Love and RestrictionsFood, Family, and Anorexia

I was born in Bangladesh and raised in Thailand, the eldest child in an arranged marriage. My parents performed as their culture decreed: The care, raising, and feeding of us kids was Momma’s domain. Papa’s was work, finances, and discipline. He reigned over his land and we, his subjects, with severity and love. Momma lived a tightly sequestered life, her personality knotted to a short leash. She hadn’t always lived that way. She was in college pursuing a degree in English Literature and a career as a professor when those plans were aborted by a marriage and a quickly conceived child—me.

I loathed every manifestation of Momma’s starved potential. I abhorred her silence around Papa. I detested the kitchen, the soft scent of food ever lingering in her hair, clothes, touch. I hated the stacks of books she squirreled into the corner by her side of the bed. I hated those books—the haunting call of her hidden truth—as much as I loved them and loved talking to her about them. In Bangladesh, the culture of food lives in the center of all life. We revere food as much as we loathe words and physical touch. We are a culture that views healthy verbal and physical intimacy as being indecorous, even among family, siblings, and partners. Most fathers, like mine, shy away from hugging their daughters after puberty. Inadvertently, not only does the withholding of physical affection wound us emotionally, it teaches us girls that our bodies are shameful. We start being objectified from a tender age, and begin to believe that our relationship to the world, particularly men, is reduced and isolated to our body, sexuality, fertility, and appearance.

Keeping true to conservatism, it is also believed that the best reaction to life’s most vulnerable and deeply felt matters like love, pain, anger, sorrow, trauma, and confusion is suppression. From the time we are toddlers, we learn to mute pain—a surefire roadmap to depression, insecurity, addiction, and self-harm. In this culture of repressed emotions, silenced pain, and resulting shadows, therapy, counseling, and discussion of such matters are taboo, viewed as dishonorable for one’s family, which only exacerbates the pain and leads to self-prescribed alienation. Similarly, challenging, transparent conversations on topics like molestation, rape, sexual assault, homosexuality, gender, and race, are utterly disallowed. For instance, when I was 11, a cousin tried to rape me. I was told with nonchalance, “Don’t be silly. Boys will be boys, this happens, especially between cousins.” I was left to fend for myself.

In Bengali, we use an informal dialect when speaking to friends and family, and an ornate, formal dialect with others, for business, academia, writing, and socializing. In the casual dialect we use with family, there’s no phrase for “I love you” or “I’m sorry.” In place of words, we have food. In place of self-determined identity, we have enforced domesticity. My beloved parents, like all parents, did their best while honoring the culture they knew. Nonetheless, at age 15, connecting the narrative encasing us all, I swore I’d create a personality starkly opposite of the traditional Bangladeshi woman. I would never have an arranged marriage, nor would I allow myself to be designated any role or task of domesticity. To me, the culture of food, cooking, and expressing love through food felt synonymous to women’s oppression and the repression of one’s voice. My rage against my culture, my parents’ marriage, the net of strife and pain entrapping us all, compounded by years of unhealed and ignored sexual trauma, coalesced into zealous focus, ambition, feminism, and anorexia.

Bangladeshi familyTurmeric ceremony in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Life had long brimmed with chaos; I was controlling and rejecting any bit I could. On February 19, 1998, I chopped my hair down to an inch-and-a-half. I began running seven miles a day. I whittled my food intake to a harsh, scheduled regimen of tiny portions. Within two months, I lost 22 pounds, and my eyes sank into violet-rimmed caves. My shoulder blades jutted, threatening to puncture skin. My vertebra spoke through my clothing, the pearls of my spine dotting my back. The tighter I burrowed into myself, the thinner I grew, the harder I pursued academia, writing, and art, the further I receded from my family, particularly, my parents.

When I graduated high school and left for the United States, I decided to major in women’s studies and theater, a seemingly perfect partnership to achieve my long-held dream of being a voice for those without one. I learned quickly that the acting industry is an illogical path for women’s empowerment and self-healing, but life moved too quickly to invent a new plan. Age 22 brought a miscarriage. 23, rape. 25 through 27, an abusive marriage, punctuating a larger history of similar toxic relationships. There was no one to talk to. With every wound, I dug deeper into my mind and sharper into my body. I intensified the ferocity and lengths of my daily workouts, increased my miles, decreased my calories, cut out food groups.

I became a creature sculpted entirely from piercing focus and harsh angles; with the world continually attacking me for being a woman, I became a soldier. The deeper I carved into myself, the more I withdrew from my family. Papa and Momma divorced. Momma married my stepdad, a kind, talkative American man who excels at giving bear hugs. Dad and his large, loving, extended family introduced us to the American holidays, famous for rituals surrounding food. Although I relished these rare holidays with family, I dreaded Thanksgiving and Christmas, mottled with panic and self-consciousness.

