Well, I did the thing – in other words, I just finished my third and final performance in the Blank Monologues. I would describe this event as a night of storytelling related to identity, resiliency, and ownership. For the past three nights, I shared my honest and unfiltered story on the stage of the HUB Lyceum and people I knew (and people I didn’t) laughtd and cried and snapped along. My story is valid and deserves to be heard, and I can’t believe I’m making my freshman year dreams coming true. I really am here, living to fight another day. Thanks to my brown skin and religion and self-imposed identity crisis and shitty break-up and damn good friends for giving me a story that’s worth telling.
I can’t believe that I was picked to share my story, and it’s especially crazy because I almost walked away from the interview process. My entire life, I felt like my experience wasn’t valid or nuanced or painful or real enough. I thought that I didn’t have anything worth talking about, that I wasn’t important enough to share my authentic story. But now, I realize that my story and the stories of people like me have often gone untold. Narratives about emotional abuse and eating disorders are often told by white females, and narratives from people of color struggling with this are often silenced or unheard. I am proud of myself for being so vulnerable and sharing without any of the B.S. or sugarcoating. Our narratives deserve to be heard, and you cannot silence the people who are not afraid anymore. We refuse to be silent
In the process of understanding my own cultural, ethnic, and religious identity, I searched for moments and people that would help me honestly answer the question, “what box do I check?” I was able to share my story resilience and survival, and no one can take that away from me. To everyone that came out or texted me supportive words or reminded me that I am indeed valid and important, I say thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am so thankful for the people in my life who have always reminded me that my experience matters. To the people who told me that my story was inspiring or that they resonated with anything I said, know that those comments mean the world to me – my goal was to positively impact at least one person, and it means everything that there are people out there who are connecting with my story. You are beautiful and wonderful and valid, so don’t let anyone talk that away from you. Know that I will keep raising my voice for you, and I will always be here if you need a source of support ❤
I don’t really know who I am but in this moment, I feel strong and proud and all of the words that I’ve always wanted people to associate with me. I can’t believe I got up on stage and unapologetically told my story (although I did make some jokes that didn’t really land, but there’s nothing new there lol). I am grateful for this day and this opportunity and this sense of validation. Maybe I really don’t need any editing after all.
Norming and Reforming My Identity:
As someone who lives on edges and borders of this world, I struggle with my identity on an everyday basis. You’d think that picking a word to associate with who I am would be easy because it’s all about the way I see myself, hence the term “self-identification” – there’s no way to get that wrong, right? I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at checking a box, thanks to all those demographic forms I’ve filled out when applying to receive scholarships or jobs or internships. I am Asian (in case you were wondering), but there’s a little bit more to my story. Both of my parents are Pakistani born and raised so those are definitely my roots, but I haven’t spoken Urdu regularly in years and can’t even say Asamalaikum, the term for hello, without a hint of an American accent, and I haven’t visited my ostensible home country in years. Similarly, I’m Muslim but don’t really fulfill that good girl image where I cover my knees and shoulders for the sake of modesty – for those of you who find my collarbone so distracting, I think we have bigger fish to fry.
So, the world has provided me all these terms that, in theory, should help me check the right boxes. At the same time, words like “Asian” and “Muslim” and “American” that capture my objective reality have never quite done it for me, especially as my identity has shifted over the last few years. When I went to high school at a private Catholic institution that was 15 miles from Federal Way, the city I have always called home, nobody looked like me. I was once tried to count the number of South Asians that I met during my four years there, and I ended up with … 2 people including me. I don’t really think anyone tried to talk about diversity because that word didn’t fit comfortably in our mouths. It was hard to take pride in my colorful culture because I didn’t really know how. I sported elaborate mehndi and glittering outfits during 5 day celebrations honoring the sanctification of marriage meanwhile others are sporting $5 henna elephants to match their bindis in preparation for Coachella – just a side note: if you want to take parts of South Asian culture like the jewelry and my “beautiful tan skin that you long for” – yes, someone did say those actual words to me – why don’t you take the oppression and struggle and all the pieces of myself that I will never fully love? Thick lashes and beautiful wedding pictures aren’t the full story.
