Discretion: Content contains accounts of eating disorders and domestic abuse

In honor of International Women’s Day, we’ve decided to bring you something a little different! We want to showcase more than just the sunny side of things and get real about the experiences of women all around the world. So, we’re going to share the stories of five truly inspiring women who have either managed to change the narratives surrounding their struggles or are still trying to change them. 

Why are we choosing to write about those women instead of bringing you more by-the-books academic facts, you ask? Well, in these stories, you’ll hear the voices of raw reality, voices you can relate to, empathize with, or simply listen to as these brave women freely express themselves. We’ve offered this article as a platform to some magnificent women, allowing them an opportunity to speak their truths on some health conditions that can deeply influence any woman’s holistic wellness. 

It’s important for you to know that although each of these stories may not have the satisfying endings we usually hope for, their tales are still out there being written by these women who remain strong and inspirational, unyielding, and striving to see their aspirations become a feasible reality someday. 

One last thing, before we let you in behind the curtains, out of respect to the women’s privacy, we’re keeping their identities anonymous. Going forward we will not be revealing their real names. Now, without further ado, it’s time to let the women who have graciously trusted and chosen us speak their hearts!

Living With An Eating Disorder

The following story is told by 25-year-old Sarah, and documents her journey with an eating disorder. Sarah has been visiting nutritionists and different physicians since she was a teenager, which she believes has played a helping hand in the deterioration of her condition.

 So, what’s Sarah’s life like with an eating disorder?!

“Nutritionists are, sadly, my past, my present, and I’m truly terrified of them being my future too. Visiting nutritionists already alienates me as it is. I was an obese kid, then grew to be an obese teenager. Of course, you can imagine the living nightmare that it is being an obese teenager, be it the jokes or not being included in some activities, like pool parties or whatnot. Add to that, the alienation of the recurring visits to nutrition clinics among women double my age at the time, only to have the doctor set you a weekly-diet plan you must never derail from, then they weigh your body and assess your progress accordingly,” Sarah said.

We asked if she has been diagnosed with a specific eating disorder. 

“I don’t know the cause of my case to this day, and none of the previous nutritionists have found a reason behind or even tried to understand why I am the way that I am,” she responded. “I’m finally connected with a nutritionist now who’s trying to trace my eating disorder to a psychological, or physiological, reason. He explained to me that eating disorders vary amongst people, and he can’t just box me inside a disease.”

“My current nutritionist is the closest I’ve ever come to an empathetic and illuminated person on the subject; he immediately recognized how I often associate my value as a person, and my beauty as a woman, simply in how my body looks. If I’m fit, I’m attractive and worthy; if I’m overweight, I feel alienated again. I feel the gazes of people looking down at me condescendingly disguising it as sympathy,” Sarah added. 

Sarah doesn’t just reflect here on the physical implications of having an eating disorder; she also contemplates how different physicians and her friends have shaped how she approached her pursuit of wellness since she was a teenager. 

SEX-ED? Yes, Please!

“Remember Dwight asking Toby from The Office where the clitoris is? Well, that scene really sums up the sex-ed classes we had at school. It was laughable, cringe, oozing ignorance, and totally dismissive of women’s sexual and/or reproductive health! I’ve learned about sexuality and women’s sexual health through TV shows and movies. I understand, of course, that they’re not the academic sources I should be referring to, but watching films and series were the most interesting, and in my case, illuminating way to learn on sexual health.” 

Manuela, our next storyteller, had something of an unusual take on the topic of sexual and reproductive health, but how did such perception affect her holistic health? That’s what we asked her to find out!

“I think the effect it had on me was both physical and spiritual, more than anything else. You see, people here often mix religious beliefs with cultural traditions. For example, culturally, it’s considered inappropriate for a woman to learn about her sexual and reproductive health. Whereas, in “Ahadeeth” from Sunnah – which is purely religious and must be abided by next to the Quran – there is a lot of guidance for women on how to look after their sexual and reproductive wellbeing, from vaginal discharge and menstruation, all the way to penetrative sex and the ways to maintain genital hygiene! It took me a while to learn about that because our culture immediately shames any woman who even dares discuss the subject. So, to be able to differentiate between the religious perception of my sexual wellbeing and the social perception of a woman’s sexual wellbeing was a massive milestone for me,” Manuela said.

“When I finally did see the line, I was able to look further on how to take care of my sexual health and honor it as a part of my physical and spiritual wellbeing! I grew to be less concerned about the social aspect of it, because by being able to attend to my physical and spiritual wellbeing, I became more attentive to my mental health. I also tried to help my friends and family find their way around sexual health, because they, too, were led to believe that sex, and reproductive health, are only a concern of a dishonest and shameful woman! Who wants to, or even can, live like that?” 

“Girl, Interrupted” and Depression Stigma

“I don’t know why, but there are always reasons for people to sexualize women, even at our worst.” 

Jannah, a 25-year-old woman diagnosed with depression, opened up about how she has been treated by her peers and colleagues, despite the fact that she had never disclosed that she lives with a mental illness.

“I don’t feel like I want to share this part of my life with anyone, let alone share it with the people that I’ve seen how they’ve treated others who would hint that they may be living with a mental illness, such as anxiety or any other diagnosis. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard name-calling for girls who express their agony via social media, like “attention *****,” or people assuming that they’re faking to get out of a certain situation.”

