Some of you will recall a monthly body positive workshop headed by my friend Leah, a blogger in the UK that I took part in last year. If you read the blog’s concluding posts to 2014, you will know that those posts created nothing short of an intense paradigm shift as far as personal body politics was concerned. It was a real shame that I did not end up completing the last few posts. Life had gotten in the way, taking up energy and headspace. I was not in the right frame of mind to delve deep within.
Close to the end of last year, my friend and blogger Rebecca of the blog Rebequita Rose invited me to join in a 2015 series of body positive posts where we would once again take a look at how we view our bodies. You can read Rebequita’s motivation for creating the collaboration Unconditional Body Beautiful right HERE.
This is the first post for the series.
It will take a look chronologically at the relationship I have had with my body over the years and some of you know this story well, so I apologise for the rehash. The thing is, it will never get old for me because this Is my story and it has led me down some enlightening pathways.
Right, so be prepared. This is going to be very long. I might end up dividing this into two parts if it looks too lengthy.
I have penned a synopsis of my life story before and you’d think it gets easier talking about it with time. It still hurts. But I write this to grow further and in the hopes of helping someone out there trying to reclaim her self, like I am.
December 29 1981
There was nothing remarkable about me as a baby but to my parents, my birth was a very special occasion. Having miscarried before conceiving me, mom made sure that she took great care in the process leading up to my birth. As her firstborn, I was pampered in utero with my mother reading me stories and singing lullabies. Which explains my deep love for literature and music to this day.
I was born into a modest household where my father worked full time
while studying part time to provide a better life for his family; better than the one he led. He came from very humble beginnings and as such, wanted us to achieve the very best we could academically and vocationally in order to avoid the hardships he had to endure. Mother was an accountant turned housewife upon my birth, she came from a more privileged but very authoritarian upbringing. So discipline, good manners, diligence are very important values my parents still hold on to.
For the first 3 years of my life, my little family unit lived with my father’s older brother, wife and children. My upbringing differed along the stages of my growing up years. During this period, I was loved and pampered by the extended family I lived with. I was a fussy eater from the start, with mom and my aunt whom I call Maa (because she was a mother to me) thinking up of ways to get me to eat. I was sickly but it did not faze me. There was plenty of playing and exploration to be done. With two older cousin brothers by my side most of those 3 years, I grew into toddlerhood as a tomboy. My appearance did not help matters; the pageboy haircut and reluctance to wear ‘girly’ clothes would confuse people when I was introduced as the firstborn daughter.
I was born with compromised immunity so mommy did spend a lot of time worrying about the sudden high fevers that made my lips turn blue. Daddy was a lot more nonchalant and he expected that I would grow out of it with age. That didn’t happen, but I don’t hold that against him! As if he would have known.
Nov 18 1985
I was turning 4 and my parents welcomed another baby girl into the world. By then, we were living in a simply furnished apartment of our own. Living with the in laws did not bode well on my mom so by the time she moved in to the new place, she was suffering from Depression. I daresay that she suffered from such bouts even while carrying me in her womb. There is a strong genetic link between a pregnant mother’s mental state of mind and the effect it has on her offspring. Mommy was not faring well and after Archana was born, she spiralled into a series of paranoia attacks, depressive episodes and tension headaches.
I was still a skinny, active tomboy at that age and having a sibling was not a welcome sight at first since I had enjoyed four years of adoration..but it did not take me long to start fawning over my beautiful baby sister. She was my living breathing baby doll – perfect in every way with her beautiful eyes that had lustrous lashes, rosy cheeks, deep dimples when she giggled and a beautiful head of silky blond-brown hair.
It was at that point that I learnt the difference of treatment when a person was perceived more aesthetically pleasing. I was a gangly, dull looking girl with an air of awkwardness about her who preferred smashing things like The Hulk than playing with dolls.
I guess you can say I have always been a keen observer of the world around me. I picked these little nuances and kept them in my head for further reference, until proven wrong or reaffirmed to be right.
Jan 3rd 1987
It was the first day of primary school and mom had arranged for the school bus to pick me up. I noticed that the Chinese girls would not smile at me or sit beside me. Maybe I smelt funny? I smelt myself and it was the scent soft baby talcum powder.
