Wasi Daniju reflects upon her negative relationship with food and her body which began during her teenage years
I’ve been putting it off for months, writing this. Thinking about it for all that time, but never coming close to putting words down. Not wanting to have to look too directly at the way I feel about the way I look. And even now as I try to write it, all my words come stilted, my language seems to have deserted me for a while, and I feel myself somehow keeping a distance from what I’m relating.
Shame and embarrassment are the overriding feelings that I carry about my body.
They have been for as long as I can remember.
Those are not really the kind of feelings you want to get too close to if you can possibly help it. Even if you’re the one feeling them.
So for the most part, despite actions of mine in the past that have, by their very nature or at least intention, announced these feelings about myself quite clearly, I don’t look at them so much – don’t allow myself to dwell on them at all. Perhaps the same way I don’t look too closely at myself in a mirror if there’s anyone else around. The way I rarely look at photos of myself (and very few exist to be looked at – ever since I started taking photos, I have been adept at being the one to remain behind the camera).
And when I do look, it is always with intense scrutiny and it is always alone. Perhaps I worry that if others catch me looking, I’ll maybe draw attention to my body. Attention which, of course, could only ever be negative, or at best, tolerant. I can never imagine that it could be anything else from others.
And when I do look, it tends to be with disappointment or despair or desperation or disgust – searching for ‘me’ under the increasing rolls and bulges, because obviously, they couldn’t possibly be a part of myself. I find myself living in a body of which I often refuse to accept ownership.
Covering up has been my natural tendency from the time I hit puberty – switching from skinny ten year old to tubby to fat teen. No headscarf back then, but revelling in baggy, hoping perhaps my shape would be less discernible, my form less apparent, my appearance less displeasing to the eye. Seemed like I bloomed, but then forgot how to stop growing, ballooned to an alarming degree, so attempted to cover the results as thoroughly as possible.
For years, I never really acknowledged my feelings of shame around my body and my eating. I managed to house within me the belief that I was fine with the way I looked alongside a constant desire to lose weight, to look different, to become acceptable or not be seen. I truly believed that I truly believed that I was OK with what felt like non-stop eating and that it was as simple as just ‘liking to eat’, even though I sometimes hated myself for doing so. I was both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at the same time, as I cleared my plate/the pack/the cupboard, and was disgusted by my greed. Eating biscuits and sweets in tears of shame, food as a comfort, food as a demonstration of my self-loathing.
I look back through old diaries, their weeks broken up by scattered entries of ‘current and target weights’, lists of rewards I could have if I was ‘good’ and hit my targets, forfeited if I ‘failed’. So many prizes left unclaimed.
I remember being on holiday in Nigeria once. I was maybe thirteen. My cousin, older than me by a few years, had a friend who considered herself too fat. She had her teeth wired together. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it. I saw her, this friend, with the holes drilled through molars, and the wires making her look like some b-grade James Bond villain. She said she cried from the pain, but I didn’t think too much of it – she said it was worth it. I wondered if perhaps it could be a solution for me.
I remember, also, walking into the common room of the large shared house in my second year at uni. I was on an Erasmus year and about 30 of us lived together. The room was empty – one of those late mornings after one of those late nights that made up our time there. And on the board, the boys had made a list of all the girls, and given each girl two separate marks out of ten: one for appearance, and one for personality. I got a 10 for personality, and a dash in place of a score for appearance. I’m not sure if it made it better or worse that they thought they were being ‘kinder’ by choosing not to score me at all.
I remember, years later, being asked by the newly-met, visiting mother of a house mate if I had a thyroid problem because,”you know – the way your eyes bulge, and your weight.”
One thing I don’t ever remember is being content with how I looked, feeling comfortable in my own skin, or feeling safe around food. I needed to find a way for this to change.
Allah does not lay on any soul a burden except to the extent to which He has granted it; Allah brings about ease after difficulty.
The Qur’an 65:7
This article continues here: On Struggling to Love my Body: Part Two
Wasi Daniju is a counsellor, photographer, and sometimes blogger. Her photos have appeared in numerous publications including The Occupied Times and Time Out.