For most of us with disordered eating, or any kind of hidden illness or unhealed trauma, holidays with our families are excruciating. I couldn’t participate in cooking, baking, and eating—the very activities through which my family bonded and expressed love. I didn’t know how to participate without drowning, without binging, without losing every ounce of discipline, control, and composure. And discipline was the one thing holding the pieces of me together. Rock bottom is a destination one doesn’t hit as much as be found by it. It arrived for me at age 29. I looked around at my barren life, bereft of true, deep connection, absent of joy, intimacy, spontaneity, and communication, and I realized that starving and racing with my fierce intensity and loneliness meant eventual emotional and physical death. 

eating Thanksgiving dinnerstock photo of woman eating (Photo credit: Pexels)

My perfected regimen of control hadn’t succeeded in overriding the pain and poison swirling through the external world; I had swallowed the poison and internalized the pain. Unhealed trauma had metastasized as self-harm. The world had taught me that women were born for oppression and punishment, and I was honoring such mandates by continually harming myself, through myself, through cruel men, through the toxic industry I remained committed to. At age 30, I left behind the woman and the life I had made. I asked momma and dad if I could move in with them for a year. I had an unspoken hypothesis: By watching momma’s happiness—now inside her own thriving career—coming home to cook, eat, and live in love and joy with a man who wishes her and I only kindness, the love, peace, and security would travel into my body as if through osmosis.

While living with them, I wrote a memoir, I Am Yours. For 365 days, I wrote from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a break in the middle to run and eat lunch. Every evening, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., I spent with Momma and Dad. In the beginning, I watched them from afar, perched on a bar stool behind the kitchen counter, as they chatted and prepared dinner, swapping stories of their respective days. After a few weeks, I inserted myself into the tasks. Chopping vegetables. Sauteeing onions. Grilling. Baking. Eating. Laughing. Breathing. Growing. All forms of self-harm are rooted in the psychology that one deserves punishment, inflicted in concentric methods, an ongoing spiral of many-armed pain with oneself caught in the center. To foster true, sustainable recovery, that psychology must be replaced with the opposite: the belief that one deserves love and only love, in all healthy fashions.

Slowly, over the year with my parents, as I wrote day followed by day about the trials I’ve overcome largely on my own, love replaced pain. By tracing my narrative, I realized acting wasn’t my only skill; all these years, I’ve been resourceful, brave, and resilient. Recognizing this filled me with something entirely new: self-esteem. It gave me the confidence to initiate conversations with my parents and siblings about things we’d never spoken about. Slowly, we began expressing love more openly and frequently than before, through words, physical affection, private jokes, a family text-thread, make-your-own-pizza-nights. Things that seemed small were ultimately gold. And I’ve learned that food as an expression of love and identity can be beautiful. What matters is the mindset governing it all. Through these mingled practices, all the while living with a happy set of parents, my anorexia disappeared, self-love settled in, my wounds healed, and every trace of tightly stitched loneliness and severity left my body.

I am now 34. I’m now neither anorexic, a victim, nor a soldier—I’m a warrior. I have a home near my parents. We’ve all grown used to saying “I love you” and “I’m sorry,” and neither expression has lost its rightful power. Every Sunday, we have dinner. Last Sunday, we discussed Thanksgiving, which we will be hosting at their home. As is our new normal, Momma will handle the savory, I’ll contribute a few desserts. Growing parallel to the last four years, a new career as a writer, speaker, and trauma coach has taken shape. Now, being able to help other women in their journey of self-expression, healing, and empowerment daily fulfills the dream I’ve had since I was 11, of being a voice for those who have been silenced. The other night, after a performance of mine, an audience member asked Momma and Dad whether my work has impacted them in any way.

“It’s made me braver,” Momma replied. “We have always been close in our family but now, we talk about challenging things. We’re more connected than before.”

The moment her words touched the air, I realized arriving at these words has been my long journey home. Afterwards, Momma, Dad, and I went out for dinner. Every bite was heaven.

by Reema Zaman
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Reema Zaman is a writer, speaker, and researcher from Bangladesh. She is the author of the memoir I Am Yours. Her work has been published in Bitch, SHAPE, VIDA, Full Grown People, The Huffington Post, NAILED, Your Tango, and more. She speaks widely at conferences and universities on rape culture, self-harm, and the path to healing and empowerment. She presently lives in Oregon. For more, please visit www.reemazaman.com.

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