Nayana Chakrabarti, Parenting and Education Editor
I’ve thought of you often over the years, sitting, perched on the cusp of adulthood. I’ve marveled at your naivety, I’ve wanted to scold you into practicality and pragmatism. But you are a dreamer, not a doer. And here’s the strange, almost incomprehensible truth: you always will be. Heck, you’re even going to make a career of it and develop the kind of thick skin that allows you to wear your heart on your sleeve, put your soul out there and start fresh from the ‘bottom’ in not one, not two but three very different countries. The journey is not smooth. It never is, is it?
Sitting on the banister with your marvelously patterned trousers and your gloriously plastic NHS glasses, your head is in the clouds, that’s why you are not looking at the camera. You are in Canada, you have travelled to see your aunt, you have had the best day, you have just seen Alladin and you are in love with him and you want to be Jasmine. You love seeing people who look a little bit Indian on screen, even if they are two-dimensional and the product of someone else’s imagination. The trip began on a fortuitous note: you saw Andaz Apna Apna on your flight (Air India) over. Something about Karishma Kapoor’s and Raveena Tandon’s fundamental neediness in the movie appealed to you. These are your princesses, here are your fairytales. Right now, in this moment, you are wonderfully secure in yourself.
It breaks my heart to break it to you but this won’t last.
You return home to school. It is the 90s. Disney cartoons are still cool enough to warrant playground conversation. For some reason, the boys in your class begin to assign Disney princesses to each girl in your class. They can’t find one for you. Jasmine, you suggest. Nah, they say. You’re not pretty enough to be Jasmine. They wave you off and there you are. Dismissed. It’s not rage that courses through you, but shame. It’s an emotion you’re about to become very familiar with.
A few days or maybe a few months go by and you begin to notice that things are amiss. Strange things are happening to your body. Something that looks like blood, smells like blood but surely can’t be blood has begun to stain your underwear. You immediately jump to the conclusion that you have cancer. Therefore, you do the most obvious thing. You begin to stuff your stained clothes down into the bowels of your laundry basket where you hope they will never be noticed. If your parents find out you’ve got cancer, they’re going to be so mad! It’s best to hide out until it goes away…
Of course, that’s not quite how it works. You are found out and even though it turns out that you do not have cancer, what has happened to you, what is happening to you seems no less frightening. Everyone is reacting with fear. At 9 and three-quarters, you are told that you are too young to have begun your period but here you are, having your period. And it’s terrifying. Doctors are consulted, ultrasounds are taken, phone calls ricochet around your family’s rental apartment…The fear, shame and sheer embarrassment of it all reverberates through you.
Your body’s business is suddenly everyone’s business. People begin to call up your mother at all hours to tell her that you will be incredibly short. The doctor you visit tells your parents, in front of you, that it is very likely that you will be infertile. You are not yet ten. Your period arrived long before anyone in your life was ready to tell you about it. You have a diagnosis: PCOS or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome but you do not know what that means. As far as you are concerned you are just different from other girls (and not in the ‘good’ way that the 90s high school movies that you romanticise go onto romanticise themselves). Your body betrayed you. It did something that it shouldn’t.
At the moment, it feels like you have a shameful secret which you must hide from your peers. The little you learn about your ‘secret’ is what you glean from textbooks you aren’t meant to read yet. It will be years before someone takes the time to reassure you that you are not in fact a mutation…
By the time, they do, the damage is already done and your shame is more than just skin-deep. Your PE teacher will describe your developing breasts as a disability. Your family become obsessed that your step into puberty heralds a dull and ‘darker’ complexion. You begin to wish, hope and pray that on your 11th birthday, you will wake up to find you have swapped skins and bodies with your slender, lithe, puberty-free best friend… Instead, by the time of your 11th birthday, things have come to such a pass that you feel acutely sorry for anyone who has the misfortune to sit next to you, you have learned to feel apologetic about your presence. You live in fear of being bullied. You deal with it by publicly ‘bullying’ yourself before anyone else gets a chance to do it. You want them to know that it’s okay, you are in on the joke. This becomes part of your internal language.
Help comes from the most expected of corners. Books. Even though you have learned to sit with one arm sheltering your stomach, you are able to read your way to an equilibrium so that at the very least, you can function. You begin countless stories which you never finish. Several decades will go by before you begin to write stories about a girl like you for other girls like you.
Many of your fears will be unfounded.
Good news. You will fall in love and you will be loved in turn. Your fear that you are profoundly unlovable and unlikeable was a phantom in the dark that you were only too happy to vanquish when presented with the truth.
You have two children and you are daily surprised that your wreck of a body managed to make them. As that last sentence reveals, you will never really see eye-to-eye with your body. At least not by the time you are 35. But you will have a working relationship with it. In your own way, you will strive to take care of it. You will marvel at what it can do rather than deride it for what it can’t.
You are very short. Some of your dearest friends bend at the knees to talk to you. You find it incredibly patronising but you haven’t told them yet. Perhaps you’ll share this article with them. Your height bothers other people more than it bothers you.
You remain hairy. It is only in your 30s and thanks to Instagram that you will begin to realize that this isn’t a ‘you problem’ but simply a lack of representation of brown bodies like yours in the mainstream media. You learn to be less self-conscious.
You still do have PCOS and you keep meaning to start a special diet to control the symptoms. However, you also have poor impulse control and after spending your teens battling eating disorders, you are skeptical of diets and diet culture.
Over time, you have become more confident about your voice. You have discovered that you are able to use it. You tell the parents around you to talk to their children about puberty earlier than they had planned to. You are not afraid to use yourself as an example. It helps you as much as you hope that it helps them.
In private, you continue to rage against the fact that in your community periods are still euphemistically referred to as an ‘illness’. You learn that this ignorance about the menstruating body and the ways in which it works did not just affect you but others too. You continue to receive messages from strangers on Facebook because once upon a time you wrote about getting your period earlier than expected on a parenting group. Nothing ever truly goes away on the Internet and thus that message lives on in the ether.
You learn, as you get older, that you weren’t singled out for some unnecessary trial. You learn that you always had good choices and that those surrounding you at 9 did the best that they could with the knowledge that they had at the time. Your trauma remains your own but time and listening to other people and reading their stories also allowed you some perspective. You did not get the worst of it. At 9 you don’t realise this – and it will be a while before you will – your lifelong struggle with PCOS has been cushioned by privilege.
On your 35th Valentine’s Day, your children will teach you something extraordinary. You will overhear them telling each other what they love about themselves. Their conversation will fill you up with hope because somehow they have managed to learn lesson that eluded you completely: you did not have to spend a lifetime apologising for yourself, your existence. You did it anyway but it is time to stop now. It is okay – desirable even – to love yourself. The gospel of self-love has been part of your background noise. It was white noise that you were not able to distinguish, you didn’t think it applied to you. Your children will teach you that it did and that it does.
You just wish you knew sooner. What a waste of time this derision has been. What a distraction…But it’s okay. You have the rest of your life to show yourself some compassion.
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