Let’s Talk About It: Ramadan & the Ghosts of Eating Disorders

Ramadan is a time often cited as being a month of unity, routine, and elevated spirituality. Muslims all around the world structure their days around the sunrise and sunset of their geographies. Within those geographies, millions move in similar rhythms. In fact, Muslim homes are likely to be seen operating at similar wavelengths. Ramadan calls for a more structured day than any other month of the year because one of the primary leaseholders of our time is temporarily absent, opening up a large slot of hours that ideally should be spent bettering oneself. For the fasting individual, humbled by their hunger, seeking avenues through which they may become closer to God often becomes a primary focus. However, with this elevated spirituality, and the acute emphasis on piety, comes the danger of regressing into old, damaging habits. I know this firsthand. Every year, feelings of anxiety and shame creep up on me; making an invasive and unsettling re-entry into my life. The truth is, for me, this holy month tends to be much more nuanced than I wish for it to be. A double-edged sword of sorts, I suppose. It’s an issue that our community absolutely refuses to acknowledge: eating disorders.

For those of us who have lived experiences with an eating disorder, Ramadan can pose a whole set of difficulties and internal battles. It becomes a constant question of: am I fasting for my eating disorder or for God? Lines are blurred, intentions are unclear, and one’s purpose is lost somewhere along the way. It is during this month that so many eating disorders go under the radar. It’s completely swept under the rug. It’s a problem that’s best remedied with denial. A typical “out of sight, out of mind” attitude.  As if to deny that it exists somehow makes it go away. But, I completely get it. It makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps the discomfort we feel is a reflection of the most vulnerable, damaged, and ugly parts of ourselves. Deep down, we know that if we take the time to carefully examine the roots, we’d find the sick, pervasively judgmental culture we live in staring right back at us. In its brokenness, our response is to, ironically, shame and blame others for the very problems we help to perpetuate in the first place. So, I think it’s about time we talk about it. I share my story here with you not to evoke your pity; but rather, to break the silence and generate a space for us to engage in honest and healthy conversations with each other. To normalize and give ourselves permission. To shift and unfold into our becoming. And to remove the debilitating shame and stigma attached to our common struggles. These experiences are my own, and they solely belong to me. While the ubiquity of this issue may very well resonate with you, I recognize my limitations in not being able to speak to the experiences of others. And it is neither my desire nor my objective to do so in whichever case anyway. This is my story.

I recall becoming very self-aware of my body at an early age. I vividly remember standing in front of the mirror, examining every inch of my 10-year old self. I would pinch at the flab of skin on my stomach, my arms, and thighs mercilessly. I soon became obsessed, which caused my self-esteem to plummet significantly. Despite the positive reinforcement I was receiving at home, I eventually caved into societal pressures all around me. I was getting bullied at school and ever since then, food (or its lack thereof) became the very source of my struggle. It was my coping mechanism. I began to deprive myself of the very things I needed to survive. I genuinely believed that I did not deserve to eat because I did not deserve to feel good. I subconsciously began to equate my weight and size to my self-worth. I saw not-eating as a way to lose weight. By the time I was 12, I had hit puberty, and things only got worse from there. It’s when I started to actively engage with my body and food in extremely unhealthy ways, cyclically starving and then bingeing. I did this for years, getting away with it, unscathed. Middle school meant that bullying got worse, and so did my self-image. As a teenager, I would intermittently starve myself and vigorously work out. By lunch time, I was only ever focused on getting myself to the school gym. As I changed into my workout clothes, I’d scarf down just enough food only to run on the treadmill for the entire hour before my period 4 class. I limited myself to only 500 calories a day; and I religiously counted every ounce and measured every gram. It would be too unsustainable to keep up for long, so I’d go right back to consuming and exercising (and not exercising) like a normal person. Masking my toxic habits with normalcy every now and again was key to going unnoticed. I became a master of my own illness, and I was proud of it. It felt something like an achievement, and it always gave me something to look forward to.

