Dieting as privilege

An image comparing my visible, unintentional weightloss in less than a month. 

**EDIT: I am not going to respond to comments on this post anymore, positive or negative. I think I have mentioned my mental health quite a few times on this blog, and elsewhere, so it’s hardly a secret, and I had a bad mental health related situation today about the kind of negativity some people have displayed here. Yes, it can happen with my particular combination of mental illnesses. Being stable and more or less sane is one of the most important things to me, because otherwise everything else in my life goes haywire. So for the sake of my mental health, I will not be engaging any further with comments on or reblogs of this. **

It’s funny how the things you wish for change drastically with time. From the ages of 15 to 22, I wanted nothing more than to be thin. The fantasy of being thin was strong in this one – I dieted, purposefully starved and eventually developed an eating disorder in crazed, obsessive attempts to achieve my ideal body. I had access to all the food I could ever want, any kind of food, as much of it as I wanted, and at any time I wanted it. And yet, I skipped meals, left them untouched, ate and then threw up, and generally laughed in the face of my good fortune, because, as I realise now, it was good fortune. To have unlimited access to food (and a secure roof over your head) is to be blessed with extreme good luck – something which I don’t have the privilege of having anymore. This brings me to think how privileged it is to be able to eschew food and go on a diet – to tell yourself “I am eating too much, I need to stop.” It’s the same as telling yourself that “I have access to way too much food; I have more food in my kitchen than I know what to do with.” And that – now that’s some privilege.

Over the years, I have read reams and reams about dieting – starting from how to-s to long and involved analyses of the mechanisms of it, to even longer and more involved discussions of its sociocultural aspects and how harmful it can be. But I have heard very little about the privilege of dieting – how the very fact of going on a diet is an exercise of economic privilege. Going on a diet means that you’re not scared of starvation – it means that the idea of that interminable, gnawing hunger in your stomach doesn’t frighten you. Sure, it’s a pain, and you hate it and you wish it were easier, but the fear of the hollowness in your middle that doesn’t let you sleep at night till you fall into a fatigued fug – you’ve never known that fear. Starvation, starvation you’ve not imposed on yourself, is scary because you have no control over it. There is no way to “break the diet” because what would you break it with? You have no food.

I first knew starvation when I was a student in the UK. A hopeless budgeter, I would spend all my money on clothes and M&S goodies before the next transfer would arrive in my bank account, predictably late thanks to my father who I was dependent on, and who never had any money. And once the M&S food ran out, it would be the Londis (later on, the Co-Op when I moved house), and tons of cheap junk food. And then, finally, there would come a point when even the junk food would run out and I’d be left with nothing, forced to sneak around in the kitchen in the middle of the night, looking for leftovers carelessly tossed aside by my spoiled, bratty, 1st year undergrad housemates. I filched food, things people wouldn’t miss, things that had been left at the back of the fridge and had started to rot. A spoonful of sandwich spread here, a bit of margarine there to fry my egg in, a slice of bread, a dab of Nutella. I got sick on cheap, overprocessed shit with no nutritional value, I got sick on food that had gone off, I ate from bins, and I went to bed hungry. Thankfully I had a boyfriend then who didn’t let me do it for long – I would put off telling him about being hungry for as long as I could, then burst into inconsolable tears, and he would send me money to buy food with. He continued doing that long after he had stopped being my boyfriend – acts of such genuine kindness that I’ll never be able to repay them, not fully anyway. But now I am back in India, and David can’t be my safety net anymore. I’m on my own, and I’m starving.

I eat once a day most days unless I am extraordinarily lucky. Many of my meals come from the roadside shack where only the very poor eat. Hunger is my constant companion, and I’ve dropped close to a dress size in about a month. The other day I was running my hands over my middle when I realised that I could feel my ribs again; today, I can see them starting to jut out. I am constantly dizzy, weak and fatigued, wandering around in a twilight of sleepy haze. I miss meat, I actively miss meat. When I can, I fill my stomach with sweet, milky tea. I quit smoking the day before yesterday, so now I don’t even have that to help me deal with the hunger pangs. On the surface, there’s not much difference between this and dieting, but at the heart of it, they are worlds apart. Because dieting comes with the luxury of choice, the luxury of having so much food that you can just choose to say no to it – starvation is devouring whatever is offered to you without question, because you don’t know when your next meal will be.

Starvation is waking up every morning with raging cramps in your belly, because you went to bed hungry and your stomach spent the entire night digesting its own lining, starvation is being thirsty and dehydrated all the time, unable to concentrate or focus on anything, forever wanting to just stay inert because there’s no energy, no energy, _no chance of escape, now self-employed, _concerned (but powerless)… starvation is losing all dignity. You come to a point where you’d do anything for food – you’d steal, oh yes, you’d steal like I did.

Dieting is a demonstration of economic and class privilege. When you’re worried about how you’re going to pay for your next meal, you don’t care about the number of calories in it – you care about how soon it’s going to get to you and how efficiently it can fill you up. You don’t worry about losing weight anymore – the weight comes off by itself. Instead, you start worrying about how to stay at your current size so that your clothes don’t stop fitting. Your hollowing collarbone and increasingly prominent ribs don’t spell success for you – instead they are indicators of your failure to feed yourself adequately. For the first time in my entire life, I don’t feel particularly pleased about losing weight. I look at my thinner body and I feel…defeat. I don’t gush at my leaner belly and legs – instead I worry about getting another writing gig. It’s easy to forget that through human history, losing weight has been a sign of ill health – it’s only in our present thin-worshipping culture that dropping dress sizes is considered to be the best thing you could possibly do for yourself.

I can, however, only speak from an Indian perspective – in the West, being fat is associated inextricably with being poor. In the Third World, though, the poorer you are, the thinner you usually are. This, in part, is due to different foods being priced differently in the Third World and the First. When I was in the UK, my cheapest meal option was crisps, frozen pizza and chocolate – here it is tarka (beans) and chapatis (wholewheat flatbread). And I think that without resorting to moral judgement, it can be agreed upon that one option is a load of easily digestible simple sugars, while the other is nutritionally more complex, requires more energy to digest, provides less energy on consumption because of the large amount of fibre in it, yet keeps you fuller longer for the same reason. In other words, the very definition of diet food (and incidentally, one of my diet staples of choice back in my privileged weightloss days). In India, the poor are constantly on diets, whether they like it or not – food designed to make you lose weight is what’s cheapest.

I prod at my newly revealed ribs and think how happy my inner 18 year old would be to see them sticking out. I wish I could meet the 18 year old Ragini once – I have things I want to tell her. She’ll hate me for it, spit on my face and claw my eyes out, but I’ll tell her nonetheless. I’ll tell her that she’s lucky and I’ll tell her to acknowledge it, because there will come a day when she won’t have a secure roof over her head or access to free, unlimited food, and she will regret every single meal she missed. I feel old, filled with regrets. Tired. Drained. But not hungry, thankfully – circumstances conspired today to give me a filling, if not very nutritious, breakfast. Hand to mouth, meal to meal – that’s my life now, former plenty long forgotten, the thought of weightloss being a welcome one alien to me. Yes, my 18 year old self would have bit chunks out of me and my 25 year old self laughed incredulously, but this is how things are now – although my dieting days are long behind me, hunger, my old frenemy, is my constant companion again.

Note: While all of you are wonderful, amazing people who want to help me in these awful times, I can still manage on my own! So, touched as I am by your offers to help, it’s not possible for me to accept them, and it makes me feel like such a jerk to say so! But to everyone who has offered to help, thank you, so, so much.

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