“Your body is a temple,” a cousin once told me, after he had spit out the paan he had been chewing, on a nearby wall – the wall of a temple compound. I was six when I first learned this lesson. People worship Gods, and forget the temples every time.
I was ten when I was first called ‘fat’, thirteen when I was first called ‘anorexic’, fifteen when I was first called ‘a slut’, and seventeen when I gave up trying to fit in. How could I fit in? And even if I did, where would I fit in? In a society that teaches you to fit into the shapes of fruits to look ‘appealing’? I was eighteen when I decided I did not want to have an ‘apple-shaped’ body, or a ‘pear-shaped’ body, or a ‘banana-shaped’ body (or a ‘pineapple-plum-peach-pomegranate-shaped’ body) or even the most coveted ‘hourglass’ figure.
Or, didn’t I?
It was a little too late to save myself.
At twenty-one, every time I saw a cake, I saw 15 more crunches, 20 more pushups, an extra hour on the treadmill, 250 more jump-rope skips. And trust me when I say this, I was tired.
“No, I should drink water instead.” Detox. Detox till no more toxins are left to detox. And then, detox some more. Detox till you’re a walking skeleton with a vagina that refuses to bleed – and then wonder why your body behaves the way it does.
At twenty-one, every time I slept an extra hour, I saw a broken gym schedule and woke up sweating: “How much did I oversleep?” 1 pound? 10 pounds? 100 pounds?
At twenty-one, every time I ate one single French-fry, I felt it burn down my throat and deposit on my thighs, like it had nowhere else to go. No, I think I’d rather smoke another cigarette and go easy on the fries.
At twenty-one, every time I went to a party, I painted the sweetest smile I could muster on my painted lips and denied the food politely, “I’m sorry, I’ve already eaten”; “I’m sorry, I’m on medication”; “I’m sorry, no more, I’ve already tasted this!” when all I really wanted to say was: “I’m sorry I exist. I’m sorry, I’m an apology on legs. I’m sorry I apologized.”
At twenty-one, every time I squeezed into corsets that refused to let me breathe, I felt a little better about myself. Every time the belts cut into my waist, I appreciated myself a bit more. Every time the stilettos made my feet bleed, I fell in love with myself all over again. Every time the bra strap left a new blood-red impression on my shoulder, I made a green tick mark on my mental progress report.
A couple of years ago, my mother taught me a trick to deal with bad days – days when I ran the risk of bursting into tears in public: One bold swish of eyeliner and a slightly heavier hint of kajal. She was confident that the society I had grown up in, had made me enough self-conscious to tell me that smudged marks on my eyelids were worse than the continuous pangs of pain inside my head, that it was better to rot on the inside than to look rotten on the outside, that dark circles were worse than dead eyes.
And today, when someone tells me I’m beautiful, I look at them speechlessly, like I had nothing more to say, like I had gone numb at that sentence, like I didn’t believe them, like I couldn’t believe them, like I would never believe them. Sometimes, my eyes turn into mirrors that scream back at them: “Look! Look at what you’ve done! Look at your face when you lie to me so easily, you liar! Just look at your face!”
Sometimes they stay; sometimes they run. I understand both. Understanding is the revenge I take on myself – every time.
I do not love myself yet. How can I? I’m not a fruit yet, nor am I the most desirable man-made glass jar that society tells me I should be. What do I do when I have no space for existence here? What do I do when all ‘art’ describes ‘beauty’ as ‘perfection’ and all science describes ‘perfection’ as ‘unattainable’?
“You need to be ideal.”
“The ideal doesn’t exist.”
How do I exist in this constant bombing of contradictions? Where do I create my space? And if I do not create my own space, how do I let myself live, let alone love myself?
“Your body is no temple, garden, parking lot, hotel room, vehicle, or utensil” I tell my six-year old cousin as she sits on the floor of my house with her toys scattered all around, “It is home. It is the only space you have in this universe to be you, to think your thoughts, to feel your feelings, to dream your dreams, to take your flights, to have your very own, very special, very personal conversations with your very own, very special self.”
I feel her eyes on the floor as I scrub it clean with the mop. And I smile, hoping she saves herself.