When I was a little girl, probably around four or five, my family took a trip to Disney World, as one does when you have a daughter who has memorized entire Disney and Barbie movies and dressed up as a princess every Halloween. When I was asked by Ariel, my favorite princess, who I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, "You. I want to be you when I grow up. I want to be a white princess."
Years went by, and I ended up living in a small town in Texas where I was the only South Asian kid. Other kids constantly called me weird, and the only girl who wanted to be friends with me was the one girl who had Democrats as parents. As hatred towards Muslims accelerated, my parents told me not tell anyone at school that I had a Muslim dad. My hatred of my identity grew with age.
By the time I was fifteen, I was sick of feeling inadequate. I constantly felt like I had something to prove. I had grown out my hair and gotten contacts to replace my glasses, but I was still constantly rejected by boys who were fine with dating white girls at my small, extremely white private school in my small town in North Carolina. I slowly convinced myself that the only way that I would gain the respect that my white, female peers had obtained not only from boys, but from the world, was to be the most perfect version of myself as possible. If I had something to prove, I would prove it. If I couldn't change my race, I could change my appearance.
So I got better with makeup and started getting more into fashion. I joined Honor Council. I turned my grades in my four AP classes to all A’s. I ran for student body co-president and got the position. I got into a relationship. I joined the cheerleading squad. But most importantly, I started restricting my caloric intake and compulsively exercising, beginning a nasty cycle that would plague me for years.
While eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa, are often associated with white, thin or underweight young females, the reality of the problem is that they affect so many more than this subset of the population. In fact, many people of color are more prone to develop eating disorders than their white counterparts and are less likely to receive treatment for them. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, women of color often develop eating disorders as a response to stress in their environment, such as poverty and racism, of which they often face more than white women. Even though black and Hispanic teenagers are more likely to exhibit behaviors typical of bulimia nervosa, they are less likely to be asked by a doctor about symptoms of eating disorders. Even as I was losing hair and developing a plethora of gastroenterological problems, it wasn’t until I myself admitted having a problem and spelled out my eating habits that doctors I saw connected my symptoms to an eating disorder.
If you know anything about restrictive-type eating disorders, you know how this works. No matter what the reality of my looks were, I always found flaws. Restrictive eating didn’t bring me the happiness that I thought came with being smaller. The thing about eating disorders is that no matter how small you get or how sick you are, you never feel like it's time to stop or that you're good enough, no matter how much you say or really believe you'll stop when you get to x weight or x jean size.
Years later, I'm a sophomore in college. The past year and a half has been the hardest of my life. My high school relationship that was turning toxic and unhealthy ended, and I’ve been trying to find myself. My race is no longer something that I think is wrong with me. There are days when I even embrace it.
Yes, going to a school with a liberal bias that is at least twenty times more diverse than my high school has helped. But also, I think I've matured. I've met people who have taught me that no matter your color or your size, you can still be beautiful. I've learned that feeling beautiful has a lot more with how you perceive yourself than how others perceive you. People shouldn’t accept or denounce you for your body type, and if they do, they aren’t the kind of people that should be in your life anyway. If someone out there reading this feels as if they don’t have a voice because of their identity, I want you to know that you’re not alone. Your relationship with your body and food will improve, and someday, you’re going to accept yourself and find your place in this world, I promise.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call 1-800-931-2237 to call or chat with NEDA online (National Eating Disorder Association).