The heroines changed in Bollywood movies too. Rani and Kajol were replaced by Deepika and Anushka, women who represented the thin body ideal I was so used to seeing in American media. The women in the movies I watched and the magazines I read—they seemed to keep shrinking. And me? I seemed to keep growing—my hips kept getting bigger, my thighs too. I wanted to stop the growth, to remain small, to resist puberty and my growth into a woman with a body that looked nothing like what I saw on TV.
The frustration spiraled into body dysmorphia.
If I could just find the right angle in pictures and mirrors where I looked “good”, then I would feel good about my body. I would constantly look at myself in the mirror, comparing the different versions of my body from different angles and different positions. How did I look when I sat? When I stood this way? When I turned that way? I would spend hours staring at my closet, too, trying to figure out what I could wear that would make me feel thinner, make me look thinner. Whenever I caught a reflection of myself in a store window or shiny surface, I would stop and stare at myself, trying to figure out if that was what I really looked like or if it was just because the surface was angled a certain way to make me look thinner or fatter.
I love people watching, and I always have. But back then, I didn’t just want to see how they dressed or interacted, or to analyze their facial expressions and movements. I also had an ulterior motive. I would constantly compare myself to other women walking by, sitting near me.
‘Am I skinnier than that one?’ ‘Her hips are bigger than mine, but she has a smaller waist.’ ‘That girl has nice legs, toned. My legs don’t look as good as hers.’ ‘Do I look like that girl in jeans? I wonder what size she wears.’ The barrage of thoughts continued like that for years.
I thought if I found someone with the exact same body shape as me, then, and only then, could I allow myself to feel good, because I would finally know what I looked like to the rest of the world. And until I knew what I looked like to the rest of the world, I couldn’t let myself feel beautiful. But it never worked. I would see someone with a similar body type, who looked happy and healthy, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to continue comparing myself, to continue staring in the mirror. I let the mirror control my self-perception, and I let my mind warp my body image till I had no idea what I really looked like.
The cure? Surprisingly enough, it was finding out I had cancer and having to go through chemotherapy and radiation. Treatment made me realize that my body was capable of doing so much more than just looking pretty, and that form was less important than function. I grew to appreciate my body for all the years it had functioned so smoothly, carrying me through so many adventures and experiences. And this appreciation eliminated the insecurities I had about my body, the dysmorphia that I had suffered from for so many years. I realized that moving forward, I needed to focus more on taking care of my body and less on what it looked like.
It is only now, looking back, that I see how distorted my self-esteem was by this mental disorder. In fact, for so long, I didn’t even realize I had a mental disorder. I thought these behaviors were normal, that these thoughts were just another facet of my insecurities. My friends and I rarely discussed the depths of our insecurities, preferring instead to boost each other with compliments.
And the truth is that it never ends. Even when Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj’s bodies began to influence beauty ideals, I still felt like I wasn’t curvy enough. My hips didn’t flare out enough, and my breasts weren’t as big as theirs. But I realized that I would always feel flawed if I compared myself to the unrealistic beauty ideals the media portrayed. I still people watch, but now, instead of comparing myself to the women I see, I appreciate their beauty. We each have a unique shape, one that doesn’t need to fit into the categories created for women. We don’t need to be told whether we are thin, curvy, or athletic, or those made up categories of pear, apple, or hourglass. These are superficial, simply a way to put women into boxes so we can be more easily marketed to and manipulated.
We live in a culture of comparison. We scroll through social media, looking through other people’s pictures and comparing the lives we live to the lives they lead. We put our best version forth, posting happy photos in which we angle ourselves just the right way, and posting statuses that only share good news. Instagrams are artfully crafted, and Snapchats are curated to display the prettiest parts of our lives: the fun vacations, the party scenes, the hangouts with friends, the good food. And surrounded by all this, I became obsessed with comparison, but I had to learn to shut off the little voice in my head that told me I wasn’t as pretty, as fun, as happy, as the other girls.