Curated for the website by Digital Guest Editor Alainah Aamir.
I’m seven years old. My favourite food is biryani. I can eat platefuls of the oily rice, drowning it in watery yogurt and washing down each mouthful with a full-calorie Coke. I eat on the staircase in my grandmother’s lounge with my back towards my family. My dad pulls my cheeks and calls me his biryani billa. I don’t really have many thoughts about my meal yet. I just want to finish my first helping so I can run to the kitchen and heap more rice into my bowl. My grandmother watches me wearily, ready to launch into a lecture about how perilous baby fat is, how it can lead to a life of obesity, how hard it will be to shed the pounds once I “start my fitness journey”, how 10,000 steps only burn 300 calories while all the rice in my plate amounts to at least 800.
It is getting exhausting. All I can do is wait for her to sleep so I can tear into her secret stash of sweets and stuff the chocolate wrappers behind the sofa cushions. My best friend from school is just as chubby as me, but her mother hands her plates of greasy fries slathered with lemon juice and chaat masala as a daily playtime snack. I’m kind of forbidden from eating fries. And paratha rolls (damn that white flour). And Maggi noodles (I’m told they’re full of carbs—not sure what those are yet, just that they’re very bad for me). It doesn’t matter though. When I’m 13 I will be tall and skinny and wear flattering clothes and eat masala fries without worrying about anything as insignificant as baby fat. Until then, my biryani consumption needs to be as inconspicuous as possible. Maybe next time I’ll eat in the little alcove under the stairs so I don’t have to turn my back.
It’s the summer before ninth grade and a miracle happens: I lose around 30 pounds in four months. I love being congratulated for my willpower and discipline. Several aunties make inquiries about my diet regime and exercise plans, but they don’t wait for me to answer. That’s just as well. I eat bowls of Special K with skimmed milk for breakfast and dinner and force down a single serving of daal with brown rice (strictly measured, although you can never trust nutritional information in Pakistan) for lunch. Wheat biscuits and peanut butter make an excellent treat, almost as good as one of the triple-chunk chocolate chip cookies my mom bakes. I scoff at my pre-pubescent self that used to bolt down three or four cookies as a snack after tennis practice. If only she understood balance! You can have cookies if you stay in your deficit—it just means skipping dinner.
That’s the sensible thing to do, but of course, you don’t really have much sense when you’re younger. Why did my parents raise me to be so greedy? It’s disgusting, I’m definitely going to teach my children moderation. I hope they have fast metabolisms and not my dreaded one. I yearn for a fast metabolism. Then, I could have eaten McDonalds with my skinny friends and still looked good in tight jeans. Nuggets and chocolate sundaes (double fudge toppings!) without a second thought. Not spent 75% of the day calculating calories and blotting down oily saalan with kitchen towels. Not have had tiny orbs floating around in my left eye right before being escorted to the principal’s office for a lecture on vitamins.
It’s ok though; I’m going to start exercising soon, getting the blood pumping and all that.
In my third year of university, breakfast is somehow my favourite part of the day. I cherish my morning walk to the tiny coffee shop nestled between the old kosher butchers on the High Street. One pain au chocolat and an extra hot latte, please. It’s an embarrassing order, why can’t I just say chocolate croissant? It’s also embarrassing to be eating chocolate for breakfast every single day, but there’s a 30-minute walk to my lecture and I can’t conjugate Greek without a generous dose of sugar. I’ll be skipping lunch anyway, there’s a club meeting for one of those silly faculty fundraisers. I don’t want to skip lunch, of course. I eat intuitively now, and my intuition tells me that I won’t particularly relish the soggy cheese and onion sandwiches the undergraduate administrator doles out in the common room. Why are they so stingy? Is it too much to put together a nice plate of cheese and crackers? It’ll save us all the misery of forcing down congealed slices of bread. White bread. I’m not worried about how carb-dense it is—It’s just that white bread is extra sugary here and I’m not used to the taste.
The club president doesn’t eat it either. She’s a lacrosse player, runs down to lectures in her sports kit and carries Tupperware boxes of homemade salads. Sensible meal planning, she says. Maybe I should do that? I can prepare salmon rice bowls and have filling, balanced meals for lunch instead of gorging on all the refined sugars, processed meats, and trans fats hidden in supermarket convenience foods. I have to be more physically fit before I start grad school in October so I can reinvent myself and try out for rowing or lacrosse or whatever snobby sport all the posh blonde girls in my course will be playing. The only way I can do that is by eating healthier. It’s not a diet thing. To borrow from my mom’s lexicon, my ‘food issues’ are definitely over.
Let me just savour my last croissant—no, wait. I have to keep eating croissants or else food freedom will remain an ever-elusive ideal. I should also keep drinking lattes, the milk is definitely pumped with dangerous hormones, but it’s also a healthy sort of fat, isn’t it?
A beeping noise distracts me from Googling the exact fat compositions of different types of milks. It’s just my flatmate sending me pictures of different pastas to choose from. She says she’s planning to make cheesy rigatoni for our dinner.
I am exhausted, again.
Eiman Tariq is a classicist with a Bachelors of Arts in Classics from the University College of London and a Masters of Philosophy from the University of Cambridge, where she specialised in Latin love poetry. She is currently taking a break from her studies in Ovidian texts to work in tech, explore Lahore, and perfect her homemade lattes.
Mariam Hussain Qureshi is an artist from Lahore, Pakistan. She studied textile design at the Chelsea College of Arts and Design, London, where she graduated in 2008 and specialised in the weave technique. Mariam’s first collection was exhibited in Lahore in 2014 and received much critical acclaim. She is one of the first artists from Pakistan to create and display a dual sound and visual exhibition.