Growing up I always felt like I wasn’t allowed to take up space in this world. I grew up in a larger body and felt like not only did my body take up space but so did my personality. In my head, the only solution was to shrink myself.
I remember always feeling uncomfortable in my body. I was uncomfortable being in a larger body and being Indian in a predominantly white community. I did everything I could to hide. I did not want people around me to actually figure out the size of my body and my ethnicity. I did what I could to blend in and assimilate to the culture around me.
My relationship with food as a child was fairly simple. I love food, I never feared it and thought of it as something that brought me joy. As I got older I started to get more and more comments about the size of my body and started to create that connection between food and my body size. I watched TV shows and never saw any South Asian girls and girls in larger bodies, this gave me the false understanding that I needed to be white and skinny to be considered beautiful in this society. I started becoming more cognizant of the other girls in school and engaged in comparison. These factors contributed to me developing an eating disorder but there was one moment that was the main catalyst.
I distinctly remember the moment when we were on vacation and I wanted to ride a horse. In order to ride the horse you were asked to step on a scale to make sure you are under their weight limit. They weighed me in front of everyone and said that I was too heavy to ride the horse. That was when everything changed.
I decided that I was going to work on being “healthier.” Since I was living in a larger body nobody told me this was a bad idea. Everyone cheered me on to lose weight and become a smaller version of myself. This reiterated the idea that I was taking up too much space. This led to downloading a certain app (I think you all know which one I’m talking about) and engaging in restriction. While to everyone it seemed innocent at first, eventually you could see the happiness and brightness leave my face. I became grumpy and desolate. I no longer saw food as a source of joy, but as a source of anxiety. I started to engage in unhealthy methods of exercise along with the restriction, but when I looked in the mirror I never saw any change.
After some time, the eating disorder didn’t just take over my mental health but also my physical health. I felt a deep sense of shame for what I was doing but could not bring myself to admit that I needed any help. I eventually vocalized to my parents some of the physical symptoms I noticed. I was surprised by how worried they seemed to be. I was taken to many doctors, where I was not diagnosed with an eating disorder but where the doctors told me I have been doing a great job and that they were impressed with my “dedication.” This showed blatant weight stigma within the system but also the failure of our system to give BIPOC access to treatment. After months of trying to understand what was going on with my body, I eventually was taken to an outpatient dietitian. I remember crying in the car on the way there screaming that I didn’t want to go because I knew she would tell me to do the things I was most scared of. I sat in that office and heard the words “you have an eating disorder” for the first time after years of pain. I knew this was true but I still wanted to not believe it.
Eating disorders don’t happen to people like me, I thought. Eating disorders and mental illness are just things that are simply not talked about and have a huge stigma around. Now I can see how diet culture demonizes our cultural foods, the lack of representation in media, and the constant pressure to live up to Eurocentric beauty standards, by keeping our skin light, removing facial hair, and staying small.
The beginning of my recovery journey focused on weight restoration. I did what I was told to weight restore and was never able to engage in the emotional work that comes with recovery. I was never offered or given the chance to go into a higher level of care, I honestly didn’t even know they existed at the time. The eating disorder made me feel like I was a burden to others. I decided to involve nobody except my close family in the process of my recovery. I put this extreme pressure on myself to get better so I no longer had to be a burden to others.
As we all know recovery is not linear, and I can say here that mine indeed was not linear. Throughout high school I ebbed and flowed through my recovery journey. I found myself in pseudo-recovery. I started to engage in orthorexic tendencies. This led me to feel so much guilt and shame. Looking at my parents’ faces after refusing to eat the cultural foods they had prepared, not being able to enjoy vacations with my family due to my fears of foods, not allowing myself to eat cake on my birthday are all memories that I truly wish I could get back.
During this time, I also found a love for running and wanted to run cross country and track, realizing that if I engaged in these activities there would be conditions and I wouldn’t be able to do the same things as the other girls on the team. I did not want to put any burden on my teammates which led me to not telling anyone on my team the truth behind why I had restrictions on running and not being able to participate in certain activities. I found myself feeling isolated and the urge to start working towards being “normal” again. I wanted to be able to be a part of a team and spend time with them at pasta parties, I wanted to be able to run and be nourished enough to complete the run, I wanted to live a life free from my eating disorder.
As high school came to a close and I was entering a new journey to start my undergraduate years at Michigan State University. After having struggled with an eating disorder all throughout high school, I decided the major for me was dietetics (naturally). As many freshmen do, I struggled heavily with my body image and with my relationship with food. I noticed myself slipping back into ED behaviors and wanting my body to change. While this was happening, I had been experiencing various traumatic events that would lead to me later struggling immensely with my mental health.
As I got more and more engrossed with my program and dietetics I started to realize that I had a passion for helping others struggling with eating disorders. I knew that if this was going to be my career that I first wanted to engage in emotional and body image work. I then realized the magic of therapy. I started to unpack and understand some of the complex trauma and experiences as a child that led to the development of an eating disorder. I started doing work around my body image. Through this experience I found the side of dietetics that believed in social justice, anti-diet, intuitive eating. I learned more than I could have ever imagined from doing research and following people in the field that shared the same values as me. I soon realized that dietetics was being taught in a non-eating disorder informed and in a heavily weight centric manner.
After years of struggling with an eating disorder, I worked hard to use all the brainspace I was using to create change and become an advocate for people with eating disorders and BIPOC who do not have the same access to treatment and are constantly failed by our healthcare system. I went on podcasts, I wrote articles, I became president of our eating disorder awareness club on campus, I spoke up for what I believed in. I graduated from undergrad feeling like I had truly found my calling and that I am finally free from the eating disorder that took up years of my life.
Then I moved to Boston. A whole new city, living by myself away from my family. Months into moving to Boston I found myself developing severe anxiety and struggling with my body image. Within the first month of my graduate program I had multiple family deaths and was struggling mentally. Graduate school was fast-paced and was a hard transition after living in a covid world for years. I found myself losing the passion I worked so hard for in undergrad. I couldn’t find the fire that fueled my passion. As I continued through graduate school I noticed myself not feeling seen or heard. I felt as if something was missing and while I still was sure that I wanted to work within eating disorders, I found myself questioning whether or not nutrition was the right path for me.
This was the start of the hardest year of my life. I was struggling immensely with my mental health and was terrified of falling back into the eating disorder. I ended up leaving the career that I had been working towards for the last five years after being told I was not resilient enough to be in my program. I worked immensely and tirelessly with disability services to stay in my program with no real outcome. I then in December 2022 attempted to take my own life.
This experience was one of the scariest moments of my life and also a time of reflection of how far I have come. I realized how important it is to have people in your life that support you and care for you. I realized that I wanted to find my passion again. I realized that I am not too much and that I am not weak for struggling with my mental health.
Now after months of reflection and lots of therapy, I am able to look back at the hardest year of my life and thank food. Not only for helping my body do amazing things but for being a source of joy. This year has been the hardest year of my life mentally, but I found myself not seeing food as a source of anxiety like I used to. This year I realized that I wouldn’t allow my profession or people, make me feel like I wasn’t allowed to take up space in this world. This year reminded me of how thankful I am for recovery & for the people in my life who were there for me every step of the way.
At the end of this, I want people to know that you absolutely are allowed to take up space and if you ever forget, I have it tattooed on my arm right here.