"She's such a show-off, trying to make us feel bad about eating like normal people."
At my first job, it was a refrain I heard often about this one young colleague. She was reed-thin, and if there was one person among us who could allow herself double, triple or even fourth helpings of dessert with nary a care, it was her. And yet, the most anyone had ever seen her eat was a tiny portion of fruit here or a few bites of yogurt there. Most of us admired her and were a little jealous of her discipline when it came to food. While we routinely succumbed to the temptations of the dessert bar, she never wavered.
I forgot all about her when I moved to another office. But a few months after I left, I heard she'd suddenly collapsed in the middle of the day and had to be hospitalised. Soon after, news trickled in that she was diagnosed with anorexia. We were all shocked. How had we, an educated, aware bunch of people missed what was literally staring us in the face for so many months?
While they should be easy to spot — the physical signs are hard to miss — they're often mistaken for erratic eating patterns, dieting or discipline.
That's the thing about eating disorders, there is no one type of person or particular time of life it can strike. It can sneak up on anyone, completely take over a person's body and mind, and take years to bring under control after diagnosis, which in itself is difficult due to general lack of awareness about the condition. While they should be easy to spot — the physical signs are hard to miss — they're often mistaken for erratic eating patterns, dieting or discipline. It doesn't help that most of us have a checkered, love-hate relationship with our bodies and food, given the rigid, homogenised standards of beauty most of us have been subjected to.
We spoke to four people, from widely different backgrounds and lifestyles, about their struggles with eating disorders and the road to recovery, and have reported their stories verbatim. If you suspect that someone you know might be suffering from an eating disorder, please encourage and assist them in seeking medical help immediately.
Sarah Jane Dias, 34, Bollywood actress from Mumbai
I used to be a very active, outgoing kid with a strong body, so I was quite taken aback with the cruel way in which my body was spoken of when I started modelling and acting. There was a time when I was told, with a roomful of people listening, that I was being pulled off a project because I was too fat to be put on TV. I decided to lose weight any way I could. I was introduced to a physical trainer who put me on some fat-burning pills. My obsession with weight loss continued for almost three to four years. In that time, in addition to those pills, I had started yo-yoing between starving myself on the week and binge eating on the weekend, There was nothing I wouldn't try. At one point, when I wasn't working, I started sleeping through the day just so I wouldn't eat or eat just one meal.
I'd been hearing people talk about my body in such a humiliating way for so long, that I'd started talking to myself in the same dehumaising words.
Obviously, my body paid the price for what I was doing. The pills had completely messed up my metabolism and entire system. I developed PCOD. I also had an accident, and the medicines made me put on a lot of weight. It was a very low time of my life. That's when I realised I was spiralling and I needed to get a grip. It was a slow and painful process, but I soldiered on. For so many years, I'd been hearing people talk about my body in such a demeaning, humiliating way, that without realising, I'd started talking to myself in the same dehumanising words. I had to relearn how to speak to myself, to love myself and my body.
It's not that I didn't have setbacks. During my pageanting days, I was voted by the other girls, on TV, as the most unfit girl in the contest. I decided to push back by losing weight. And I decided I was going to do it by not eating carbs. For three weeks, I worked out like crazy with almost no food in me. Winning the pageant was a bittersweet victory and revenge.
How do these people not realise how devastating it is to keep having your worth judged on the basis of how much you weigh?
I thought things would change but it was the same thing all over again. People still spoke about my body as I was completely devoid of feelings. How do these people not realise how devastating it is to keep having your worth judged on the basis of how much you weigh? I understand that in the glamour industry, how you look is a key part of your job. Asking your talent to lose weight is a necessary evil, but it can be done kindly. We're talking about a person't body here, not a replaceable accessory.
In so many ways, I still consider myself a work in progress. I still have to keep telling myself and my body that it's just a job and people's opinions don't matter, what matters is that my mind and body are healthy and at peace. I was fortunate to have a very strong support network of friends, family and fitness experts who showed me that a fit body is so much more worthy than a thin one. It gives me hope that people have now started talking about their struggles with weight loss and a whole bunch of celebrities and influencers are willing to show people what they really look like, minus the filters and the strategic lighting to create the illusion of abs. People need to accept that it is a body, and it has its limits.
Dimpy Mathur, 32, Teacher from Bangalore
For as long as I can remember, I've struggled with weight issues. I remember noticing, even as a child, that no one ever called me beautiful, I was always the "nice" one, or the "friendly" one or the "cute" one. But never beautiful. God knows how desperately I wanted someone, anyone, to find me beautiful. As a teenager, I saw my friends constantly being admired by boys. Never me. By the time I reached college, I had internalised the lesson: fat people aren't beautiful, they aren't worthy of love. You have to be thin to be loved.
But I couldn't be thin. No matter how little I ate or how hard I worked out, I could never be petite. No amount of weight loss can shrink your bones. All through college, I struggled with body image issues.
No one was privy to what I was doing to my body at home.
At some point soon after college, I just gave up. Food was my enemy, but also my best friend. It started with ocassional binges, but my dependence on food intensified in a matter of weeks. I turned to food every time I was stressed or felt bad about something. It didn't help that my that time, I had moved to another city and was living alone. No one was privy to what I was doing to my body at home. They just saw the effects — at one point, I had ballooned to 110 kilos — and sniggered cruelly. The meanness just made me eat even more.
