killing myself.
It was the week after Thanksgiving break and I could not seem to register what my AP US History teacher was saying. As I stood up to ask her if I could take a bathroom break, the entire room spun and turned black. I fell backwards and tumbled over my desk.
Some unknown amount of time later, the room slowly faded into specks of color again. A plump nurse peered over my face and began speaking in a concerned, Southern drawl.
"Sweetheart, you fainted in the middle of class. One of your friends carried you over here. How are you feeling now?"
"I fainted? In front of everyone?" I couldn't believe it. How humiliating! I suddenly felt the side of my head throbbing and ran my weak fingers over it to feel a foreign bump. "What happened to my head?"
"Oh, sweetie, you hit your head. It'll be okay after you get some rest."
I left school early wrapped in a daze. How could I have let this happen to myself? I was so determined to compartmentalize my life---my eating life, education life, social life--that I never thought the two could overlap and harm each other. My perfectionist, control issues were scurrying out of my own control. The fainting fiasco acted as a jolt of electricity that shocked me into reality. A cloud began lifting and I finally saw my self destructive behavior for what it was. I was hurting my body and my mind in the name of prized beauty. It was costing me my education, energy, peace of mind...
I only believed my worst critics. I listened to people when they thought I was chubby, but refused their pleas when they insisted I was harming myself. But sometimes, it doesn't matter how many times people say something. It is only possible to change once there is that internal jolt. I don't need to do this to myself. I need to accept myself. I had learned the trick of saying something enough until it sounds like the truth quite early in life, so I decided to try it. I formulated a tiny mantra to reiterate in solitude. All along, people had been telling me what to do and when to stop it. Now it was time for me to talk to myself.
Later that day, I stripped off my tiny jeans and graphic t-shirt to stare at my naked self in the mirror. I took myself in from head to toe and mentally repeated my mantra, "This is me. I am fine the way I am. This is me. I am fine just the way I am." until it felt like the truth. I knew I wouldn't believe it right away, but I had to start somewhere. After all, I literally had hit the bottom (of the classroom floor) before I could possibly move up. Some people never experience that electric jolt and I couldn't ignore it now. It would take months of counseling, reflection, and support for me to steadily climb out of the hole I pushed myself into. The damage on the outside was only the tip of the iceberg compared to what was inside. It stemmed from my need to be perfect, to gain a sense of control, to feel accomplishment in decreasing numbers on the scale. I had allowed weight to consume me, my identity.
I had to understand and truly believe that my body was mine to love, cherish, and respect. It is not perfect and it is unique. I will always have issues with my thighs, but they are my thighs and they deserve respect. The extra flab under my arms is just as much me as the tiny birthmark at the end of my left eyebrow.
My journey to self acceptance also coincided with the rise of curvy, glamorous celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce. There would always be glossy magazine pages of stick thin models, but it was empowering to see other women broadening the definition of beauty. I saw tangible evidence that beauty came in a wide range instead of a rigid size 0.
Other girls have this strange power to make us feel so bad about ourselves. They become those mirrors at county fairs that distort our bodies in all sorts of silly directions. The real truth is, people will always find something wrong with appearances and that is why self acceptance is imperative to survival.
My mother always reminds me of the sandalwood tree. Its scent is so intoxicating that it entices snakes to slither around its branches and trunk. However, no matter how many snakes mask the tree surface, it retains its unique scent. It remains untainted from that which tries to capture it.
The world is rampant with poisonous snakes-like traps for insecurity and most women are never completely satisfied with their bodies. If we become our own sources of strength, our own sandalwood trees, then we save ourselves from these venomous traps because we don't need others to serve as our validation. Our unique scent flows from within us and cannot be taken away.
I will never be that stick, skinny girl who can rock every fashion trend (skinny jeans are not my friend). But I have learned over the years that great style includes finding what fit me best, not the mannequins. I am made for the sidewalk, not catwalk. We are all built with different strengths, different weaknesses. True beauty shines through when we recognize what ours are, make the best of them, and love ourselves for who we are instead of who we wish to be.
This is me. I am fine the way I am.
1. Kathak is a classical, North Indian form of dance. The first words of the story represent steps in Kathak. A salwar kameze is the appropriate outfit worn for dance class.