So, I’m in this space where don’t have the community, words, or awareness to know how to take pride in my culture that was so often exploited and appropriated when it was convenient for others. I also spent a lot of my time not really fitting into the boxes of other people’s perceptions either. For the first 17 years of my life, I was used to being told that I looked Indian. When I tried to correct people with the phrase, “Oh no, I’m Pakistani,” most people gazed back with a slightly confused look and asserted, “isn’t that the same thing?” I mean, Pakistan and India hadn’t been the same country since 1947 and they are completely separate in terms of ethnic and religious identity and demographics and resources and industries, but here was this person telling me that none of that mattered. Was the way that others perceived me more important than my self-perception? I honestly stopped picking a fight and began to just shrug in agreement.
Other than bragging about how I hadn’t gotten sunburned in years, I didn’t really embrace my brown skin and often removed myself from the culture. I refused to speak Urdu at home, skipped out on family get-togethers with the age-old excuse of studying for upcoming tests, and pretended that I was a soft-spoken girl who didn’t dream of working at Google or creating a start-up that bridged the need for emergency mental health resources with machine learning.
And then, enter my religion, which is the other salient part of my identity that’s difficult to avoid discussing, especially when you grew up going to Christian schools and avoid pepperoni pizza and conversations about the wonders of bacon because, newsflash, you can’t eat it. It took me a really long time to say that I was Muslim out loud because I just wanted to avoid conversations that attributed the actions of extremists to all followers of Islam. In reality, my religion at its core believes in spreading peace and joy to others. My grandmother raised me for most of my life, and I honestly think that every good quality I have comes from what she taught me. Because of her faith, she was able to love deeply and profoundly for the people in her life. She had prayed every for my health and safety every day since I was born. In my mind, my grandmother embodies Islam and its values.
But, other people didn’t always see our religion the same way. I remember when one of my high school’s midterm extra credit questions stated, “what was the ethnicity of the group that bombed the twin towers?” and the overwhelming response was “Muslim.” Can you believe that? As if our college prep education hadn’t taught us basic history of this great country that we celebrate with our normalizing holidays like Fourth of July, as if the glint of red, white, and blue in the sky somehow represents what it means to be citizen while masking the stories that lie on the backs of the immigrants who helped build it.
At the end of the day, I’m not Pakistani enough to fit in with my family members who can easily identify their home country and find strength in religious beliefs. But I’m still not American enough because I’m growing up in this post 9/11 world where the word “terrorist” and “Muslim” are frequently associated in news briefs, and I felt like those negative perceptions are projected onto me as an individual. All I wanted want to find some words that felt like home without having to question it.
Somewhere in between these struggles to understand what box to check, I think I started loathing my culture. I didn’t really resent it in its essence because I care about the strong values I’ve developed. What I do resent a little bit is the way that I see my body, as if it was some vehicle that I could change in order to get respect from others. My mother grew up hating her brown skin and any extra fat on her body. So, I hated mine as well and tried to fit the definition of an American cisgender heterosexual woman in an effort to make it easier to interact with the world. Internalizing these the beauty standards imposed by my mother started from a young age, but in relatively innocuous ways. My family has terrible genetics and high incidence of chronic diseases like diabetes, so we had to make deliberate choices to prioritize our heath. My mother has pioneered our family’s effort to eat better and we traded the white rice for brown rice and learned to eat one vegetarian meal one week. In the process, my mother also learned about all these “fabulous” substitutes for butter like applesauce and yogurt and sour cream but somehow, everything she made was light and fluffy as ever. I thought this rhetoric of health was a way that we could live our best lives was a fair one and, for the most part, it was.
But then, these conversations started to take a turn. My mother’s questions shifted from asking me to take second helpings of pasta to asking me to list everything I had eaten that day (and snacks needed to be included in this tally). She inquired about how many times I had exercised that week asked if I had looked into calorie counting apps because apparently, they’re a dream. She asked me if I should really be eating that much – I asked if she could be any ruder.
Frankly, it wasn’t her fault and I don’t think I can get mad at her for doing this – In my culture, as a woman, your weight is everything. If the saying is that you’re worth your weight in gold, then we hoped we didn’t strike it. My mother had so much more to be proud of besides her physical appearance: she was a respected doctor and mother who defied the odds and earned the respect of all my peers, and I had never seen someone with so much drive and self-discipline in my life. But still my mother put her worth in that number on a scale and hoped that, in the process, she would be respected and valid in this country and the spaces she inhabited.
