Yushra (name changed), a final year under-graduation student, has big ambitions for her future. One day she wants to run her own café in one of the coastal cities of the country. But, just like many other young women, Yushra has to fight a battle with herself every day to even dream about an ambitious life. Her struggle is not external but something that tortures herself from the inside. Yushra is extremely conscious about her body and has dealt with toxic food eating habits over the years.
"In the past, I had stopped myself from eating enough. By no means I was over eating, but at that point in time I was convinced that to remain slim I had to stop myself from eating, even if I was hungry," Yushra told The Logical Indian.
She explained that the practice of restrictive eating eventually developed into a habit over the years. So much so that even today her appetite remains substantially less for a healthy diet. "Years of eating less than required has shrunken my appetite. Even if I try not to skip meals, I am forced to do it because most of the times I am not hungry," she said.
This is not only Yushra's story. Many women across the globe are silently suffering from the under-considered issue of negative body image. It begins with a feeling that your body is not adequate, and to be able to accept or love it, it should be of a certain shape and size. This feeling of inadequacy is exasperated by social media and other social factors that constantly behest women to look a certain way. This ideal image is created based on an illusion of the perfect body, which is not only impossible to attain but extremely damaging for the health of an individual.
Body Image Issues And Eating Disorder
If not checked at the right time, a negative body image could become a threat to an individual's physical and mental well being. In some cases, it can lead to eating disorders where a person develops extremely unhealthy eating habits that could even turn fatal. Eating disorder as a psychiatry problem is severely under-discussed. Researches have shown that eating disorders are the most fatal of all psychiatric disorders. But in India, they take a backseat during conversations about mental health. While it is important to note that body image is not the only cause of eating disorders, people suffering from anorexia or bulimia nervosa report higher levels of dissatisfaction with their bodies.
"If someone is preoccupied by their body weight, to such a level that they do not focus on overall health or fitness, then it can contribute to eating disorders. This may lead them to excessively restrict their diet, avoid certain food types, binge eating, or making themselves vomit after eating, just to prevent weight gain," Dr Ashlesha Bagadia, Perinatal Psychiatrist & Psychotherapist at The Green Oak Initiate told The Logical Indian.
The symptoms of the disorder begin to show in early adolescence in some girls.
"I have been self-conscious about my looks since a young age, and it progressively got worse. A lot of the time, I wore baggy t-shirts with loose jeans and big jacket on top of that, just so no one could see my body," 22-year-old Prarthana told The Logical Indian.
She said that the insecurity about her body developed into an eating disorder. Her problems began when she was in high school, and she started to feel guilty just for eating. Prarthana could sense that something was wrong with her eating habits, but it took her a long time to acknowledge the problem due to a lack of awareness about the issue and the social stigma.
"I finally realised something was very wrong when I almost passed out because I had practically stopped eating. It took me forever to acknowledge it because even though I knew I was particularly uncomfortable with myself, women were expected to be just eating smaller meals or not eating anything in public anyway. So, I acted like it was normal and so did everyone else," Prarthana said.
These unhealthy eating habits are also present in women with healthy body weights. The pressure to remain slim or attain the 'desired' weight pushes many young women into harmful diets. Some would go to the extent of keeping a rigorous calorie count to avoid gaining weight. If they fail to adhere to the calorie limit, they punish their bodies with extremely exhaustive workout sessions and push themselves to lose weight in a short period.
"Although I was not diagnosed professionally, I had certainly developed toxic eating habits," said Yukta, a resident of Vishakhapatnam. "At one point my diet was so low that I was eating next to nothing. This was paired with a detrimental workout schedule where I pushed my body for instant results. At one point, I lost around 7 kg in a month which made me extremely feeble," she added.
Family, Friends And Body Image
It is disturbing to find that for many women, the seed of a negative body image is planted by their close ones. Many times, the insecurity is a result of continuous scrutiny about looks and body weights from family or friends
"I still remember the first time I felt insecure about myself. It was the comments of my relatives that made the ten-year-old me conscious about my body. In a room full of family members, my body was scrutinised by my own aunt as she pointed out the parts of my body which appeared too fat," Namrata Pathani, a 22-year-old communication management student, told The Logical Indian.
