This World Mental Health Day, I’ve decided to write about how my mental health has been affected over the years by the issues relating to my weight, nutrition and, most significantly, how I’ve been treated by people.
I’ve eluded to this connection in previous posts but I’m going to be very clear about it in this one. It won’t be easy to write, it will be a long post but if it can even help one other person think about their own situation differently or how they might treat others, that would be brilliant.
Growing up, I was always a chubby kid. I don’t ever recall a time where I was the correct weight, let alone skinny. It’s only now I see all the crap that came with that. It’s only now I truly realise the impact it had on my mental health.
Just some of the names/words people have used to call me over the years: Michelin Man, ‘jadio’ (Gujarati for ‘fat boy’), Sherman (referencing the Nutty Professor). These may seem harmless taunts but actually, as a child, I dreaded seeing the relatives and the kids at school who used these phrases because my weight was only getting worse and so I knew I was only going to be subject to more (and it was probably going to get worse). A vicious cycle.
The impact of these words was so immense. I was just expected to always take the joke at my own expense, especially as a boy/man. (Because boys don’t cry. Because a man who can’t take a joke isn’t really a man). Being a fat kid also meant almost always being left out by male cousins and classmates.
“Nim, you can be the goalie or the commentator, if you like.“
I love a good joke around like anyone else but when you’re dealing with a fat joke every day as a child, it’s like a pin prick to your body. You get used to it because it’s not overly painful anymore. It’s only now I look back and see the pool of blood that was left behind.
Remember the good ol’ days of the summer play scheme?
Back when I was 10 or 11, we were all taken on a trip to the local swimming pool for a day. Kids started to get into their swimming gear. I couldn’t take my clothes off. Instead, I went and sat in a cubicle while the changing room emptied out. I was paralysed with fear.
I HATED my fat, ugly self. I was disgusting. I didn’t want to disgust others any more than I was doing by being fully clothed.
No child should be conditioned to self-loathe like that but there I was…
Five minutes before their swimming session was up, I had a quick shower and was almost fully ‘changed’, so as to look as though I’d also come back from the pool with them. A couple of really kind children had noticed I wasn’t in the pool but I bluffed that I’d been on the other side. They were children and so didn’t press any further. As far as my family were concerned, I had a great time at the pool. I got away with it.
I actually used to love going swimming with my parents and sister on the weekends but I was always subjected to abuse by kids (and, one time, one of their parents too!) But I never spoke to anyone about it.
Relatives with no filter
I remember a time when some distant relatives from India came to visit our family home. I was 14 at the time. I opened the door to welcome them in and, bearing in mind this is the first time we were ever meeting, their first words to me were “Gosh, you’re fat, aren’t you?”
Interestingly, one relative, who regularly called me ‘jadio’ as a child, remarked on how good I looked (their words, not mine) when I saw them at a family event in October 2018. It wasn’t particularly a “well done” on your progress but more a “about bloody time you sorted yourself out” kind of vibe to the comment. I share this with you not to embarrass that individual but to reflect on my own progress – their words meant nothing anymore.
Know your worth
It’s because I’m on a journey of self-worth. For so long, TOO long, I’ve let my physical appearance and fitness define me, in so many aspects of my life. It’s why I’m not in a relationship – I’ve never felt worthy enough to be with someone because of the way I look.
I’m now working on changing that but I hadn’t realised how many men are affected by body image issues. I started this blog in May after attending a virtual wellbeing session hosted by rugby brothers Jonny and Mark Wilkinson. It was really striking, hearing about their mental health and body image issues respectively. We were able to submit questions and, luckily, one I submitted was answered.
Thank you Jonny and Mark for the inspiration!
This week, I watched Freddie Flintoff: Living with Bulimia. You know, the Wilkinson brothers and Flintoff are household names and you just don’t expect to hear from so-called “macho” sports stars talking about their difficulties. It further reinforced to me that I’m not on my own in this and while I can understand that as an adult, it’s almost comforting my inner child.
Research by the Mental Health Foundation in 2019 found:
- One in five adults (20%) felt shame, just over one third (34%) felt down or low, and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image;
- among teenagers, 37% felt upset, and 31% felt ashamed in relation to their body image;
- just over one third of adults said they had ever felt anxious (34%) or depressed (35%) because of their body image.
My mum did everything she could when I was a kid to help me be healthy. She encouraged me to exercise, got me signed up to a dietician service (she came to the appointments with me) and even adapted cooking to make it healthier. She even would try new foods with me to help me eat healthier – there was a whole pineapple cottage cheese phase and everything!
I mention this because I want to make it clear that I’m not blaming anyone. My mum did what she could with the resources that were available. I am so grateful that there is more mental health awareness now because if I was referred for help as a child or young person now with what I had experienced as a child myself, there is just so much more available. I didn’t know back then how much of a mental health issue this was for me. I think we all assumed it to be a physical issue. Mental health wasn’t even talked about at school. I’m also very glad social media wasn’t around when I was a child as I am genuinely not sure what I would be like now – or whether I would even be here at all.
I’ve been a champion for mental health for years. Partly because I began to recognise how much it wasn’t spoken about, especially in some communities where it still has such a stigma attached to it. I can guarantee there will be fellow brown people reading this (and perhaps not just brown people, to be fair) who will be thinking:
Is he just after attention? Why is he putting himself on show? The dude is just crazy.
It is so important to talk about what is going on with you, either with someone you really trust or with someone impartial by getting some form of therapy (which could be a self-referral to your local psychological support unit or via the many support charities out there). Click here for support links, if you want to look at just some of the options that are available to you.
This blog has been really empowering for me. I have taken control of my own narrative and therefore my own life. I care much less about what other people think. I wrote earlier about self-loathing. That is only something I have been able to stop doing in the past three years. It’s a continuous journey with no immediate fix but there is something to be said about knowing your own worth. I am so glad that this is something I have recognised and continue to work on as the more I do, the more the things that weren’t right in my life resolve themselves and that, of course, includes my health and fitness.
Finally, this World Mental Health Day, take the time to have a conversation about mental health, whether that is yours or somebody else’s. People who know me know I’m generally a positive person with a smile. For so long, that smile masked a heartache and sadness that no one, other than my sister and a handful of friends, could see. I am grateful for their support and in the spirit of paying it forward, anyone reading this can talk to me about anything confidentially any time.