Pretty soon, I was overeating to the point where it made me puke. The more I ate, the more I put on weight and got depressed. And the more depressed I was, the more I'd eat. It was a vicious cycle. I was horribly unfit and felt trapped in my body, but it was the constant feeling of worthlessness that almost did me in. I often had suicidal thoughts. Self-hatred can be a vicious enemy.
I remember sitting on my bed with a razor in my hand, wanting to just end the suffering for good.
I think my turning point came when I was 23. I remember sitting on my bed with a razor in my hand, wanting to just end the suffering for good. For some reason, I decided to give my life one last shot. I took all my savings and signed myself into a rehab in America. I stayed there for three months and went through intense therapy and nutrition counselling.
When I came out, I was still obese, of course, but at least I wasn't suicidal. For the first time in my life, I had respect for myself and my body. When I came back to India, it was more difficult to continue treatment than I expected. There, I was cut off from my world, here, all the snide comments continued. A couple of times, I almost slid right back into that black hole of binge eating. It's so hard to break the habit, especially when food is beckoning you from every corner!
It took me almost two years of rigorous nutritional and physical therapy to get my body in shape. I will never forget the first time I looked into the mirror without feeling the urge to claw at my stomach, my arms, my thighs. I broke down and wept for 20 minutes. It was the best day of my life.
Soham Mehta, 42, Businessman from Mumbai
I can't remember a time when I didn't hate my body. All through childhood, I was teased as a chubby kid—in school as well as home. It was torture, constantly hearing all the elders refer to me as "motu". Back then, no one knew what eating disorders were, but by the time I was 12, I'd figured out that I could control how my body looked by not eating. I told myself I was dieting, but in reality, I was starving myself. When I started losing weight, everyone oohed and aahed over my "discipline". It encouraged me to starve myself some more. It still makes me angry that in a house filled with elders, not one person noticed that I always took my food to my room and ate alone. Nobody realised that they had never seen me eating.
When I started losing weight, everyone oohed and aahed over my "discipline". It encouraged me to starve myself some more.
By the time I was 16, I was surviving on barely one chapati and a bowl of vegetables. I was half my size. The irony was that I was lauded for being "fit", while I was at my unhealthiest. To this day, I don't know how I didn't collapse out of weakness for so many years.
I finally found the help that I desperately needed when I was 19 and I met my wife. She saw right away that there was something terribly wrong with me. She forcibly took me to a therapist. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa almost immediately. It took four years and countless sessions with my therapist and nutritionist to get the disorder under control. So many times during my treatment, I went into depression. A couple of times, I tried to even harm myself. I don't know how my wife found the strength to stand by me through all of this. Today, I am healthy, but I have to constantly work on keeping my mind positive and strong so that my body can be healthy.
While I was undergoing treatment for anorexia, some people who knew made fun of me for having a "girly" problem
Even while I was undergoing treatment, there were relatives who would call anorexia my "imagination" or "weakness". Some of them even made fun of me for having a "girly" problem. An eating disorder is terrible for anyone who suffers from it, but for men, it is just that much worse. When you hear of women who take to self-harm because of their messed up issues with food, most people feel pity. Men face ridicule. Why? Can't constant scrutiny, comparison and the pressure to look a certain way not break a man as well?
Zahbia Merchant*, 21, Student from Delhi
I used to be a very healthy, sporty kid. I ate good food and I had a strong body because of all the sports. So I could have never imagined that I would end up with bulimia. No one who knew me could have thought it possible. I think that is one of the most important things people have to understand about eating disorders. It can happen to anyone, at any time, for no fault of theirs.
Most of the girls in my class were thin. We all wanted Kareena's size zero figure.
I don't even know how it started. Around the time I was in class ten, I started becoming obsessed with how I looked and being thin. Most of the girls in my class were. We all wanted Kareena's size zero figure. I started eating very little food, but my mom would have none of it. She'd sit me down and make sure I ate healthy portions. I think I read somewhere about models puking out their food to avoid the calories. It seemed like a really good idea to me. I started doing it without telling anyone. It was my secret weapon against fatness. I started losing weight, but initially I'd just tell anyone who asked that I was eating healthy or exercising a lot. For a while, even my parents bought that explanation. They couldn't have imagined that I was going to my room and puking my guts out after each meal. By the ninth or tenth month, my mother was worried. I was underweight and very pale, but in front of her, I would dutifully eat everything she put on my plate.
I think I read somewhere about models puking out their food to avoid the calories. It seemed like a really good idea to me.
I think the tipping point came when the fainting spells started. About a year into my disorder, due to severe undernourishment, I started fainting. I was 5'7" and 43 kilos. I was also losing clumps of hair every day by then. They kept me in the hospital for a week. Since I was bed-ridden, I couldn't purge myself of the food I was being forced to eat. I broke down and told my mom everything.
When I was tested, we found that I had damaged my larynx quite substantially due to all the vomitting. I was immediately sent for therapy and treatment. I even had to miss a semester in college because I was so weak. My parents were my rock through therapy. Every time I faltered, they were there. I was too ashamed to tell anyone about what I was going through, I felt I'd be made fun of. Eating disorders take years to control, but when you have a loving support system, you at least feel like you and your life mean something to the world.
*Name changed to protect identity