Now, there’s a common myth about eating disorders out there, and it’s this idea that full recovery is possible. According to professionals, no one ever fully recovers from an eating disorder. The nature of chronic neurobiological conditions is that they cannot be cured. Eating disorders are either active or in remission. Remission can be permanent, but there can certainly be flares of the condition in times of stress (also known as relapse). More than a decade has passed, and I am most grateful to say that I am now in remission. Although I still have issues with maintaining a healthy body image at times; overall, I am well and feel more in control of my eating habits than ever before. That is until Ramadan comes around each year. Hunger pangs (from fasting), for example, place a tremendous amount of stress on my body (and mind). But more than the physical, the struggle for me is rooted in the emotional turmoil.  Being bombarded with questions like, “How much weight do you lose?”, “That’s a great diet, I bet you get so skinny by the end of the month”, and “How’s fasting going?” is cringe-worthy at best. Notice how the questions tend to solely center the conversation around the not-eating part of the practice. Ramadan isn’t about weight loss or dieting. It’s about so much more than that. Questions and comments like this can inhibit someone’s progress towards recovery – even to the point of falling into relapse once again. This has happened to me countless of times. I lose focus during Ramadan, and the experience becomes quite frustrating and discouraging, especially when one’s intention is to attempt rekindling their spiritual connection to a higher purpose.

By shedding light on some of the hurdles that some of us must overcome, the hope is that it will help to empower and support us back into recovery, good health, and some peace of mind. If only we put more effort into better understanding the impact that our words have on others, I’m sure that we’ll begin to gain some insight into the varying nuances behind conversations that may be (unintentionally) pushing some members of our community to the margins; a darkened pit of isolation, guilt, and indignity. If someone you know and love is struggling, here are some tips on how to be more mindful, inclusive, and compassion with them this Ramadan:

  1. Do your research. Look into various perspectives on the issue from credible and reliable sources. By approaching the topic with knowledge and alternatives, it can lead to a more supportive and recovery-minded discussion.
  1. Culture and religion are integral parts of the human framework. So, don’t make any assumptions based on your research alone. Context is just as important to consider here as well. Talk to them.
  1. The nature of these conversations can be difficult, and will require some courage. Take some time to assess your relationship with this person, and evaluate the steps you are willing to take. Build up slowly, and take it one step at a time. The care and effort you put into it will likely be noticed, and greatly appreciated.
  1. If they’re willing to engage in conversation with you, that’s good news. But don’t feel obligated to speak to the issue or their challenges. The best thing for you to do is to listen, learn, and show them that you care. Sometimes, that’s all that is needed.
  1. Encourage them to seek professional help if possible.
  1. If they’re not ready or willing to talk, that’s okay too. Don’t put any pressure or expectations on them to do so. That’s not fair to them either. They may just come to you eventually. In the meantime, don’t be hard on yourself.
  1. Food should not be an end-all, be-all during Ramadan. Avoid centering the conversation around potential triggers, and instead focus on gaining a better understanding of what the holiday means to themand what you could possibly do to support them along their journey.
  1. And finally, remember to always treat it with sensitivity, respect, and compassion.

This, of course, applies all the same to watching what we say and do regardless of where we are and who might be in our surroundings. Be it the mosque, our friend’s house, or in public; with our family, colleagues, and fellow (perhaps even unfamiliar) community members. You don’t necessarily have to know the person to engage in more inclusive and meaningful interactions. The reality is that, most of the time, we simply don’t know what someone else might be going through. And that’s exactly the point. We don’t know, and recognizing this is only half the battle. The rest depends on our willingness to embrace our call to action: to listen and learn together, and keep the conversation going. I can say with almost absolute certainty that being more mindful of what we say can lead to more inclusive community spaces, which can ultimately make for more gratifying experiences for us all. So, this Ramadan, let’s make it a point to be better to one another. The impact you have on others is much greater than your intent. Nevertheless, when your intent and impact don’t quite match up, that’s okay. Learn from your mistakes, and commit to doing better. Doing this hinges on the very radical notion that we can all play our part in making this world, and our communities, a better place to be. And there’s certainly no better time to start than now. Ramaān Mubarak.

Image Source:  Vice

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