That Girl - A Customer's Story

That Girl - A Customer's Story

‘That Girl’

I was ‘That Girl’. The one that  struggled with her weight, carrying an even heavier negative self-image overcast by a towering shadow of low self-esteem. Punctuated by an emotional cascade of self-pity, sadness and a sense that I did not belong, I believed that I could not be anyone else.

Age 9 is when it began, when it seems suddenly I went from being a skinny girl to noticeably chubby. I didn’t notice it right away, but what I did not see or feel others did, colouring my carefree childhood with conscious shades of shame. “Mahnaaz is a big one”, said one relative at the entrance of a family member’s home, where the number of shoes scattered about was an indication of the large gathering indoors, and 4 of us greeted new arrivals at the door. I mentally sunk and pretended not to hear those words. I had to chin up and be a big girl…just not too big.

Over the years, I’d find myself caught in a cycle of trying to ignore, yet also acknowledge these kinds of statements from those who apparently cared and that I should respect. It was confusing and damaging to my self-esteem. I had to love myself and be confident, but I also had to change myself and be someone worthy of praise. Navigating and defining this path of self identity would be fraught with challenges, which were beyond my years at the time.

Even shopping wasn’t fun and simple, as I imagined it would’ve been for girls my age. At 12-14 years old, I was unable to fit into the largest size of girls clothing and had to opt for lady’s sizes and fashions, like a little-big woman. Following an embarrassing pursuit for formal wear, I was deeply struck by shame and paranoia. “There is no way I can be my mom’s daughter. I’d look like her and not like this if I was her daughter. I must have been switched by accident at birth in the nursery. There must be something wrong with me and my mom is not telling me.”

Mahnaaz Dattu in her teens

Looking as I did also brought me down in junior high school. Ironically, as much as I loved the games and sports that were part of gym class, I didn’t always feel great during or after them. The worst was when I had to sprint across an open field with a pack of thin and nimble girls. In an effort to avoid the embarrassment of trailing far behind them, I asked my gym teacher if I could run alone. “You’ll be running alone with them anyway,” was her response.

The same gym teacher discriminated when volleyball try-outs came around, giving second round team cut to girls who were not nearly as skilled as myself. The thin, athletic girls that made these teams had a competitive spirit that was heightened by their mean attitudes. I was a hero for their soccer teams because I was “the wall” goal tender, but I was considered too fat and slow for any of their other teams.

(I eventually did make the volleyball team in grade 8 or 9 after questioning the gym teacher’s judgment in overlooking me the year before. As for playing in the ranks of the competitive, mean girls, I focused on the game more than them.)

The summer before high school started I was 15 and joined the gym. I was beyond the moon! My attempt to join a gym when I was 12-14 years old resulted in a teary breakdown. I was rejected for being too young, and therefore, at risk for my own safety.

Now at 15, this other gym became my summer bootcamp. I got addicted right away, spending 5 days a week, 3 hours at a time there, running, cycling and doing sit-ups. I also became aware of what I was eating and eliminated many foods - good and bad - from my diet. By the time September arrived, a new school also meant a new me. To the shock and surprise of many, including myself, I had shed 50 plus pounds (3.57+ Stone). 

I was finally starting to fit in but felt that I needed to do more to lose more weight. As a way to encourage one another to become thinner, a friend and I decided to skip (or if we had to, eat very little)  lunch. It was our secret pact and one we felt was right and necessary. We committed to it with pride.

Helping us along in our ‘mission to thin’ were images of apparent beauty we saw on television, in the movies, in the magazines and even at school from those pretty, thin and popular girls. Years later, even after the secret pact, the images I consciously and unconsciously consumed and held myself a standard to, would remind me that I still was not enough.

I had lucked out with my mom’s green-grey eyes, but I was not waif thin like Kate Moss and waif thin is what was in. To get there faster, I tested the idea of surviving on nothing more than a laxative. I had heard or read about girls taking laxatives as a way to purge themselves of what they had eaten. Thankfully, the test lasted only one day because not eating anything at all was too hard.

Reflecting on my childhood and teens, I am thankful that my perception and attitude towards being healthy, in shape and beautiful have changed. Beauty is not a fixed definition. It’s an evolving and diverse narrative that is internal and external, including one’s words and actions.

Mahnaaz Dattu now

More of this beauty still needs to be seen, heard and celebrated in the media. Brands need to embrace beauty as an evolving and diverse narrative too, rather than a fixed definition, to reflect the humanity of those they can earn respectable dollars from. This movement has started, but is riddled in contradictions, such as the one token woman of colour surrounded by her Anglo-Saxon counterparts in an ad. 

Responsibility falls on you and me too. As more women turn the camera on themselves in spaces like Instagram, every selfie they take and every video they shoot is an opportunity to share their authentic, beautiful selves - stretch marks, birth marks, baby weight gain and all.

As I’ve come to understand and appreciate real beauty more, I’ve changed physically for the better too. I train hard, but rather than focusing on my weight, I focus on my strength; rather than focusing on fitting into a certain size, I focus on building lean muscle; rather than admonishing fat, I enjoy the good, essential ones and the not-so-good ones in moderation.

Self-love is still very much a journey for myself. However, I am thankful that I did not stop at the words uttered and actions taken by others (and the media!) to define myself. I am thankful that I failed at that navigation in self-identity because I never would have found myself here and now, in anticipation of what’s to come.


Mahnaaz Dattu


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