The other day, an old friend and I were talking on WhatsApp. He had recently started talking to a girl, an old crush. She was “the first girl” he had ever asked out. “Pehla pyaar (First love) and all that jazz”. They had spoken after five years.
“It was just so nice,” he said. “To talk about stuff and realise that I’ve changed for the better. So much better.”
“How so?” I asked him.
“I feel comfortable with who I am,” he responded. “I’m at ease with myself. I don’t wake up and hate myself. I can’t tell you how amazing that feels.”
“I know how that feels,” I told him.
In the spring of 2014, I woke up one day and decided that that summer, I would kill myself.
It was a relatively easy decision. I had always been convinced that, at my best, I was a rather unnecessary blemish on the earth’s surface; at my worst, I was an irredeemably bad person. Some miserable circumstances tipped me over the edge into believing the world would be better off without me.
My beliefs about myself spilled over into my beliefs about my desirability. Have you ever heard the old adage, “You have to love yourself before anybody else can love you”? Well, I grew up interpreting this in the absolutely most terrible way possible. I felt so awful, so ugly, so disgusting, that I could not even summon up the motivation to love myself. How on earth would anybody else ever love me? When I couldn’t even bring myself to care for myself, why would anyone else care for me?
In a recent essay on Agents of Ishq, Grunthus Grumpus put words to my unarticulated feelings about being a woman and being desirable. “One of the more boring qualities of girlhood is that the desire you experience is predicated on the desire you produce,” she said. You are only allowed to timidly peek into the hidden depths of your wants if you are wantable. You are only entitled to receive others’ care and attention if you constantly exhaust yourself in proving yourself deserving of it.
Girlhood is an experience of understanding that you are not born to receive care, you are born to give care.
Grunthus Grumpus speaks in the context of heterosexual relationships. This is applicable and also not applicable in my context, as my sexuality is terrifying, fluid, and ultimately unknowable to me.
What I do know is that I grew up the way I grew up – telling myself I was unloveable, and hurting those parts of myself that desired anyone.
What I do know is that a couple of months before the day I decided I would kill myself, I asked a person out for the first time in my life. This person was a girl, who also happened to be only the second girl I had ever had a crush on. When she said no, I did feel misery, embarrassment, and all the horrible feelings that accompany your first rejection. But I also felt amazed and rather impressed at my own capability to articulate my desire.
See, the thing about asking somebody out is that for the one hour that it takes to craft the perfect text, rewrite it seventeen times, and get it peer-reviewed by your entire friend group, you have to constantly tell yourself that you are not a grimy little insect, but are instead an interesting, charming, desirable human being that somebody might actually want to date. It was perhaps the first time I had believed that about myself – a brief blip of strange euphoria, before the shit hit the fan and my depression took over.
What I do know is that that summer, I did not kill myself, because I was put in hospital and watched over 24×7. I know that I went on antidepressants and my feelings became dull and limp. I know that I ate to remind myself that I could feel. I know that I ate to satisfy the one desire I felt I was – somewhat, shamefully – entitled to have. And as a matter of due course, I grew fat. Fatter than I had ever been in my life. Still, I plodded along wearily on the path of making myself better.
At the same time, I began exploring and naming the desires I felt for other women – and found myself in a bewildering and unprecedented position. A position in which my desires were not warring with the desires of the people I wanted to be desired by.
When I had wanted boys to want me in school, I had always felt the need to edit myself. Quite literally: I felt the need to wax, thread, moisturise, wear heels, do my nails – activities that I found mind-numbingly mundane at best and tear-inducingly painful at worst. And yet, I never felt desirable enough. I never felt satisfied with myself. The interminable primping process just chipped away at my self-esteem.
You know how when people say, “Wow, she’s really taken care of herself,” in reference to a woman who has grown old? And the woman being referred to is a quintessential Delhi aunty with highlighted locks and eyebrows on fleek? There is a dissonance between the words in that phrase, and its meaning. This woman isn’t really taking care of herself; she’s taking care of the men who desire her. And, all the other women who have aged, of course, haven’t taken care of “themselves” – that is, of others.
Womanhood is a constant process of giving others care. Where is there space to give yourself care?
I discovered this post-rock-bottom. At risk of sounding like a lesbian separatist manifesto, I discovered that when I was in the worst physical and mental condition of my life – when I was absolutely not “taking care of myself” in the conventional sense of the phrase – I felt most worthy of romantic and other kinds of care, because I was dating and desiring women. On a crisp winter night about half a year after my mental health crisis, I remember a heterosexual male friend curiously asking me what was most different between my lived experiences as a heterosexual woman and as a queer woman. Mostly, I could only think about how differently I felt about my body after discovering my desires for other women. “I feel more comfortable in my body,” I told him succinctly, which, I think, confused him.
But this is how it went: I stopped shaving my arm hair. A pimple no longer inspired self-flagellation. I wore short skirts even though my knees were dimpled. As I immersed myself in queer ways of being, the heteronormative and patriarchal scales fell off my eyes. I began perceiving other women in different ways. Women no longer seemed to exist on a linear scale of beauty, but rather all seemed pretty beautiful. That meant that I no longer had to exist in a constant state of anxiety about scrambling up or slipping down that scale of beauty. Maybe I was pretty beautiful too. That brief bliss I had experienced after asking out my crush turned into a more steady happiness: confidence. I mean, it was not a DDLJ-style happy ending where my body and I finally met in the middle of a mustard field, but it was far better than before, where my body and I had practically been on different continents.
The thing about self-care is that it is never dissociated from how much other people care for you. Self-care is presented as a way for those of us who do not receive enough care from external sources to make up that deficit. But in my experience, you are only capable of as much self-care as you believe you are deserving of. You begin to feel more deserving of self-care once you put yourself in social conditions where others express care for you as a human being. And this is what I am trying to say: when I am a heterosexual woman in a heteronormative world, I feel like my reserves of self-care are constantly being drained away by patriarchal expectations. When I am a queer woman in a queer world, I feel more capable of telling myself I am worthy of care.
To read this article in Hindi, click here.
Cover illustration: Pradyumna And The Fish, 2010, by Katie Scott