Editor’s note: In this eye-opening and relatable thought-piece, guest contributor and content creator, Ameera Safdar, speaks out about how bullying and body-shaming affected her. Whilst the journey to healing is rarely smooth or even remotely linear, we hope that Ameera’s journey brings an ounce of comfort and support to anyone going through the same experience.
What’s Wrong With Me?
While I sat in history class, an eight-year-old heard the girl next to her say, “Ohhh, your teeth are so yellow! When you close your mouth, it must be like lightbulbs switch on.”
That lightbulb chandelier was none other than yours truly.
A few days later, another girl commented on how my nose resembled a parrot’s beak. That day, my bubble popped. I remember feeling like the ugliest creature of them all. Was my ugliness the reason why girls would not befriend me? Or was it my nose? Was I not picked for Kho games (a traditional Pakistani version of tag) during lunch breaks because I was fat? Was my short hair and fat face an indication of a bad friend? Contrary to what Bryan Adams might have to add, those were definitely not the best days of my life.
How could I tell her that they didn’t want me around because I was fat, short, had a big nose, small eyes and was an unsightly human being?
I never did belong to the “it” girl crowd. In fact, in my younger days I was pretty much a loser who made everlasting friendships with Mr. Darcy, Scarlett O’Hara, Harry Potter, and the Gilmore Girls. I would spend all my lunch breaks sitting alone, exploring the world of words, only so I would not have to be rejected by the same girls who didn’t like my face. I remember sitting in a toilet stall during lunch breaks when my ever-concerned mother, who also taught at the same school, would be on break duty. She would want to see me hanging out with my classmates. How could I tell her that they didn’t want me around because I was fat, short, had a big nose, small eyes and was an unsightly human being?
My Journey to Healing
I never would allow for my side profile to show in any pictures. I’ve deleted enough digital prints and torn enough Kodak moments to know I hated my profile. But as I grew much older and a little wiser, I realized something. I realized that my eyes, my nose, my bushy eyebrows, my face, and my body were all part of God’s mold for the soul that existed inside it.
I was made up of immaterial aspects, which were intangible — my soul, spirit, intellect, will, emotions, conscience, mind, and so forth. The viciousness I had experienced while being maligned and judged for my looks by fellow eight-year-olds made me stronger for my future years. And trust you me, I needed all the inner strength and courage to face what was to come my way.
It took me years to realize what little joys of life I was missing out on only because I was focused on what others thought of me. As I grew older, I had learned to recognize joy, especially since I had a few too many close encounters with pain and sorrow. Almost thirty years and a few too many life-altering events later, I decided to take the reins of my happiness into my own hands. That’s when I realized that my joy lay within me, waiting for me to unravel it, peel by peel.
So before I could embark upon on a journey of self-exploration to see who I wanted to be, I knew, fully well knew what I didn’t want to be. And that made me the woman I am today.
I dug into my soul, delved into my spirit. I tapped into my intellect, examined my will, explored my emotions, and dissected my conscience. I expanded my mind and broadened my horizons. My faith made me stable. I worked to shrug off anxiety and depression, which is a story for another time. I treated every new day as a blessing. Even when there was darkness, I made a concerted effort to look for the light.When it was just black and white, I tried to establish technicolor. When I was sad, I tried to remember the hurdles I had to cross to attain my bliss.
I now understood that only I can control the way I feel and that absolutely no one should be able to tell me how to feel about my own self based on what I looked like. I wasn’t rebellious, I wasn’t defiant, and I certainly wasn’t impulsive. My benignities had to be born of selfless devotion. I knew external validation was not going to help me become a better human being. So before I could embark upon on a journey of self-exploration to see who I wanted to be, I knew, fully well knew what I didn’t want to be. And that made me the woman I am today.
I could take all that was said to me to heart and allow it break my soul, OR I could learn a lesson in how not to treat people and be the change I wanted to see in others.