That was the day I learnt about race and being minority.
My parents come from the Northern region of India where the spoken language is Hindi. The majority of Indians in Singapore however hail from the South. To say that the North and South are different is putting it mildly. Same country, different worlds. As a result, the Indian school mates took an instant dislike to me. They cornered me before school or during recess, forcibly taking my pocket money and threats to beat me up. I was a very introverted, meek child so I shivered when I heard their voices nearing me. I did not know what I had done wrong. I was Indian too, except I learnt Malay because I picked it up easier during kindergarten.
The Malay kids didn’t mind me because they liked Bollywood but I was still considered an outsider..I was a Hindu and Malay was not my native language. The Chinese kids didn’t see any difference between me and the other Indians. The Eurasian kids got along with me because we were misfits..except they got treated better for having one Caucasian parent.
I was still pretty happy go lucky though. Your blogger was a dreamer, an imaginative mind led me down so many lofty daydreams. I could disappear in the worlds books created. I could listen to music and dance to the beat with joy. I could find myself in a movie when watching it, as if right beside the characters. Life was still pretty spectacular 🙂
There was an English teacher who like the Indian schoolmates took an immense dislike to me and showed it. It first started with a knock on the head or a harsh reprimand for being tardy – daydreamers have bad penmanship – but then she began to grow more hostile. I would get skin peeled off from the rapping of metallic rulers on the knuckles or knees. She would give me a few tight slaps in front of the entire classroom and bellow at me. She then started to beat me up proper with anything she could lay her hands on – rulers, pencil cases, feather dusters.
I think people with simple hearts tend to get roughed up the most. We are hated for being so immune to the problems of the world. That’s what I think anyway. And guess what, it worked. I no longer am the simpleton I was. Well basically I am messed up!
I was in a dilemma.
Did I tell my parents about this and incur the wrath of the teacher or Did I continue to allow her to use me as a punching bag? Not an easy question for a 7 year old. On one hand, there were my strict authoritarian ‘spare the rod spoil the child’ parents who would give my Tuition teachers permission to smack me if I erred in class. On the other hand, there was their fierce love and protectiveness to the point of smothering me.
Eventually, the bruises started to get out of hand and after fibbing about it to mom one too many times, I decided to come out with the truth. Naturally my parents were livid and stormed down to school to confront the teacher who denied the accusations without batting an eyelid. But when classmates started to come forward to ‘testify’ on my behalf, she panicked and made a truce with my parents.
The year Taylor Swift was born, I was 8 years old and seriously falling behind in schoolwork. Blame it on the adhd, the daydreamer. I was notoriously absentminded and tardy although my teachers and parents went on and on about how “She would be excelling with flying colours, if she would just stop dreaming and start concentrating”.
Just focus Aarti. Be a good girl.
Try a little harder. Your best is not enough. Why did you get 80 instead of 99 out of a 100? Why don’t you listen to what I keep telling you to do? Why are you so careless with your math problem solving? Why can’t you pay attention?
Try as I might, perfection eluded me.
It’s not as if I did not want to obey. I just wasn’t born of the same bark my mom or dad were. They were solid oak trees while I was a runaway dandelion.
It was around this time that my parents also began to worry about my skinny form. Academics were not my
thing but sports definitely was. But I just as sickly as I was during infancy.
My parents were advised to start me on an appetite-inducing treatment. Operation Make Aarti Robust.
Operation Aarti Robust went awry and morphed into Operation Aarti the Fat, Difficult, Non-academically inclined blimp. I myself was confused with the rate at which I grew out of my gangly frame. I huffed and puffed a lot more during P.E classes. I couldn’t fit into my clothes. I felt pudgy and now that I was also bespectacled, I looked like a stranger in the mirror.
Oh I was still daydreaming and keeping happy. But I was a lot more conscious of the need to perform well and please. I felt anxious when I saw the results of a class test, not knowing what storm would erupt at home because I delivered mediocrity. I felt bad that I couldn’t be as smart or as thin or as pretty as my parents would have liked me to be. They emphasised that prettiness was not important, but I saw the blatant difference in the treatment my beautiful younger sister got from people in our midst and the treatment I got.
