In this personal essay, writer Adeline Hocine talks about how Ramadan can be dangerous for Muslims living with eating disorders.
Trigger Warning: This personal essay discusses fasting and eating disorders, and it may be triggering for some readers.
The first time I fainted from my eating disorder, I was in the second grade. After my Algerian family immigrated to the United States, I found myself surrounded by light-haired girls with delicate features, and my own thick, dark hair and sharp nose seemed unusual in comparison. Right away, I felt like I wasn’t normal. I started eating less, pushing my body to conform to new standards. Living with an eating disorder was something that I thought helped me cope. I was afraid to talk to someone about how I was feeling, knowing that it would mean admitting something was wrong. So, instead, I kept it to myself.
Living with a secret eating disorder can feel like a daily battle — but as a Muslim woman, Ramadan in particular resembles something closer to war. In fifth grade, when my Iraqi-American best friend began fasting for Ramadan, I saw an opportunity to mask my eating disorder with the veil of dedication to my faith. Suddenly, I felt inclined to participate for the first time; my Muslim parents never pressured me to observe Ramadan growing up. While mental illness is stigmatized, fasting for religious purposes is encouraged. By fasting to prove my faith, I have an entire community of people behind me validating my commitment.
Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown, not even consuming water in the process. Not only does this practice teach appreciation and gratitude, but the hunger one experiences creates a space that can only be filled by their faith. At the end of each day, the fast is broken with iftar, a community meal that more so resembles a feast rather than your average dinner.
After my first day of fasting, the unfamiliar weight in my stomach triggered new thoughts. Instead of feeling relief from finally being able to eat, I decided to purge after iftar. This quickly became a pattern for me throughout Ramadan. Even long after the holiday ended, my routine remained.
Despite the harm I was causing my body, my eating disorder brought me comfort for all the wrong reasons. I knew I could never control the way others viewed me, but fasting allowed me to control the way I viewed myself, both within my community and in the face of American beauty standards. While I should have been observing Ramadan because of my faith, it was my eating disorder — not my faith — that motivated me to fast. As my body grew weaker, my mind continued giving in to the triggering thoughts. I somehow had managed to convince myself this was all a sign of strength.
In reality, I was losing a battle with my mental health, and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. My parents never asked me if I was struggling, though they did occasionally make comments about my extreme weight loss. Mental health is not openly discussed in my community, but I wish it was. I was so ashamed I had kept my struggle to myself. Today, my eating disorder finally feels manageable, but every year at the start of Ramadan, I worry about relapse, which is made harder by the fact that other Muslims have looked down on me for not participating.
Ramadan can be the ultimate practice of faith for many Muslims, but for others it can be a dangerous trigger, which is why I don’t observe it. While it’s painful that some Muslims may not take my faith seriously, I know I’m making the right choices for myself. The truth is, having an eating disorder has forced me to rediscover and redefine my relationship with Islam.
I’ve realized that I am no less Muslim than someone who decides to observe Ramadan, and that I’m not the only one with this experience. What my community needs now is what I never had growing up: more conversations about mental health and how Ramadan can be dangerous for Muslims living with eating disorders.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, the NEDA helpline is here to help at 1–800–931–2237.
Originally published at www.teenvogue.com.