So, this story of self-loathing and never being able to reach a goal weight that inched lower and lower with every check-in didn’t start with staring at pictures of Teen Vogue wishing that I could look like Lindsey Lohan and all those Victoria Secret models. It started with me looking at my mother eating one yogurt with granola all day after exercising for 3 hours, and being proud of it.
And at the end of the day, I was left with one notion: if we couldn’t control our skin color and the way people saw, we could at least control our body proportions.
The story turned the way it often does – I became obsessive about exercise, as if running could help me reach some prize in the form of respect for myself and others. Comments about how I ate too fast or too much echoed through my mind, and I could barely think of what I’d have for lunch without asking myself, “do you really deserve to eat that?” as if this being that I so often neglected needed to earn something as simple as food. So, I broke my body in the hopes that I could build it up into something better, but better only meant thinner and that extra small skirts with an elastic waistband could be loose on my hips.
This breakdown in my self-perception was echoed by the breakdown in my relationship with my mother. Our dialogue became curt and quick until her only comments had nothing to do with my perspective and thoughts and everything to do with the way I look. Your skin is terrible, you’re eating too much, and have you exercised today? You might want to think about running twice a day. I’ve heard that results in faster weight loss.
It’s been hard to find self-acceptance because I spent most of mu time looking for it through others. I sought it from friends and peers and family, hoping that their words of encouragement about looking good in a particular outfit could serve as validation for skipping meals and choosing gym visits over opportunities to see friends. Because the heavier my weight on the scale, the less validation I received from all the aunties and uncles who couldn’t even remember my major but could surely remember my former physique.
Still, I had to learn how to norm and reform my identity, and understand that this world wasn’t really made for me. I remember the age of would you rather questions, and the hardest one was if I wanted to be intelligent or beautiful. Of course, I value intelligence and the ability to challenge people’s perceptions and develop language for my values, but I had always wanted to be beautiful – but, beauty by what standards? Selectively picking up pieces of my Pakistani culture that fit into the American perception of beauty, but deleting everything that wasn’t desirable? They wanted the tan skin but not the oppression, the long lashes but not the hair that grows in every other place – I was an artifact and they took the pieces that suited them best, so I was left in this perpetual state of in-between and I just wanted someone to tell me that I made sense – or maybe that I didn’t need any editing at all. But if I could change this outer shell and receive some semblance of respect from others, I guess losing my sense of self was a sacrifice worth making.
Somehow in between the high school to college transition and the opportunity to grow on my own, I did learn to celebrate who I am. I think this started to happen when I began to self-identify as a strong, something that I had always wanted to be. I looked back at my life and these difficult moments where I could have let other people’s negative perception break me, but they never did. I was still here, living to fight another day, as if my ability to thrive despite it all was the most beautiful act of resistance. My motto is that today is about survival, and tomorrow is about resilience.
It took me a while to realize this, but I think I was given everything I need to heal and survive. I firmly believe that life throws the worst curveballs in the fucking park, but I have the power to overcome them. I celebrate my story by owning my skin and the thick hair that grows on my head and my face, by acknowledging my sheepishness in the face of intimidating situation, and by recognizing that the demographic box for “Asian” never quite does it for me. I am learning to actively share my story, call people out on their assumptions, and surround myself with people who appreciate and respect my culture in its purest form, not a token that fulfills a diversity quota.
But I don’t think I got to this point alone – I had spent most of my life shutting people out, and I thought that silence was survival. But I realized that relationships really matter, and there were people who could help me see myself a little bit more clearly. I swear, my favorite thing in the entire world is when someone looks at me and says, “how are you doing?” and is ready to take on an honest answer. I am beyond thankful for the people in my life who can do this for me, who have taught me how to love deeply, to forgive those who have harmed me, and who help me remember that I deserve to be here. In some ways, I still interact with the world as somewhat an outsider, but one who is more aware of privilege and the struggle faced by people of color like me. My culture’s and religion’s values – not of a specific body type but ones of resiliency and empathy and selflessness – now govern the way I interact with the world.
