Eating Disorders: Recovering While Brown

What does recovery look like when not just your community, but even doctors don’t take you seriously?

Imaan Sheikh

December 7, 2020

Eating Disorders: Recovering While Brown
Illustration: Priyanka Paul

“Kya matlab ‘recovery’? Koi bimari thodi hai? [What do you mean by ‘recovery’? It’s not a disease],” said Sahiba*, a 55-year-old mother of three, when I asked her about what she thinks can help people with disordered eating in a Brown household. Two of her children have been yoyo-ing in weight since early adolescence.

Recovering from an eating disorder, just like most other mental illnesses, is no easy feat, but in a culture where the problem is invisible — whether due to a lack of awareness or trivialization — so is the need for a solution. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that even when people of color bring up their eating or weight-related concerns to a doctor, they’re unlikely to be asked about symptoms compared to white clients. A Harvard School of Public Health study concluded that people of color are half as likely to receive diagnosis or treatment as white people. And even if eating disorders are diagnosed, full recoveries for most are still rare. One-third of those already in treatment tend to relapse.

So what does recovery look like in a Brown household, where food is more than a love language?

Sahiba admits her daughter, now 19, often goes days without food and tends to gain weight from binge-eating spells. “She has gained so much weight, so now she only drinks smoothies for most meals,” she said. “But people do this all the time — before weddings to photograph better and fit in their designer clothes — not just brides, but entire families do it before weddings,” she told me defensively, pausing for a moment before asking, “Is this normal?”

Sahiba has an admitted history of abusing laxatives, which she and her family informally call “stomach wash tablets”; perhaps that makes the pills sound less intimidating. Some 20 years ago, Sahiba also took homeopathic weight loss pills — “Phytolacca Berry,” sold in South Asia to this day.

Body ideals haven’t just passed down generations; the media catered to South Asians also tends to be heavily thin-centric. Bollywood’s top actors have some of the smallest waists in the business. The industry has a reputation for demanding actors, particularly women, to shrink if they want to get more work. Actor Kareena Kapoor dropped to a size zero for her 2008 film Tashan. She later said, “When I see that [film] now, I don’t know if I can be that thin, and I envy that flat stomach.” Director Karan Johar admitted to telling actor Alia Bhatt to lose weight when she debuted in his 2012 film Student of The Year. Two years ago, he apologized to Bhatt: “She’s in the gym every day, and even if she puts on an extra kilo, she goes crazy. I think I am to blame for it. Now that I’m a parent, I would never do this to Roohi [Johar’s daughter], and I would like to apologize to Alia.”

Actor Vidya Balan was considered a revolutionary for reclaiming the sex appeal of curvy bodies in Bollywood after she played the role of a curvy South Indian actress in the 2011 film The Dirty Picture. Balan has spoken out about her past obsession with weight loss several times. “At various points [of my acting career], I lost weight, I worked out like crazy, I starved myself, but my weight would come back because this is my body structure,” she told The Deccan Chronicle.