Growing Up Indian in a Diet Culture World

Priya Payda talks about her upbringing in one of few Indian families in a small Canadian town, surrounded by diet culture. She discusses how cultural and familial influences contributed to the development of her eating disorder and negative body image, and how Health at Every Size® has helped her find a new path of self-acceptance.

The earliest memory I have of my long battle with body image issues is when I was eight years old. I was standing in front of my long bathroom mirror, side-on, sucking my stomach in. I realized then that I couldn’t make my body look like the women on TV, or my friends. That was just the beginning.

This is a story about culture, food, and family, and how all of those things influenced my relationship with my body. Growing up in an Indian family surrounded by white North-American diet culture was a unique experience. I was influenced by both my culture and by my family. I was a first-generation Indian girl living in a small Canadian town filled with Caucasian people. Today, I can see that, of course, I would never see myself reflected in any of these individuals. I would never look like the girls or women I saw every day. My body looked different. I also did not eat like them, and as I grew up, I started to blame my Indian “diet” for my body’s “flaws.” This idea was so engrained in my mind that when I moved out of my family home, I avoided my traditional Indian foods. Although I’m grateful I found a variety of new cuisines, I am saddened by how much stigma I put around my traditional food.

Bhen (Sister)

My first recollection of what a diet looked like was when my older sister went on the cabbage soup diet to look ‘good’ in her prom dress. I have vivid memories of her running home from school crying because people were making fun of the hair on her arms. I remember her grabbing her own stomach and saying, “who would want to have sex with this?” My sister modeled body dissatisfaction, and as I watched her, I learned to fear her body—and my own.

Bhai (Brother)

My brother was in a thinner body. I looked up to him because he was cool, confident and had no hint of self-doubt. He exhibited frequent fatphobia. He’d often warn my little sister and I about becoming big like the blueberry-girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if we ate too much of something ‘bad.’

Mom

My mom was an Indian woman with modern influences. I loved her more than anything in the world. I valued her opinion so much, even when she’d kindly tell me I needed to ‘work out to get rid of my stomach.’ It hurt me to feel like I needed to change my body. My mom frequently dieted, just like my sister. She avoided eating “too many” roti and avoided making fried food like bhajiya (pakora), which I had enjoyed as a young child. Sadly, my mother and I dieted together and stopped eating the foods that we used to enjoy.

And it all went down from there

This all became a recipe for disaster. I was surrounded by my thin, Caucasian, privileged friends and celebrity idols. I was afraid of social exclusion, and I felt defective. My family had normalized fat phobia and disordered eating. Later, in my quest to look like a “dainty goddess” for my wedding, I developed an eating disorder. I felt defective and worthless, but I didn’t know how to get help.

Then I found my way back to myself

The cogs truly started to turn in the other direction when I heard a podcast about how “we need to love ourselves.” Somehow, I landed down a rabbit hole looking for books on body positivity and Instagram accounts. This eventually led me further down the rabbit hole where I found intuitive eating, and furthermore – Health At Every Size® (HAES®).

In the end, my family ended up being my biggest support after I told them about my eating disorder and how it had harmed me. After many hours with HAES-informed health professionals, I have started to heal from a lifetime of body hatred. Although unique in itself, I’m sure this type of story is not a rare one. We are all influenced in some way from when we are young and learn things that may not be in our best interest from the people that we trust the most. And as we grow up, these ideas about diet culture become louder; we start to believe that the only way to be of value is to shrink ourselves. This is even more complex for those of us, like me, who are not white, but are surrounded by white beauty norms. I’m grateful that this journey eventually led me to the amazing world of HAES. HAES has opened my eyes to things that are so much more important in life than fitting into a box someone else made for me.

Priya Payda stands near a railing wearing a navy blue t-shirt and jean shorts.

Priya Payda, BSc Hons, MPhtySt

Priya is a Canadian, now living and working as a physiotherapist in Australia in the aged care sector. She values creativity and the opportunity to contribute to the world. She has used these values to advocate HAES principles in her workplace, and recently she has started to create inspirational HAES-related and body positive social media content in an aim to educate the public, as well as her friends and family. Outside of work, she spends time with her adoring husband, and aims to find time for creative expression through baking, hip hop dancing and learning new hobbies.