As a community, we’ve been hurt before but we need stop fighting; this fiery spirit cannot be easily quenched. I remember the day that the election results came out and how I spent most of the day hoping that the descending rainfall could disguise the tears on my face. I wept for the past and the future, for all the stories my grandmother told me about moving to Pakistan when soldiers forced her to flee India and how she refused to look them in the eye, and then when she came to America 20 years later. What was that struggle for if we had a president who didn’t want us here?
Well, newsflash: we aren’t going anywhere. Because even if I don’t perfectly fit into all the boxes of my culture, I know that we are part of a collective community that will always find strength and value in my experience.
So, what was my identity? It was all of these things that made me colorful. It was the flowy Pakistani shalwar kameez embroidered with elaborate gold thread that I wore, the curries and kebabs with 5 star spices that would make any cook at Thaiger Room cry, the inflection in my voice when saying words like “Pakistan” and “Dubai” – these are the things that help me feel the most like myself.
But even if I could find peace with my ethnic identity, I still had to reconcile this war with my body. I don’t think this came all at once, but it got easier. I soon realized I was tired of censoring myself and my diet and my thoughts. If I could learn to love my thoughts and values, then surely if I saw a fucking donut, I could eat it. I don’t know if anyone completely overcomes thoughts of disordered eating, and I still have days where I want to throw away all the progress. But I’m learning to choose my health and be gentler with myself and somehow, things started to turn around.
Still, there’s a moment that feels regressive. I try to avoid going home to see my parents, but winter break is always on as regularly scheduled programming. We were all eating dinner as a family, and I use that term loosely, and I was getting tired of my mother’s comments about how being 105 pounds will solve all my problems and maybe salad was a better choice than that bread. I remember snapping at her and saying: “You know, I used to be anorexic, and I don’t deserve to feel inadequate just because we don’t fit into the society’s normative perceptions of beauty.” Until that point, I never said the “a” word out loud, and my first reaction was one of pride in myself for acknowledging this past experience and owning my ability to move past it. But that moment was short-lived because my mother scoffed at me, surveyed me up and down, and responded with, “how could you be anorexic and look like that?”
Honestly, there’s not a single day that goes by that those words don’t echo through my mind. It’s safe to say that, in the aftermath I cried a lot, wondering if all the hurting could heal, wondering if my journey to get to a place of self-love was lost thanks to one comment. I think my body is just waiting for me to love it again, to feed it good things and take it to new places with good company.
It’s hard to deal with emotional abuse at the hands of a family member, especially in my culture. I’ve always been taught that family is everything, and mothers are second to God. There’s a parable about a man who carries his mom through the entire pilgrimage of Mecca to repay her for all the suffering she’s endured as a mother. When asks the prophet if he’s repaid his debt, he is told that he has only repaid his mother for one night she endured with him in the womb. Some story, huh?
Sure, I could never repay her for all the sacrifices she made as a mother, but I wasn’t sure if I could forgive her for all the damage she’s left on my psyche and self-perception. I was good at giving people the benefit of the doubt, and my dad tried to remind me that she didn’t mean what she said: she was just looking out for me, and I didn’t need to be so sensitive. I mean, they were just well-intentioned words and she was my mother, after all.
When the whirlwind of words and people fade after fragments of past moments settle around me, I’m left asking myself: what do I do now?
Do I self-identify as broken and unmendable or as resilient, someone who can define myself outside of other people’s perceptions? I don’t know if I have all the answers, but I do know one thing: I have fought every day to survive and I will keep fighting until I learn to love the parts of myself that will never be validated by others.
So, how do I survive? A lot of different ways. I’ve realized that getting through this life starts with survival in small ways that mimic a return to normalcy. I recognize the blessings in the forms of wonderful friends who will let me send novels over text, in notebooks pages full of brightly colored ink and blatantly honest assertions, and moments where I look at a cake pop and say “treat yo self. And while you’re here, get a latte too.”
I was born and trained to be a warrior and a storyteller, and my past cannot change me – this is how I choose to self-identify, so you can fuck your little bubble sheet that quantify my demographics. Maybe you should diversify your answers to encompass everything else that I am: resilient and vulnerable and fucking proud to be here. I think it’s okay that the good moments don’t last forever. It reminds me that I’m a fighter. As I continue to face obstacles, I will remember that everything I encounter is nothing compared to the things I’ve survived. It’s never too late to start over, and maybe I can become something greater this time.
Lots of love ❤ Aleenah