For young Muslim women struggling with eating disorders, Ramadan can be the worst time ever. I know this firsthand.
As a teen girl, I would intermittently starve myself and vigorously work out. I would eat 500 calories a day. No carbs, no sugar. I’d bike to one of the thousands of lakes in Minnesota. I’d bike around that lake nine times. Then, I’d go home and repeat this process for a week. It would be too unsustainable to keep up for any longer than that, so I’d go right back to consuming and exercising (and not exercising) like a normal person.
In between being normal and being the version of myself that had what medical professionals call Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), I’d spend a ridiculous amount of time on pro-anorexia and -bulimia sites. This intensified during the summers and during Ramadan, so I know what young Muslim girls with eating disorders are going through right now. Many don’t know if they’re fasting for Allah or for anorexia.
“Only in Ramadan I question why I want to fast. It becomes a battle in my head, like I have to choose between God or the disorder,” says H, who didn’t want me to use her real name. “Ramadan has always been a triggering time. In my early days of anorexia, I saw not-eating as a way to lose weight. Though Ramadan was triggering, it excited me too, because of the thought of not eating like everyone else.”
For H, her eating disorder began the way Demi Lovato’s did. “My eating disorder started when I was ten years old. I was getting bullied in school and ever since then, I have had a tough struggle with this because it has been a coping mechanism.”
For some eating disorder sufferers, Ramadan is the one month they can get away with starving themselves because not only is not-eating enabled, it is rewarded. Fasting is at the core of Islam and one of the five pillars of Islam, which means it’s obligatory for all able-bodied believers to participate during the holy month.
Young women like Aelya Salman—a former bulimic and current Honors English student at McMaster University— can go years engaging with their bodies and food in extremely unhealthy ways, cyclically vomiting and bingeing, without getting noticed for it.“I was a bulimic from the eighth grade fairly consistently, till my second year of university when it was at its absolute worst,” she says. “There were too many things happening that year and I still kind of considered myself one of those people who had a grip on her eating disorder.”
Like me, Salman would let Web MD direct her: “I ‘discovered’ the official names for eating disorders, and not fully understanding the depth of my unhealthy relationship with food, I would use the descriptions of the illnesses as guides.”
Salman would also take solace in fiction. “I would also turn to novels about the subject matter, again, as a guide, but this time also because it was comforting reading about people who obsessed over their food. Not eating bread or potatoes or feeling holy about refusing a food no longer felt like a habit that was unrelatable.”
Bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and EDNOS are easier to hide than anorexia. To be technically anorexic you have to meet the weight requirement of having a BMI of less than 18.5. There is no such requirement for other eating disorders, making them harder to spot.
Aelya, H, and other young Muslim women like them can languish for years undetected–theirgirl pain and hunger pains unacknowledged by the Muslim community, their families, or themselves. It’s an interesting space to navigate without many resources, and the Qur’an is mum on the issue of eating disorders.
This Ramadan, while I think about those suffering around the world, I will keep young women like Aleya and H in my thoughts. I will keep the anonymous Muslim girls blogging and tweeting for community, solidarity, support, and care in my thoughts. I will put in bootleg duas in for them, but perhaps even better than a dua is a promise: I can say with almost absolute certainty that when girls strive to feel good about themselves, they can get to a good space and place. But feeling good can’t be accomplished without a real support system. One that isn’t centered around a disease.
Feeling good hinges on the radical notion that we deserve to feel good, and food should never be far from that.