I felt inadequate and afraid because I did not know what to do about it. It’s not as if school was a walk in the park, I didn’t have that many friends and got jeered so often for my clumsiness and size. I was called ugly, hippo, Fattie to my face so many times that I started to call myself that when I caught my own reflection. I began to hate mirrors.
Puberty struck early. At 12, I thought I was dying when my mom laughed and passed me a thing called a pad that made me waddle while I bled from where I only thought pee was supposed to exit from.
With puberty also emerged some vanity. I observed the pretty girls in school and noticed their diet talk. So I started to watch my food portions. I also observed how flirtatious they were with boys. That was not my forte so I just watched them bat eyelashes and smile coquettishly.
With puberty also came anger.
Along with the fear, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy came a lot of anger. Largely directed towards myself. Occasionally directed at my pillows. I did not understand why I was made so imperfect in every way. At least if I wasn’t pretty I could be smart.
At least if I wasn’t smart I could be athletic.
My curves began to slowly make an appearance and my constant page boy cuts were replaced with a longer, thicker head of wavy hair. Oh but I was far from being a desirable girl. I had huge soda pop glasses, vampire fang-like teeth at the side, I wasn’t growing taller (unfortunately that is when I stopped growing taller) and I was such a klutz.
I didn’t like looking like my dad or being told that I was almost identical to him. Dad was a tanned, muscular, tall, well dressed and bespectacled (by then he had obtained his MBA and landed a very high flying position in an MNC). I wanted to look like mom – fair skinned, no glasses, pretty head of hair and wear nice outfits with nice jewellery. Oh and makeup. I wanted to wear makeup like mom! Especially her signature deep red lipstick. I loved her fashion sense and how she carried herself.
The end of that year was the end of an era. Primary school was over, it was time to tackle secondary school and a whole new world of possibilities. Or so I thought.
Hello teenage life, Bye awkward childhood! There was so much excitement to grow older and be a cool kid.Everyone looked hilarious on their first day of secondary school but three months later, the metamorphosis was complete. I had ditched those hideous glasses for cooler metallic ones, I grew my hair longer and styled it like the girls in Beverly Hills 90210 (I LOVED Brenda), I was watching my diet like a hawk and exercised furiously at home and during P.E lessons.
If you think I did all of the above to get a boyfriend, you are so far from the truth. I wanted to finally fit in with the girls. So I moulded myself into a standard cookie cutter teenager of the 90’s. Boys were still considered platonic friends whom I could joke around with.
As with primary school, my Indian schoolmates regarded me disdain..well the girls did. The boys adored me and I had absolutely no idea why, which irritated me because it irritated the girls. Was I ever going to make friends with other Indian girls?
And just like primary school, I spent a lot of my time hanging out with my fellow misfits – other northern indians and Eurasians.
While I was busy getting up to speed with my new social standing and teenage life, I struggled with the curriculum. How did everyone manage so many subjects every term? How was it suddenly all so alien and a hundred times tougher? Clearly I was stupid, that was my thought. Clearly it couldn’t be that having adhd and mild Asperger’s would make me an ideal candidate for having trouble with adapting to change and attaining new learning skills.
Note to reader : By 15, I had suspicions that I was clearly not like the other kids in terms of learning but I didn’t know for sure until I was diagnosed at the age of 20. By then, I had found ways to cope with academia.
Within three months of secondary school so much had changed within and on the outside. Tragedy struck the family in March when Nani (maternal grandmother) had a stroke and slipped into a two month long coma.
I do not mention relatives or family friends much because they are not important but Nani is an exception. Nani was an affectionate, funny lady who really cared about me. She loved all her grandkids but I do know she quite loved the mischief and spells of Luna Lovegood-ness that I was prone to. She would chide me for playing under the sun, because “who will marry a dark skinned girl and that too a tomboy?”. She had a hearty laugh for when I retorted with eye rolls.
