Falling is the first fear I ever had. In my dreams, I’m constantly being sucked downward, past clouds and skyscrapers, by inexorable gravity. The weight of my body, its bulk and clumsiness, will not let me stay afloat. I’m falling.
It’s been with me from the beginning: a memory of holding on to my grandparents’ bedposts and slowly, carefully hoisting myself upright on unsteady feet. I must have been a toddler, which makes me wonder how real this memory could possibly be. At some point, my memories start to merge with family stories, with myths and anecdotes of my childhood that were passed down to me, all of which shared a single plot point: Ragini, at some point, would fall. Ragini was too fat and too scared to walk. Ragini crawled everywhere until she was old enough for nursery school. Ragini was so fat, too fat to stand, much too fat to run or walk. Did I ever run as a child? Really run, fearlessly and unselfconsciously? Or was there always someone—a family member, a skinnier kid—present to block my forward progress with their doubts and mocking? If I did, I have no memory of it. As fearless as I was in my imagination, where I regularly traversed the world performing feats of undimmed glory, in life I was cautious, calculated, slow. They told me I couldn’t run, and I believed them, so I never did.
Instead, I read and wrote and painted and drew. And, every evening, I watched the telly, where one of the only two channels we got would inexplicably broadcast swimming competitions from Germany. In their racing suits, with their swimmer’s legs, the athletes seemed like gods to me. Sometimes, when no one was watching, I’d lie on my bed and practice strokes. The swimming pool’s blue depths seemed so mysterious, a world away from the darkness of my bedroom, my desire and my shame.
One day I was watching TV with my grandparents, and a water ballet came on. Glittery mermaids in fantastic headdresses splashed, writhed, and twirled in perfect synchrony in the greeny blue water, their faces glowing eerily in the underwater lights. My deepest desire, formerly an inchoate longing, found form: This was my dream. I wanted to be a mermaid. I wanted to swim.
When I begged my parents, their dismissals rang with finality: “You can’t. You’re too fat.” “You’d look ridiculous.” “You’d catch a cold—you know your lungs are delicate.” That summer, my best friend’s mother signed him up for lessons at the local pool. I was consumed by envy.
I hated school back then and alternated between calling it “a prison” and “a factory” that manufactured high test scores, but, strangely enough, that’s where my body got brief chances to feel free. We had 40 minutes of PE every week—a parboiled mishmash of calisthenics, yoga, rudimentary scouts training, and basketball. Basketball is what saved me. Out in the school courtyard, dribbling with my friends, I could forget to be self-conscious. I could ignore the jeers about my body and focus instead on how my body felt—the energy coursing through it, the sense of physical power when I jumped to make a basket, the heat of summer sun, the sweat rolling down my face, and the delicious exhaustion after a game. My proudest moment was the time one of my PE teachers stopped me in the middle of a game to ask if I wanted to be on the rowing team, indicating that my size and strength would be an asset. I caught myself beaming before I had to mumble, “I don’t know how to swim.”
“That’s a pity,” the teacher said, giving me a once-over. “We could really have used you.”
When I was 11, I started playing cricket, a sport that could not only accommodate my size and the ball of resentment building in my stomach, it could make good use of them. I could hit better than any of the boys I knew, and I was stronger than them. Even so, I’d always get picked last. So I channeled my anger into each at-bat. I smashed egos and windows, I fielded with grim determination, and I practiced catches against my father’s bedroom wall for hours on end. Still, I was picked last.
I got my first period on the cricket field, sitting on a broken concrete bench, waiting for my turn at bat. I remember sitting there, praying that the blood wouldn’t soak through my pants, my head a jumble of confusion about my changing body and what it meant, and about the childhood I was leaving behind. Not long after that, my grandmother saw me playing basketball outside in my shorts. She told my mother, who put an end right then and there to my cricketing. Shorts weren’t “seemly” for me anymore, she said. My body was too “developed” to be so exposed. I gave up athletics altogether and took to hiding my shameful body under baggy jeans and oversize T-shirts.
It was a strange limbo: My breasts and hips, my swelling body, my fat, were deemed too female for “male” pursuits like sports. At the same time, I was considered too big, too awkward, too loud and outspoken, to count as desirably “feminine.” No matter what the standard I was being judged on, I was “too much.” I’d always been too much. Too big, too fat, too tall, too manly. I felt like a freak.
The next year, when I was 14, I was taken over by an eating disorder, and my life began revolving around the toilet bowl. Hunched over it, I’d bring up my meals, trying to purge not just my dinner, but every last bit of my freakish mannishness. I drained my soul into the toilet, thinking, with every finger I shoved down my throat, I’m a freak, I’m monstrous. Girls aren’t supposed to be “strong”; girls are feminine. I need to be smaller…I need to be girl, I just want to be a girl. Thinking back on this now, I’m struck by how brutal I was with myself, and how brutal we all are with girls in general. How we limit girls to these strict narratives of girlhood. Girlhood is a state defined by negatives, by an endless series of “nots,” a Venn diagram of exclusion. We teach girls not to be this or that, and not to be too much of anything. We train them to trim away the “excess” from their bodies, their desires, their dreams, their strength.
I longed to be weak, fragile. I wanted very badly to be able to faint. Fainting seemed the very essence of girlhood, as it meant you were weak and vulnerable and in acute need of male protection. I wanted my body to succumb to utter helplessness at the slightest trigger. I wanted a body that was too frail to participate in competitive sports.