“The social stigma inflicted on a woman who tries to disclose her mental condition kind of forced me to sit on my personal situation for a while, until I decided to become more fixated on my healing. Now, despite the fact that social stigma hasn’t changed, my attitude towards it did. I wish I could tell you how exactly it happened, but I waited, maybe because I didn’t want to give up on myself, which is the very reason why I’m still considering myself a work in progress. I gradually started to get back to working out, I’m trying to be mindful of my eating habits, I started setting a skincare routine, and I’m not spending time on all of those activities for the results alone. I’m primarily focused on the feeling of contentment and fulfillment I get when I’m putting time in for myself and my wellbeing. I’m hoping in the long-run, I’d be able to stand up to face anyone who’s imposing their misconceptions or regressive attitudes on women’s mental health.” 

Living With Menopause

The next story is about a 52-year-old woman, Leslie, who is going through the menopause. She shared with us her physical, mental and social experience of it as she reflects on how her culture and educational system contributed to the experience. 

“I only learned about [menopause] in school, as a final phase in a woman’s life, it literally translates to “the hopeless age” in my language. Originally, this term was used to express that when a woman reaches menopause, the chances of conceiving a baby at this age become “hopeless,” she said.

Leslie wasn’t taught about the medicine, hormonal therapy, or any other alternative therapy that women can undergo when they’re experiencing menopause.

“Unfortunately, that’s not even remotely as bad as the cultural influence this perception has had on me or my friends.” She continued: “women here live their lives as though their femininity has an expiry date, if [puberty] is late, she’s not considered feminine, or looked at as a female yet, and when she reaches menopause, [they] no longer propose a feminine figure to our society.”

“It took me a while to recognize I’m at that age. Firstly, I was joking about it, as though it’ll make it seem, or feel, less real. I knew embracing this phase in my life only meant for me that I’d embrace the nearing of my death bed. So, maybe I was joking about it to soften the blow when that phase really settles in my body. I know anyone might think it’s a bit dramatic, our perception of it, but that’s how we were taught about it – menopause, the last phase before a woman’s death!” Leslie explained. 

“Experiencing menopause was a rollercoaster for me, and my mood,’’ she goes on. ‘‘During the past year, I’ve experienced unbelievable mood swings, even my bedtimes have been exhausting…sometimes I’d wake up at 12 A.M. and won’t be able to sleep again before 7 A.M.! It was just quite recently that I began accepting that I’m a 52-year-old woman, menopausing, and that it will neither make me less of a woman nor will it mean that my life is ending! I began taking baby steps, like I’m trying to do some self-care activities to make my skin look nicer, I try to maintain a healthy weight for my body. and I try to keep myself posted with beauty and fashion trends to be able to look, and feel, my age – rather than the walking corpse my society was setting menopausing women to be!” 

How Empowered and Safe Are We as Women?

Any individual’s safety is a priority and an unarguable right, yet there are still violations happening all across the world, whether they are violent, sexual, discriminatory or even simple moves or gestures. With this in mind, a question poses itself: what can we do to actively make the world a safer place for women?

We begin when we allow women to speak their truths without facing backlash or gaslighting. When we actively listen to those women, we can be more able to contemplate the privileges offered exclusively to men by the patriarchy, and we’d be more able to recognize when someone is blaming its victims and take the necessary steps to stop them. Now, with that in mind, get ready to read the story of Amal and how she was able to face her husband. 

Amal is a 27-year-old housekeeper. She’s married with three children – her eldest son is ten years old, while her youngest daughter is six years old. She was married as a teenager to a man she used to love until he started to reveal another side of himself. Let’s hear it from her.

“He was really sweet for the first couple of months, but then his mother asked us to move in with her and his sister so that he’d be able to save some on his salary. The problem is that his mom is genuinely cruel to me. She keeps making rude and aggressive gestures, making invasive comments about my body, and she interferes with the way I raise my own children. His sister, meanwhile, keeps making up stories that I’m rude to her and his mom, so he beats me. I tried turning to my parents, they initially supported me, so I started pursuing jobs to be able to support my children financially on my own. I landed a housekeeping job, I even got a tiny studio for the four of us to live in, and I was so close to getting a divorce,” Amal recalls.

“But then, he used my children to emotionally blackmail me into getting back with him,’’ she continues. ‘‘He’d say things like ‘you’re going to traumatize them,’ ‘they’ll grow up and hate you for separating our family,’ and ‘they won’t be able to survive without my financial help’. It didn’t work, so he used his connections. He threatened that if I didn’t get back with him, he’d find legal ways to make his mom and sister receive full custody of my children. Even though the law doesn’t grant such custody unless I’m dead, he knew I wouldn’t be able to fight this because I’m not able to afford to hire a lawyer to put an end to his threats and make my custody full and legal. In the end, I got back with him. It broke my heart, but the silver lining is that I kept my job. Of course, I’m working behind his back, and I keep my children with me. I’m hoping my job will eventually help me hire a lawyer, or at the very least secure a future for my children without needing to depend on him,” Amal added.

Remember, at the very beginning, how we warned you that what you are reading might not be the happy stories you may have expected? But how empowering does it feel to know that there are women out there fighting the odds against them to reclaim their power? How fulfilling does it feel to know that even though you don’t know any of those women, you were able to provide them a sense of relief for giving them the chance to be heard?

These aren’t just stories about women’s wellness pursuit, they’re also about being able to see how these women defy whichever circumstances that may hold them back. Regardless of what motivates them, these women, like so many others, prove the meaning of true heart and exemplify genuine strength. Today, we’re celebrating them for it!