Fluffy. It was the one word that came to me as I watched myself on screen for the first time while sitting in my second-grade classroom.
The week prior, my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Koda, had filmed each student in her class present our book reports to the class. The theme was biography, and being filmed was a special first-time treat for all of us. Now, one week later, our class was gathered in the school’s media room, paper cups of popcorn in hand, to watch the video of class presentations. It was a treat for all of us to see ourselves on screen, but I was especially excited: a bit of an attention-seeker by nature, I had put together a makeshift costume for my presentation, on Madame Curie, and decided to present as the Nobel Prize winner speaking about her own accomplishments. I couldn’t wait to see my white lab coat, large round plastic frames, and the bright pink lipstick I snuck from my mother’s dresser slathered on my lips. (In case you’re wondering, no, Madame Curie was not known for her taste in bold lip colors. I had swiped the lipstick off my mother’s dresser the morning of the presentation and had yet to learn that bright Barbie pink is not and will never be my color.)
Nonetheless, about twelve or so presentations in, my teacher’s off-screen voice finally announced my name, and I looked eagerly at the screen, the fluttering excitement in my stomach freezing up quickly in shock. The girl who walked in front of the camera looked nothing like me— though she wore my costume, glasses, lab coat, horrendous lipstick and all. Though she responded to my name and presented the book report I had prepared, she wasn’t— couldn’t be me. Dark-skinned and shiny, this girl seemed to take up more space in the frame than each of the classmates who presented before her. She was what I could only describe as “fluffy,” from the cheeks, the neck, the arms and hands poking out from each sleeve of the stark white lab coat, which in itself seemed to function to conceal something larger in size than what was needed by my classmates.
I remember feeling a hot flush wash over me a few minutes into the presentation, coupled with the queasy feeling that I did not like what was happening and wanted it to stop. Towards the end of her presentation, I silently willed this large, dark girl to stop talking and just walk off camera. What almost made the situation worse was that no one seemed to catch on to the horror of it all. From the classmates who applauded at the end of my presentation like they had the others, to my teacher who loudly praised my self-confidence and creative costume, not one other person seemed to notice how strange this person was, that she wasn’t— couldn’t be me. It was as if that monstrosity was just who I was, the person who sat in my seat, who my classmates interacted with every day.
This experience marked the first time I can remember that I began to split myself away from my image.
“She” was “me,” a me who I kept at a distance, a me who became perpetually disappointing. “I” was the real me, the voice inside who found “her” intolerable. At eight years old, I had learned early to do what so many women rely on to survive in our world: to make an enemy of the “she” I met every day in the mirror, who smiled back at me in the photographs of my friends’ binders in high school, and dorm room walls in college.
“I,” the critic, the judge, the police officer, would decide that, on a given day, my cheeks were too big, my makeup wasn’t right, I looked like a child, I was shaped like a whale, I came off as awkward, didn’t fit in— the list goes on. And I would walk through the world in a body that I could not— would not— fully own, reinforcing this chasm as I grew older.
As someone who loves to write, I began making a habit of filling the pages of my journals with caustic entries I would revisit years later in horror. I’d call myself names, scribble long paragraphs about my workouts and my food logs and my weigh-ins, peppering them with reminders to toughen up and work for the body and face I wanted. I saved simple joys in life to enjoy after the day I’d finally will my body into submission. I started up cleanse after cleanse, fad diet after fad diet, living my life like a kind of balloon bouncing between the high of a few pounds lost to the crushing lows when I’d yet again hit a point when I couldn’t make cabbage soup, lemon and cayenne pepper, or grapes and milk last longer than a few days. Then I’d blame myself: I simply lacked self-control. I didn’t want it bad enough. You gotta do what you gotta do, tough it out, get with the program.
Disowning your own body when it does not answer the standards of the critic means abandoning it; I learned this many years later. Internally, and with the desperation that came with envisioning the golden number, 125, less as a goal and more of a saving grace, “I” did the work of disowning “her,” that confident, creative, dark, “fluffy” girl on screen. I began a relationship with myself in which I found a home (albeit an uncomfortable home) in living a segmented life. It was as if I had grown accustomed to an existence akin to the image of a person looking into a shattered mirror to see many versions of herself reflected back. And as I grew older I began to realize that the shattering was no longer a phenomenon relegated only to my body issues that went without consequence. The shattering had established itself as a pattern in my life, reverberating in so many other places in which I managed multiple selves, with multiple different feelings about a given concern or issue: my relationship with my family, my status as a first-generation American, the conflicted feelings I had about myself as a woman, the qualities I had and wanted to have, the kind of people I looked up to, the feeling of never knowing what I wanted. The question here is not about the shattering itself, but more about my inability to see it as something that was anything other than normal.
Many years later, natural curiosity would lead me to explore concepts such as W. E. B. Du Bois’ theme of double consciousness, Homi Bhabha’s theory on hybrid identities, and Uma Narayan’s words on epistemic privilege, all of which had used theory and philosophy to discuss different aspects of multiple selves, or shattering, as they affected different groups in our history. I began to see the shattering as a consequence of my positioning in the world: woman, South Asian, first generation, Muslim, chubby (my vocabulary has become a little more refined since second grade).
I went to college, where I didn’t try very hard, to work, which made me feel like a prisoner, and to grad school, where I tried so hard I burnt myself out.
I looked for myself in everything I read in this stage, found answers that broke my heart, learned for the first time to have compassion for the many people I have been, for the many people around me who may not be exactly like me but in whose struggles and positioning I felt feelings akin to the nostalgia, anger, hope, resilience, and sadness that were so central to my experience. The voice inside aligned itself with this shift, and I started to force it, literally force it, at least in the beginning, to praise the body it had abused without hesitation for so many years. I started, in my decision making and through my actions, to apologize to it, to show it the love and compassion it had craved for so long. At the same time, I started to see the power of the voice in matching the voices of others who, too, began to rightfully see their positioning, or perhaps their own shattering of different forms, as the outcome of a world that was not merciful to them.
Mad Men is the only show I have ever watched the way I read novels, revisiting dialogue, tearing apart characters and searching for hidden motivations for their decisions and interactions. Sally, one of the main characters, is the daughter of the protagonist, Don Draper. “I’m so many people,” she once said, sighing, still a young girl in the process of internalizing or numbing herself against all of that which would continue to be unfair, to dehumanize. That line, from this character, has stayed with me. I am, and have been, so many people.
In my late twenties, I began to retreat into myself. Wary of fighting, of working against, I moved back home and began to work from home as well, the very childhood home in which I first learned to live as many people. I haven’t gone out much the past few years, haven’t socialized the way I would have expected myself to. I, always desperate for adventure and discovery, somehow found myself becoming a homebody. In my quietude, in the repetitious nature of a predictable life, I began to stitch up the tears that had come to represent the many parts of me.
Some may call this state depression.
I certainly had undergone my share of depressive feelings while in this space: What am I doing, why can’t I seem to even want to go back out there? What is going on with me, why does being here feel so right? At the same time, I felt a sort of reunification with myself, the feeling that the different parts of me were meeting each other, joyously, after a long separation. Can some depression be like that, like answering the calls of many voices asking to be with one another again? I am connected to that second-grader today, I find different dialogue for her confrontation with her on-screen image, and I have done the work of making myself whole again, in a world that is better for it.
You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.