The incident traumatised a young Namrata to such an extent that even today she cannot wear bangles or rings due to those comments made so many years ago.
"During family functions, when I wanted to wear something, my relatives would always comment that I should not wear certain clothes because they made me look fat. I just wanted to wear what I liked, but their constant bugging made me insecure about my body," Ashmita, a resident of Guwahati, shared her experience while speaking to The Logical Indian.
Even health professionals report toxic family behaviour towards patients with body issues. Those who are meant to be the support sometimes end up being the cause of the problem.
"I had a patient who was scared to even talk to her mother because all their conversations would end up revolving around her body weight," said Dr. Ravichandra Karkal, Consultant – Psychiatrist & Psychotherapist at Yenepoya Hospital, Mangalore. "In such cases, the patient starts avoiding their family because the constant scrutiny becomes unbearable.
"Even the most well-meaning family members can say things without realising. Comments that may be complementary towards someone else "you have lost so much weight; you look so good!" can lead to the development of beliefs from a young age, that thin is good and fat is bad," said Dr Ashlesha Bagadia, highlighting the importance of being mindful even during casual conversations.
Behaviour of close friends and romantic partners also contributes to how a woman sees herself.
"The body issues began when the guy I was dating told me that he would not be able to be with me because I am was not attractive enough," said Semanti. What added to her insecurities was the treatment of her classmates.
"People I used to go to school with, called me fat and ugly. They told me that nobody is going to sit with you, nobody actually can, and laugh," she added.
"I started gaining weight towards the end of my standard 8th and even though people were starting to point that out, it was okay because I didn't care," said a 23-year-old Mansi, adding that her insecurities began when she moved to a new city. "I noticed girls giving me looks because I took up a little extra seat on the bus. I heard guys at the back laugh as I enter. Once a guy, shouted 6/10 when I entered the classroom," Mansi recalled.
Social Media Exasperates Body Image Issues
An exponential increase in mental health issues related to body image could be blamed on the false reality social media creates. It sells an illusion of perfect bodies that traps young minds. Those who are yet to be capable of making a distinction between the real and the fabricated. What intensifies the issue is the game of algorithms that exposes an individual only to pictures of zero-size models or influencers with perfect bodies, aggravating their body image problem.
In addition to the negative impact of glorifying certain hourglass body types, social media has become a place where individuals are bullied and body shamed constantly which plays into their insecurity. "The constant bullying coerces people to try to lose weight just to be accepted and feel like they belong," said Dr. Bagadia
Sometimes, it also acts as a space for validation to people who are losing weight using cohesive methods. "I noticed that I used to receive positive feedback on photos posted on social media after I lost weight. The praise, especially from people who earlier made me feel bad about my body, made sure that I kept falling for the trap," said Yukta highlighting the negative impact of social media validation.
She further mentions that she got invested in toxic self-help to lose weight and discovered "pro ana" pages and hashtags on the net. "Pro-ana content promotes anorexia as a lifestyle to lose weight. These hashtags are still active, and people with anorexia post pictures of their thin bodies that they have achieved by starving themselves," said Yukta, mentioning that such content might push many young women into the direction of a harmful lifestyle with dire consequences.
While things look far from optimistic for the near future, positive trends are emerging in dealing with this problem. Young people are increasingly becoming aware that a healthy body does not necessarily mean a slim one. With the message of body positivity, young individuals are increasingly learning to accept their bodies and are willing to seek help if needed. While it is essential to spread awareness about the issue of negative body image, it is of utmost importance to extend a supporting hand of love to those around us, says Dr. Karkal.
"An accepting family and understanding group of friends go a long way in helping an individual deal with body image problems. Families that are not critical of how the person looks, but love them for who they are, become staunch support system-mentally as well as emotionally. Even when such individuals find themselves suffering from body image issues, their close ones become a pillar of strength which helps in quicker recovery."