When I was living in Saudi Arabia, I was between a size 6 and 8. Being relatively thin, I was less concerned with how much I weighed and far more occupied with how I looked. I was an ultra-conservative dresser—even under my abayah. I wanted to be a virtuous girl and woman; this would be achieved through my choice of clothes, which would influence my actions and ultimately, how I was perceived.
When I arrived in the U.S. I became more aware of my body type. For the most part, I continued to dress conservatively. With the cultural shock of living in the U.S. after a lifetime in Saudi Arabia, combined with a familial incision, I began to eat differently. Increasingly, I found comfort in foods that I had rarely consumed. By the end of my freshman year, I was a size 10.
My eating habits made me more conscious of my body. I think this is a point largely missed by others: It’s not that I was eating because I didn’t notice my body or take pride in how I looked. I was acutely aware of my body and how it was changing. In fact, I was obsessed. I felt powerless in swapping my current habits for healthier ones. As I continued to lose autonomy, I relied more on food to distract me from my growing discomfort with myself.
This experience was aggravated by mass consumption of the female body in the U.S. I couldn’t escape the reminder that thinner was better. As a naturally curvy person, even in my smaller-sized days, watching hip-less, flat chested, thigh gapped women be portrayed as the only type of beautiful woman was difficult and fueled a more destructive view of myself.
There were pauses in my self-hate though. When I visited Ghana in the summer, I could temporarily abandon the idea that skinny was better. Not because Ghana didn’t celebrate her thinner women but because it mattered less whether I was thin or not. In fact, it was a wonderful thing that I was curvy. My body type was desired and celebrated to an extent. Interestingly enough, when I visited Ghana in the summer, I could lose up to 20 pounds without any effort or intention to. My mind was healthier in Ghana and I was kinder to body.
But as I continued to gain weight, being in Ghana become a painful reminder of my weight gain. If you’ve read my post The Trouble with Words (Part I), at a point, it became increasingly difficult for me to be in Ghana because I despised being called obolo. If I knew I would be traveling to Ghana, I would schedule the latest possible departure date so I could give myself more time to slim down—this never worked.
Being away from my family and the constant feeling of displacement, are two of possibly four reasons I have continued to gain weight. Different events in my life have fueled my reliance on food as a coping tool and I’m currently wearing a size 12.
I realize now that I am the worst person to be mean to myself. I never give myself a break; I am always present and ready to take myself apart.
I would love to have the body I had in Saudi Arabia. But I was so disconnected from my body then, so ashamed of what society said it could do, so afraid to use or portray it incorrectly that I did not love my body. Even though I am less satisfied with my body now, I think I love my current body more than I ever could have in Saudi Arabia
Bottom line: A nomadic life style has exposed me to different ideas on what defines a woman’s beauty. These ideas have either been uplifting or burdensome. Despite the richness of variety, my happiness and self-confidence should not be subject to locale. I was late in coming to the realization that regardless of where I am, I am always with me. My body is the place where I live. And maybe, in that sense, the relationship I have with my body is actually a culture. So, I could construct a culture that positively influences my body. I can create my own beliefs, behaviors and values towards my body. I can even choose foods that celebrate and encourage my well-being. I have adopted different cultures anyway, what’s one more?