Those nail-biting months of sitting beside her in the ICU ward, praying that she would wake up bore down heavily on us all. She did miraculously wake up 2 months later and how we rejoiced, how we enjoyed hearing her speak and laugh again. Sadly, she slipped back into a coma a week later and it went downhill from there. A month after she slipped back we decided to let her off the life-support machine. We were keeping her body alive but her brain was dead and she had left us long before we decided to come to grips with that fact.
What a way to turn 13.
My grades slipped to abysmal proportions and with the stress of nani plus his new job..dad lost his patience with me. All he ever wanted was for his children to excel in school, why was it so hard for me to do so? Why was I giving him such a hard time?
Our family is known for possessing scary tempers. Until this point, getting caned or ‘feather dustered’ or slapped several times was the mode of punishment. Something in him snapped that year and I was no innocent party, but I did end up bearing the brunt of his rage for a few years.
There can be so many arguments made against his ways. He could have been a lot more empathic. He could have tried to understand why my grades were spiralling. But I didn’t know why I was so tardy and absentminded so how could I explain it to him? I honestly believed that it was because I was just so messed up in the head, so unbelievably stupid. So I did not resist the beatings.
By the end of that year, I turned 13.
I lost my grandmother, my innocence and my inner joy. I stopped daydreaming.
At 14, I was hell bent on making sure I would right the wrongs from 13 so I worked my butt off to excel in class.
Which to my surprise, I actually did.
Hmph, maybe Im not so stupid after all. By then, I had also enjoyed the childlike innocence of puppy love and been devastated by the breakup. It was a defining experience to say the least. I was also fitting in with the girls a lot more.
Somehow it felt like I was losing myself. But I so badly wanted to belong. So I kept watching my diet and furiously exercising. I worked at trying to be perfect in every way.
At 15, we underwent a shift of classes from generic subjects to being shuttled to the Science, Sub-Science or Arts classes. My parents chuckled at my desperate need to join the sub science class and thus the need not to score too high so that I wouldn’t get sent to Science. Sub-science meant that I could continue to study Literature and History, do away with Geography. Major hurrah when I made it to the class of my fancy!
As usual, this shift did not bode well for my internal learning system that takes more time than usual to get cracking on learning. So I started to struggle with my grades once again. I also began to rebel. I was tired of being the boring goody-two shoes. I needed to be Cool. So I skipped school, forged my mother’s signature on the monthly progress report card and refused to give a shit about it. I started to enjoy movies, music and books again.
But it was a short lived period of bliss. When the midterm results came in, my dad was confused over how he had never once seen my grades for tests. Soon he put two and two together, then got a reluctant confession out of his juvenile delinquent daughter (in his words). Oh the beating I got for that was so bad.
This perfection business began to get annoying. Friends only liked me if I was a certain way, my parents only liked me if I was another way. I was not a mute soft toy that was immune to insults and punishments. Why did I have to be slim to be accepted? Why did I have to have the perfect grades to be considered accomplished? Why did I have to cut classes to be called fun?
Life began to feel like it was being lived on autopilot. I would breathing ragged breaths before entering home, anxious for the day’s punishment. It was saddening when friends would exclude me from their private chats because I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere but school and back, thus I would not understand their cool ‘adventures’. An emptiness gnawed within.
The year I turned 16 was the darkest year of life as I knew it. I had lost all my friends because I had grown tired of people pleasing. Troubles at home were far from over because I could not find it in me to concentrate on studying. All I seemed to want to do was curl up in bed and sleep. Sleep was a luxurious form of escape. Many prohibitions were created : not being allowed to read books aside from textbooks, not being allowed to listen to music. So that this oaf would quit being distracted and start studying.
I only had control over myself thus my body. So the binge-eating began to fill the emptiness within. Three burgers at a go, followed by intense guilt and then purging. It started as a one off thing but gradually became a daily need. Either that or sleep. There was not much energy to do anything else. I was listless and unable to concentrate in classes.
