It Took Me Years To Realise That Racism Was Fuelling My Eating Disorder

Varsha Yajman
Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating in a way that some readers may find distressing.
I'm a 19-year-old Indian Australian who has struggled with anorexia. I think this is the first time I’ve ever written that. I've certainly never said it.
As I cast my mind back to how my relationship with food and my body has changed over the years, I’m reminded of how overt and internalised racism, South Asian stereotypes and familial stances on mental health have fuelled my eating disorder and silenced me until now. 
I have received comments about my body since I was eight years old, whether that be from a neighbour, an extended family member or a friend’s little sister telling me I looked pregnant (yeah, that one stung). I was the chubby kid, but I was also the happy and healthy kid who ate whatever she wanted. I was the fun kid who did not have mood swings or anxiety before going to a party.
The industry that has manufactured diet culture is known for tapping into many of our insecurities, and I recall that this billion-dollar machine of manufactured bodily discontent had me in its grasp as early as when I was 12. I remember weighing myself, with the number too high and my well-intentioned family around me saying, “It’s okay, we’ll work on this after your exams”.
The comment stuck with me and as my idea of self-worth changed, my struggles with food got worse. It seemed that as long as I was excelling academically, nothing else mattered. I began to think that being Indian meant being smart, or at least that’s what the nerdy Asian stereotype on TV shows suggested my worth was.
Entering my first year of high school, things took a turn. My primary school was quite diverse, and I was part of a friendship group that just by ‘coincidence’ was made up of the Asian girls in my grade – but the fact it was the ‘Asian group’ was something I never noticed until I finished high school.
Being part of this group of bright, high-achieving students, again, meant ‘excelling’ academically. It felt like that was the only contribution I could make to my cohort’s cultural ethos. It didn't matter how I looked, but just what rank I was in class. 
But my grades weren't perfect and the more I realised I couldn't fulfil those expectations, the more I turned towards my eating disorder to cope.
I leaned into an aspirational ideal of honourary whiteness, which I thought I could achieve if I ate salad, skipped meals, and if I was just skinnier. At least that’s what they tell you with shows and movies like To The Bone and Dance Academy.
I recall receiving test papers at school and thinking that if I got a certain mark, I could eat this, and if I did not, then I couldn’t. Looking back on that girl now, I can’t help but feel as if she was trying to fulfil being what she thought would allow her to be labelled as the 'smart Indian girl' or 'the pretty white girl'.
13-year-old me did not recognise the dimension of race within all of this. She just thought she had to be either smart or skinny to fit in.

I leaned into an aspirational ideal of honourary whiteness, which I thought I could achieve if I ate salad, skipped meals, and if I was just skinnier.

At school, we were lucky enough to have spokespeople from organisations like HeadSpace talk to us about seeking support for mental health issues, which are often taboo topics to talk about in South Asian households. But when these speakers are all white and tell you to call Lifeline or talk to a trusted adult, I couldn’t help but feel as if it were all a bit pointless.
My first thought would be, “surely the call won’t be anonymous”, and as my weight dropped, so did my relationship with my family. They struggled to understand the complexities of my eating disorder, and instead reminded me of the malnourished kids in India, and that I should be so grateful to have food. 
When I tell people about this, they immediately think that Indian culture is too 'conservative', or that my family does not have empathy. I used to think that too. I would dream of having a white family that would just understand me.
In many migrant families, saying you need help, saying “I have an eating disorder”, is something uncommon; almost alien. Being a migrant means having to adapt to a whole range of customs and values on both sides, and being put in situations that are often unheard of for non-migrant adolescents. 
When I attended colourful Indian festivals filled with mouthwatering treats, what should have been tears running down my face because of the spicy food were replaced by tears due to anxiety, the fear of food, and the embarrassment I felt towards my culture.
As I continued cutting down food and counting my calories, I saw my grades plummet, or at least that’s what I thought. You see, my eating disorder distorted the perception of both my body and my expectations. Things are never “good enough” when you are plagued by the anxiety of what is to come. 
I lost X kilos, great, but what if I gain it back? I came first in this test, great, but what if I don’t next time? 
In one of my final maths exams in year 11, I remember the numbers on the page blurring together with the number of calories I had had that day consuming my mind.
This all impacted my health, where I lost my period for years, spent countless hours at the doctors and left school early because my body simply could not. I could not.
​Writing and even think about this girl who was so determined to place herself in a box is hard. She seems like she’s from another world.
It took me years to work through this, and only during the Black Lives Matters protests last year where racism became more widely discussed in the mainstream, did I recognise the intersectionality between eating disorders and race. 
Now, while my relationship with food, exercise and myself isn’t perfect by any means, working through my internalised racism and fatphobia has certainly helped. 

Saying you need help, that “I have an eating disorder”, is something uncommon; almost alien in many migrant families.

Before, I would sit in class and think, “What is wrong with me, why am I not like these other girls?” I always thought, “I’m not pretty enough, I’m not skinny enough,” but now I realise that I thought I just was not white enough.
Every time these thoughts come back into my mind, I ask myself,  “Was I really happy or more ‘accepted’ when I was restricting and counting and overexercising?” No. But sometimes it’s not about loving your body but accepting and recognising what it can do for you.
I remember the morning I got my period back; it was the day of my uni exam, pretty recently actually, and I raced down the stairs and told my mum. It was a reminder to do my best for the exam, but also that me, my health and my happiness come first. 
I’ve spoken to my family recently about my struggles. While my relationship with my mum is not perfect, the tears, conversations and honesty in our relationship have allowed me to build a support network, reconnect with my culture and start new relationships.
It is not mine, nor anyone’s job to fit into a stereotype. 
My story and my experiences are a small part of the puzzle. Being unable to find statistics of the impact of eating disorders on women of colour in Australia speaks volumes for the lack of recognition on this issue. 
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.
As a part of Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week, The Butterfly Foundation has put together a number of strategies that you can use to reduce the impact that diet culture has on your life. Head here to learn how to diversify your social feed (including our favourite body-positive influencers to follow), call out weight bias, and change your thought patterns that suggest your body needs to change in order to be accepted.

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