“I sat there looking at the food on my plate until my eyes started blurring and it disappeared into a shapeless oblivion. I don’t understand how people can get excited about eating. For me, meal times, or any time I had to face food, made me feel empty and hollow inside. My relationship with eating was complicated, I wasn’t afraid of food, but I knew I hated it, because it made me hate myself.”
Muslim culture is all about eating. Our social gatherings, our lives, our plans are all made around meals. Then what do you do if food is the very thing you don’t want to be around. Do you become a master of illusion, not letting anyone catch on to your secrets? Do you learn to lie and evade questions? Or do you withdraw and hide? Where does a Muslim girl with an eating disorder go when she’s trying to live a life surrounded by the one thing that she can’t stand to look at?
Most people think that eating disorders aren’t a Muslim problem, right? Muslim women dress modestly and hide their figure and body, so why do they care about their looks? They should be immune to the media driven world of super thin beauty. Why would they ever fall victim to an eating disorder? After all, a good Muslim girl would never do something like THAT.
“It was after jumma. I was lying in my bed, still and calm, barely breathing. Although frail and lifeless, the weight of my own body felt like it was crushing me on the inside. As each breath drew in, I felt my chest hurt. I wondered why it hurt to breathe. There was a sadness inside me, something I couldn’t shake off. I remember the khateeb had said something about being grateful for everything we have. Grateful. The word kept ringing in my ear. I wasn’t grateful. I hated myself and I hated feeling this way. If Allah loved me, why wasn’t He saving me?”
An eating disorder can be a brutal reality for anyone. Muslims aren’t exempt. Just because a Muslim girl dresses modestly, doesn’t mean that her self-image isn’t affected by what she sees around her. The media creates an unrealistic image in the minds of impressionable women. In fact, the stress that’s put on a Muslim teenage girl is a lot higher than boys or her non-Muslim counterparts. Even while maintaining a veil of modesty, these young women are trying to find their own identity of beauty and sometimes this drives them to drastic measures of self-suffering. We are a culture that breeds pressure. By setting unreal expectations, and giving our daughters a difficult fine line to follow, we’ve stripped them of the very opportunity to flourish. What’s more, we’ve designed an ideal life for them, and any deviation is unacceptable.
We expect them to follow religious obligations, respect parents and household rules. They can’t have a boy in their life or do anything inappropriate either. We want them to dress modestly, speak well, be polite and well mannered. We want them volunteering at the masjid, and attending all family dinners and events. It’s all about what we want. We may want a lot out of them, but how much are we willing to give back?
“My mother loved me but she never knew I was anorexic. I became great at hiding it. I knew that if I ever reached out to her, she would go into panic. I knew she would blame the jinn or black magic, she always blames them for everything she can’t fix. I’m not mad at her though. I know that she always wanted what was best for me. But I didn’t want her help. I knew she wanted to fix me, I wish she would understand that this wasn’t about her. It was something missing from inside me, I wasn’t able to be the perfect Muslim girl she wanted. I was far from perfect and sometimes I was scared that I was far from being Muslim as well.”
A person suffering from an eating disorder is far from reality. Their perception of life isn’t the same as ours. They withdraw from others to make sense of what their mind is telling them and in this confusion, unlike most, they are incapable of relying on Allah (SWT) for support. You can’t blame them, or pull them towards deen. This isn’t about an absence of God in their lives, it’s about an absence of self. A person going through an eating disorder feels isolated and alone, and it’s easy to fall deeper into that abyss. Even if you try to reach out, whether that hand is seen as helpful or hostile, depends on timing.
Identifying someone suffering with an eating disorder is difficult, trying to help them overcome it is even harder. Working around their psyche requires patience, understanding and acceptance. You can’t fix the problem, but you can facilitate a safe space to allow them to seek their own help. If an eating disorder is about control, then you have to let them be in control of their own saving.
“I knew that if I didn’t get help, I would die. And I really didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. But I knew that if I spoke to someone, they would immediately judge me, as if it wasn’t enough that I was always judging myself. I needed to feel loved, I needed to feel safe. I needed to get help, I just didn’t know where I could. I wish someone had said… just talk to me, tell me what’s on your mind. Listened to me as I unravelled and let me sit quietly in silence when I was done. I wasn’t looking for a solution; I knew all the solutions myself. I just needed to hear myself say them out loud. ”
Every day teenage Muslim girls fall prey to an eating disorder that is their only form of control in life. For them, it’s not even about the food, it’s an overall dissatisfaction that drives them towards self-harm. By clipping their wings and trying to fit them into a mould of perfection, we are doing a disservice to beautiful Muslim girls everywhere. Let them fly and become magnificent. And if they have fallen prey, then reach out with love, respect and no judgement, because all of them are remarkable, we have to help them see themselves for who they really are.
Helping young girls build a strong self-image is crucial for their well-being. We are so critical of each other that sometimes our own unknown criticism leads others down a dangerous path. Let’s aim to build rather than break and help each other see the beauty that lies within us, even when we can’t see it ourselves.
If you or someone you know suffers from an eating disorder, reach out for help. Naseeha is a Muslim youth helpline that is catered to assist these issues. You’re not alone. If nobody is reaching out to you, make that call – there are people ready and waiting to help you.