One day of rage led to cutting my hair with the kitchen scissors and when I went to school the next day, the few teachers that actually cared about my welfare sat up and took notice. They noticed the occasional limping and reluctance to rest my back on the seat, they noticed the tired eyes and fake smiles. My parents were horrified with this sudden about turn in my ways – it was bad enough that she wasn’t excelling in school, why was she looking so awful? Teachers began to pry into family life and eventually I broke down one afternoon, but begged them not to do anything lest the home situation worsened due to their interference.
I then realised that I was denying myself of pleasure by purging so I just binge ate to my heart’s content and by the end of secondary school..I was at my then-biggest size. Fantasies of being run over by a car, cutting myself in different places to feel pain because there was a deafening numbness to my existence. While my father caned, hit, threw things at me…I hit myself and hurled myself against walls, slapped myself for being stupid, clawed at my face for being hideous, stabbed at my body for being imperfect.
After discovering that not only had my ‘friends’ been studying while feigning indifference to their grades..I realised that I was in the pits of hell because I had messed up the chances of a proper tertiary education. That meant more hell at home.
Upon realising how naive I was for even trying to please those school mates, I decided to start anew with studying. Secondary school was done, it was time to create a more solid academic foundation. Physically, I was at my largest and the self loathing was venomous. It wasn’t as if I disliked physical activity, it was just that my body’s ability to curb hunger pangs was non-existent and no matter how much I ate, I did not feel full. The more I ate, the more comfortable it felt not to move around too much and be physically active. Plus, there was nothing remarkable about my appearance or personality so why bother slimming down?
While I got busy trying to get my academic life back on track, I began to gain some confidence by working part-time. By this time my father had washed his hands off me so he focused his attention on the younger sister instead. Also, I began to display stubbornness and refused to get bullied into staying at home and studying, instead making it my mission to experience work-life. I started to speak up and speak back. Naturally that had its repercussions but this time I fought back.
When I made friends at this point of my life, it dawned on me that they liked me regardless of my appearance or academic success. They liked me as I was and it made me wonder if maybe, there was hope yet for me. Life was so lonesome because keeping friends around was so difficult while having to live with parental rules. People eventually grew tired and walked away. But I couldn’t walk away from that existence even if I wanted to.
The violence at home was not as frequent but it was still present. The unpredictability of these sudden flare-ups at home gave me anxiety attacks on the way from school. It felt like I was getting nowhere by tolerating the emotional, psychological and physical beatings. Changes were stirring within that scared and yet excited me.
By the end of my 17th year, I started to make some headway with figuring out the course of my life academically. Having been observant to the nuances of human behaviour from a young age filled me with curiosity. What made us tick? Why do we react in certain ways?
Just how crazy am I? Or is it my parents that need a lift to Crazy Town?
I needed answers.
The curious thing with my father relinquishing his stronghold on my life was that I began to thrive. With that newfound lease on life, I was not going to make the same mistakes from before. This was when I began to view my body as an instrument to keep me lithe and clear headed, so I started to go for jogs. It felt good, but there was a vicious voice inside that berated me for being so Fat and Ugly beyond repair. I needed to whip myself into shape. I wanted to be fit so that the next time be hit me, I would hit back. Hard.
So the next few years, I focused on whipping myself into shape. The beatings stopped when I finally lost my temper one day after being punched in the face. He had caused the metal glasses to sink into my cheek. I saw red; smashed a chair over his back and chased him with the largest knife I could find while hurling all the obscenities I knew. My mistake after this incident was assuming that respect and assent could be attained through acts of anger. So I kept myself angry. I was angry when running because I wanted to show all those haters how far I had come. I was angry when I started my degree in psychology because I wanted to show my parents and extended family that contrary to their opinions, an accomplished woman did not have to be pretty. Also I had a point to make to my father – you underestimated me and judged me. Now watch me fight back.
Then something completely unexpected happened while I wasn’t looking.
I fell in love.
Note to Reader: oof looks like this might take more than one post and it has been emotionally Exhausting typing this out so I will stop here and resume with a continuation tomorrow.
Told you it’d be a long tale.
And I am getting there with how this ties up to the Unconditional Body Beautiful initiative. Bear with me. I might divide the next post into two but don’t you worry…it will not be boring. Life has definitely made sure of that as far as I am concerned..
TO BE CONTINUED…