*Yadooh: a Khaleeji word used by some, and which means “grandma.”
This article is an account of the writer’s battle with an eating disorder, which may be triggering for some. Reader discretion is advised.
The opinions and perspectives of this writer are shared to provide a general perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Sekka, nor are they the views of a medical professional or specialist. If you, or someone you know and care about, are suffering from an eating disorder, or you suspect that may be the case, please know that there is hope for you, and seek urgent professional medical help.
By Maryam Al Shehhi
In my family, I grew up with a reputation of being “the healthy one.” I had fruits instead of chips at the age of five, I worked out constantly by the age of thirteen and I challenged myself not to eat fast food a few years later. I went vegetarian for a month in 2019, stopped eating rice for two years today (you can imagine how difficult this was for an Arab like me) and I enjoy rocca over fries and quinoa over everything.
Throughout my life, I have always imposed strict rules on myself over what I’m allowed to do and what I’m not —I enjoyed giving myself challenges to discover and uncover the limits of my potential. And these challenges often revolved around food, and how I thought my ideal body should look like.
I laughed when I first heard the term “The Freshman 15” (an expression used to indicate the amount of weight gained by a college student during their freshman year) for the first time when I started university, and (again) I looked at “The Freshman 15” as a challenge. Yet, my laugh felt more like a nervous giggle this time because it was a challenge accompanied by a set of fears. For me, it was always about a challenge, about proving my capabilities and self-control… until these challenges challenged my wellbeing.
Yes, my set of challenges were fun and enjoyable, yet the way our bodies are influenced by the way we think could lead to harmful habits that eventually escalate to disorders or disordered eating. Because of my constant fear of gaining my “Freshman 15” weight, I limited myself to eating only one meal a day. As a result, with time, I developed lactose intolerance, and abandoned the only person who knew about my eating behavior—my nutritionist— because I was too afraid to eat three portioned meals and fist-sized snacks.
From fun challenges to disordered eating to the freshman fear, my body unconsciously gave in to the eating disorder that had been knocking on its door for a while: anorexia.
“I was too afraid to eat three portioned meals and fist-sized snacks”
The COVID-19 crisis worsened my condition. I was stuck at home all day with my phone and my unforgiving mirror. After staring at the fit people that populated my virtual world for hours on end, and staring back at my reflection in the mirror, I started to notice the tiniest, most upsetting details about myself. I was so dissatisfied with my body that I would wake up in the middle of the night to check if my belly grew any bigger. My workouts turned into 6 AM workouts after all-nighters, and I started counting and numbering every single item I ate. One, two, three, four, five. My life turned into a game of numbers of workouts and food. Also, here, the number one out of five on my list was not the sandwich I ate in the morning, but the slice of tomato, or the sip of tea I had.
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Before reaching the stage of awareness (almost one year after being diagnosed with anorexia multiple times), I had really enjoyed seeing the numbers on the scale drastically change every day. I enjoyed forcing myself to work out for three hours, I savored the compliments about my beautiful body shape that fed into my mind and I took pleasure in challenging myself to feel contained in the midst of the chaotic transitions that were happening in the world. For months, this was normal; I was used to challenges, and this seemed like any other challenge.
But all of this changed when I began losing my hair.
My hair was always this treasured gem that my mom had taught me to look after. It always felt like a plant I was growing; the plant I fed henna and watered with oils every Friday. Every Friday. The hair that no one can see, that must be covered because an evil eye might glimpse it and the hair that must never be trimmed, was now falling drastically after nineteen years of love and care. That’s when the challenges didn’t seem healthy to me anymore, and when I began to confront myself. Despite being anorexic for a year, confronting myself was the first on my series of new challenges.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night to check if my belly grew any bigger”
I had to stand in front of the same mirror that projected a different image of me, and finally say with belief, “I’m anorexic.” Despite having learnt this term in a psychology class in ninth grade and from the five doctors I had gone to since the “Freshman 15” fear developed, and up until today due to different reasons, from feeling full quickly to being overwhelmed with fatigue , I didn’t believe it.
Then, I revisited my behavior, noticed the seventeen kilograms I had lost and finally saw the harrowing sight of my sunken ribcage. I noticed how I counted and jotted down everything I ate. I noticed how many times I checked my weight a day, and how many times I raised my shirt in front of a mirror. I also noticed how negative affirmations were fed by the challenges, and noticed how alone I really was.
“Why would you let the devil mess up with your mind? We all eat, drink, and thank Allah for his blessings, why would you break this cycle?”
As an anorexic, my body was confused; it was in starvation mode while it was simultaneously being bombarded with a million sentences like “you don’t deserve to eat because you did not finish your work,” or any other irrational reasons my mind would make. This constant battle was happening in the privacy of my body, without the knowledge of anyone around me.
To a family that does not have a known history of eating disorders, explaining what I was going through was difficult, but it felt like a huge relief once I did. I stood up to the widespread questions, Why would you let the devil mess up with your mind? We all eat, drink, and thank Allah for his blessings, why would you break this cycle? . And once I did, I was finally released from the burden of lying by saying “I’m full”, “I’m not hungry” or “I don’t deserve to eat,” phrases that always stayed my antagonists in private. Them understanding what I was going through helped me begin to fight my personal battle, since I did not feel pressured to eat in front of them, nor did I feel pressured to put a smile whenever yadooh (my grandma) would ask me why I hadn’t touched my food.
Instead of shying away from conversations, we must create rooms that include everyone, starting from yadooh down to the youngest member of the family.
I also started following social media accounts that promoted body positivity, mental health awareness and female wellbeing. Although it has not been easy to look at myself in the mirror without a critical lens, I do not give up trying. Whenever I have the urge to jot down the five things that I ate per day, I firmly hold myself back.
I also revisited my teenage self to learn from her healthy eating habits. She loved meal-prepping, belly dancing and drinking liters of water… I wanted to be her again, but with a healthy balance that wouldn’t be disordered eating nor classify as an eating disorder.
I found a new challenge: overcoming anorexia.
Confronting and reaching a state of awareness of my anorexia led me to develop a strong relationship with my body. Although this relationship still has its ups and downs, my eating disorder made me connect to it more and be more compassionate towards it. It starts with noticing the details and ends up with giving your body a big hug, because it deserves all the love and care it needs.
Today, my heart is trembling and my body is shaking as I write this article about my experience with an eating disorder, and as I say publicly for the first time, to yadooh and the whole world, I have been diagnosed with an eating disorder and I’m battling it today.
Maryam Al Shehhi is an Emirati writer studying Political Science and Literature Creative Writing at NYUAD. The daughter of Ras Al Khaimah’s mountains, yet, having been born and raised in Abu Dhabi, she finds herself existing in the land in between seas and mountains. Maryam is passionate about the arts and culture, as she has been invested in various forms of self-expression; she has performed in plays and a musical reality show, and she is an editor of an Arabic magazine. Maryam is currently interning at Sekka.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.