I embarked upon a journey of self-exploration and narcissistic evolution. My soul became my abode. My spirit transformed into my guide and my intellect metamorphosed into common sense. My will transpired into determination; my emotions weaved into my security blanket.
My conscience became my peace and my mind drifted everywhere in the middle. Along the way, my perception of body-shaming and bullying evolved. You see, I discovered a simple truth: I could take all that was said to me to heart and allow it break my soul, OR I could learn a lesson in how not to treat people and be the change I wanted to see in others.
The tedious road of self-discovery and extensive soul-searching taught me some very valuable lessons. I know now that my body nests my soul, spirit and intentions. It is not a reflection of who I am or who I can be. I now know I am not bound to please anyone with my answers or existence. As long as I’m not harming innocent souls or making someone feel inferior, I think I’m on the right path.
I now know not to judge a book by its cover, cliché as it might sound. But my lesson went a step further. I decided not to even read the back-cover blurb. It misguides us in radical ways we can’t even fathom.
Even when there was darkness, I made a concerted effort to look for the light.
I now know people will come and go. What will stay constant is my own self. And for that, I looked to find peace in my solitude. And now, the time I spend with my own self is my favorite time. I now know to be humble. I might not have been blessed with the best of everything but Allhamdulillah I have been blessed with way more than I deserve.
My life changed when I finally listened to my soul and inner voice. I worked on myself, and let a lot of the emotional pain I was feeling from childhood bullying dissipate from my life. From that point, everything else fell into place. To this day, I am still working on myself to improve and help shift the world.
Everything Comes Full Circle
Walking into the bougiest restaurant in Lahore with some girlfriends, I spotted a couple sitting in the corner. The girl looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t work out how I knew her. Then, with a horrible knot in my stomach, it clicked. It was the same girl who had made my school days a misery.
Now, almost 15 years later, here she was — sitting just a few feet away. My mind raced with memories of the vile names she’d shouted at me, and the comments about my plump teenage figure, goofy yellow teeth, and ugly beak said for all to hear.
One specific memory that came flooding back was the occasion when this girl had made fun of a gold and black dress I wore to another girls birthday. I remember trying to laugh along with her gang of girls as I tried to hide my hurt, desperately trying to hide my tears of humiliation for the rest of the birthday party.
Now, all these years later, with a university degree, a move to NYC, a fancy Instagram account showing only the highlights of my life, as well as family and a few too many confidence-boosting events, I still felt like I was that ugly, self-conscious, and horrid 8-year-old girl again. If I could talk to that insecure, 8-year-old me, I would tell her to walk away with her head held high. What she was going through was horrible, but she will be so much stronger for it in the future. Much more resilient and able to deal with what life throws at her.
This girl was one of the first proper bullies I’d encountered, but by no means the last. The strength I gained from dealing with her stood me in good stead for the future.
I sat down with my friends and tried to pretend she wasn’t there. But out of the corner of my eye, I became aware of a person looking over, then hovering next to us, just inches away. It was her, my former bully.
“It’s Ameera isn’t it?” she questioned.
“I wanted to come over and apologize. I was a total b**** at school, and I’m ashamed of my behavior,” she said.
As I stared into the face that was still disconcertingly familiar after all this time, I had to make a split second decision in that moment. I had to decide whether to accept her apology and move on, or to tell her exactly where to go.
I chose the first option. I stood up, looked her in the eye and said, “Thank you, that means a lot.”
After a brief catch-up on the past three decades of our lives, we shared a hug, and I left. It may have been an encounter of just a few minutes, but it felt great. Liberating almost. Time and experience have taught me that bullies aren’t born that way. There’s usually something going on in their own lives which pushes them to act like that. I feel like anyone who chooses to bully must be very sad, insecure, disdained and miserable. We should feel sorry for them, whilst also standing up to them.
I don’t know what led my bully to behave the way she did all those years ago. It’s the one regret I have from our unexpected encounter — I should have asked her why. Although, being totally honest, I’m not sure she could explain it herself.
Edited by Manal Moazzam.