The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week in 2019 is Body Image. In Part 1, Meanha takes you through her personal struggles with body image followed by Part 2 where the effects of body image are discussed and how to promote positive self-image.
Monday 13th May 2019 was the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, and the theme for this year couldn’t have been more fitting for Ramadan. The theme for this year is “Body Image”, defined as “the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception. These feelings can be positive, negative or both and are influenced by individual factors”.
I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that a lot of you had your “perfect” self or body type flash in your mind whilst finishing that sentence.
Say it with me:
There. Is. No. Ideal. Body.
Over the past few years, we have seen a shift in the way the human body is perceived. We’ve gone from idolising fair skin, striving for that “model bod”, being just the right amount of “manly”, to melanin now being something to praise and suddenly everyone wants “gains”- on the hips and also on the lips.
Protein shakes, steroids, fat loss tea’s, and 10-minute ab burn workouts, there’s no wonder why the diet industry is worth 70 billion. Yes, Seventy billion. Would you be surprised if I told you 1.25 million in the UK have an eating disorder, or that Body Dysmorphic Disorder usually has an onset around the tender age of 13?
I would be surprised if I wasn’t one of those 13 years old’s that had an issue with her body. Actually, the earliest memory I have of disliking my body was around 10 years of age. I was trying on clothes to attend a wedding and nothing fit my (beautifully) podgy body. I was distraught. My parents (may Allah bless them) never made me feel uncomfortable about my body and a lot of people would say that should have been enough to prevent me from having a roller coaster journey with my body. However, it was those around me and the “pretty” images that I saw on the big screen that made me despise my own skin.
Although I was a “healthy” child – which translates as fat in a lot of cultures for those of you that may be unaware, but in its actual sense, I was healthy, Alhamdulillah. This first occasion at 10, I remember looking in the mirror in the cramped dingy changing room of this shop in East London and I remember my heart sinking as I struggled to pull down the dress. I ran my fingers over the sequins trying to ignore the folds of material across my belly wishing that when I opened my eyes, I would look like a princess.
I didn’t. A shop lady described me as a bag of rice.
A couple of shops later, I laid my eyes on this mesmerising bright orange suit. I had seen a similar colour on an actress of a movie I had just watched, and I was imagining myself to look like her. I remember pointing to it with a gleaming smile and I was so chuffed with myself as I walked over to the changing room. That all too familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach rose again when I pulled the dress down, too tight across my shoulders for me to even put my arms by my side. I remained hopeful. I requested a bigger size and the excitement started to bubble up inside again. This time the trousers were too long, and the dress was still too tight. My cheeks turned bright red, and I remember my sister saying, “let’s try a different style, don’t worry, it’s the way they make these stupid things”, of course my sister fit into everything, so it didn’t provide me much comfort but I’m grateful she tried.
This continued until we reached the last shop on the street. By this point, I wanted to just hide away. I was so embarrassed for being the way that I was, and I felt so fed up with myself. I began pinching my stomach wondering why I couldn’t see my ribs when I stretched like a lot of the other girls I had seen that day. As we got into the last shop, one of the women who worked there pulled out this gorgeous, shocking blue doll dress. I was so happy with it that tears were brimming over the edge of my eyes. I remember walking to the dressing room, gripping the dress until my fingertips were white, just praying that I would just look nice.
I no longer wanted to look like a princess, I just wanted something to fit and look nice.
My breath was shaky, and I could feel my head getting hot. I knew that this was it, this was my last chance, my last hope. I unzipped the dress, getting more and more nervous as I put it over my head. My heart could have burst with happiness when the dress slipped on so perfectly. I refused to open my eyes until I zipped it up. I pulled the zip up at the side muttering whilst taking a sharp breath in “please look nice, please fit, please look nice”. It zipped up! It actually zipped up! I opened my eyes, and I couldn’t believe that finally a dress had fit me. I wasn’t the ugly whale that I had been telling myself that I was all day. I took a minute to marvel at myself, and I smiled a heavy smile coated in relief. I reached forward to open the curtain to show my mum my great achievement, and then in a matter of seconds my whole world had just shattered.
I heard a rip.
I quickly turned around in the mirror and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Right down the middle of my back, you could see the lines of thread that struggled to keep it together over my bulging rolls. I blinked a few times, my face blazed, I suddenly started sweating, I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. I was so angry, 100 thoughts started running through my head and before I realised I was pulling the dress off aggressively. My hands were flapping all over the place and if you’ve ever worn something too small for you, you know the struggle of trying to get it off yourself. My head was suffocating with the delicate embroidery making me angrier knowing it could never be mine, I was getting angrier and angrier, becoming more and more breathless, struggling to get this thing off my head, my hands snatching at every bit of fabric I could get hold of and before I knew it – I had my very first panic attack.
Don’t feel sorry for me, I ended up going to the wedding in a lovely hand-made dress my mum put together for me. However, that feeling of pure disgust with myself never left my stomach after that day. It marked the beginning of the end of my quite jolly childhood.
I look back now and giggle about what I thought was the end of the world, but for 10-year-old me, I just wanted a dress. I won’t go into detail about the laxatives; the purging, the bingeing, the starvation, the excessive exercise, the recovering from the eating disorder, to eating everything in sight, to not caring about my weight anymore, to not looking after myself at all over the years that followed.
I’ll mention Ramadan however, because by the time I was 13, I was using Ramadan for all the wrong reasons. It’s in Ramadan that I learnt to feed the little girl inside me that just wanted to be skinny. It’s that Ramadan that destroyed every year for me until quite recently. In Ramadan I had started to like the taste of starvation followed by the guilt that materialised at iftar. In the space of those 30 days, I put my body through hell and I continued to do so until I was 19. Over those 9 years I became increasingly obsessed with the way that I looked, in secret of course, because no practicing young Muslimah should want to look like an actress or a model. Except, no one taught this young Muslimah the importance of being comfortable in your own body, and the significance of good health.
We’ll just fast forward to the present, where I’m in the middle of everything. Like a lot of other people. Trying not to succumb to what the media says whether that is getting slimmer; or working for gains, getting minor plastic surgery (what is that about anyway?) or being gym obsessed. Also trying not to care what other people have to say about my body, my eyes, my eyebrows, my hair, or even how a particular cut of jilbab will make me look taller.
It’s difficult for Muslims to get away from that body obsessed culture as we are constantly consuming, and unless we physically switch off – we are bombarded with images of the “ideal body” that simply does not reflect our faith system. Even with the rise of “body-positivity” I have my reservations, as it’s always ex-fitness models who now have a healthy body and want to talk about fat shaming, and it’s totally female dominated. Or if they have been on the plus side all their life, it’s usually presented in a way that is unrealistic for a lot of us. Can we just take a moment to say that body positivity does not mean body nudity, especially for Muslims?
If we can’t find the space that reflects our collective truth around our bodies, then we need to make that space. Within our circles, networks, masaajid, and even our own social media platforms, you don’t know what power a single word of awareness/encouragement could do for others.
Do you struggle with body image and would you like to share your story? Feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t forget we’ll be talking about body image all week on social media so be sure to follow our feeds and stories. Keep an eye out for part 2 later on in the week!
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