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Essays

What Ramadan Is Like When You Have an Eating Disorder

It’s easier to starve myself without arousing suspicion when everyone around me is fasting.

by Hadeel Abdel-Nabi
May 13 2019, 4:54pm

Image via Pexels

It’s nearing the close of the first day of fasting during Ramadan and I’m 16 years old. In the background, my mother is setting the table as my father watches the news on the highest volume. We’re all drained as we watch as the minutes tick by endlessly, pulling us closer towards sunset, when we can finally break our fast. As we get closer, I start to get nervous and look up “thinspo” on my phone for strength. I pull up a page of fragile limbs, protruding collar bones and bony fingers and begin to scroll. As my family settles in, excitement washes across their faces as anxiety spreads across mine. The sun fades out of its final moments, and the call to prayer echoes throughout our now silent home and we all open our palms in prayer and thank God for allowing us to observe another Ramadan.

I take my first sip of water and feel it flow throughout my entire body, cooling every inch, while my family disassembles the mosaic of food spread across our kitchen table. I follow their lead, fill my plate and spend the fleeting 30-minute meal cutting, picking at and rearranging the calories on my plate between flimsy complaints that I filled up too much on water. My mother looks at me searchingly as I pile my “leftovers” into a container and place it in the fridge, but doesn’t ask any questions, to my relief. I spend the rest of the night wavering during taraweeh (nightly prayers), elated that my net calorie count for the day was well into the negatives.

Ramadan seems to creep up on me every year. And every year I, like many other Muslims, look forward to the spiritual rejuvenation and sense of community during the month. Growing up Muslim, this month has always been a pocket of relief and reconnection among whatever else was going on in my life. And while I find refuge during these faith-boosting 30 days, my disordered eating is something that not even Ramadan can help me escape, but the fear of not being “Muslim enough,” or that there was something wrong with me has been silencing.

My relationship with food has been dysfunctional for as long as I can remember. Growing up fat meant that binging, eating in secret and distorted ideas of self-image were more than common—I went on my first diet at six. My weight has always been tied to my self-worth, and when I hit high school and discovered calorie restriction, water fasts and the world of disordered eating blogs, I was hooked on the fantasy of complete control, as I’d felt so out of control my entire life when it came to food. And so began almost a decade of various eating disorders, “recovery,” weight gain, relapse…wash, rise, repeat. And whenever Ramadan would roll around, depending on which part of the cycle I was in, my spirituality would almost always become an afterthought when put up against food.

This year, I’m struggling to keep my disordered eating at bay, more so than any other year. Following a year of what I would call healthy weight loss, old habits and thought processes have found their place in my pursuit of “perfection.” I’m now 23, but I find myself back to where I was seven years ago, obsessed with my total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), the calories I can realistically burn during a workout without water, daily calorie limits, calories in, calories out, calories, calories, calories. But no matter now self-aware I am and no matter how much I wish I could reach out for support, I know that I can’t. I’m terrified as being branded as a bad Muslim for using a time of piety for my own twisted gain. And so year after year, I’ve stayed silent.

The thing about eating disorders is that they thrive in secrecy, and it’s really easy to fill up on water, have a few bites of a meal and spend the rest of the night distracting yourself with worship. But the fact that worship has become a distraction is probably what breaks my heart the most about this, both for myself and every other Muslim struggling with illnesses related to food and weight. I was taught that during Ramadan, the Devil is locked up and left powerless, but my devils have always prevailed and I find myself questioning how strong my faith is, challenging my identity and overcome with guilt that I’ve turned the one month out of the year which should be dedicated to God, into my own personal anorexic meal-plan.

Like many other mental illnesses, the various forms of disordered eating are still taboo both within and outside of my community, further feeding (no pun intended) into the secrecy. Muslims with eating disorders both suffer and thrive in private, able to blend seamlessly with our seemingly normal peers during the day.

I want to believe the stigma comes from the fact that this is an uncomfortable topic to talk about. But I know it goes far deeper than that—we shy away from having a conversation about anything that might allude to the fact that we’re struggling; like mental illness it’s a symptom of weak faith. No one wants to be othered within the Muslim community, especially when Islamophobia is rampant and all we have is our community.

And honestly, eating disorders aren’t pretty. They’re hollowed eyes, fading relationships, scarred knuckles and self-loathing. Add a layer of stigma and guilt, and you can pretty much guarantee that no one is willing to talk about them. It took me seven years to find the courage to talk about what I’m going through with my Muslim friends, and even then, I spend hours regretting exposing myself—I not only feel crazy, I feel like I’ve failed my people and my faith.

This isn’t a call-to-action against Ramadan or other Muslims—I still soak up whatever spiritual benefits that I can when calories and weight aren’t dominating my every thought. I’ve reconciled with the idea that I would be fasting whether I struggled with eating disorders or not. I’m not “less Muslim,” or “bad.” I can acknowledge that this is a time where I’m at a high risk for relapse and still work on my faith.

My one hope is that we can one day have these conversations within the Muslim community and acknowledge mental illness as an illness and not thoughts that can just be prayed away.

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