What’s Left Unspoken: Sri Lankan Culture and Eating Disorders

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Girl Holding Sun

Shalini Wickramatilake

Something monumental happened on April 5th, 2017: for the first time in my life, I spoke openly with my mom about my eating disorder. I had returned home after advocating on Capitol Hill for eating disorder parity and called my mom to recap the day. 

She had long known about my passion for the topic and had heard bits and pieces of my personal struggles with disordered eating, but it wasn’t until that day that I divulged just how much mental strife I had been enduring for most of my life. By describing to her other people’s anecdotes that I’d heard during the day, I had the perfect opportunity to gauge her reaction before ultimately opening up about my own eating disorder. 

My family is Sri Lankan. As with other South Asian cultures, the topic of mental health is taboo. Mental health struggles are often seen as moral failures or weaknesses. Even in our relatively progressive Western society, conversations about emotions and mental health are just starting to come out of the shadows. Being raised in the suburbs of DC with a foundation of Sri Lankan values and beliefs, my shame was compounded by yet another layer of cultural stigma. After growing up with a belief that I had to keep quiet about my inner turmoil, to finally have the space to be open with my mom was nothing short of life-changing.

Finally, there was openness. Finally, I was vulnerable. Finally, at the age of 28, I was speaking my truth.

But it shouldn’t have taken so long. Ideally, I wouldn’t have grown up in a world where thin = beautiful, successful = worthy, quiet = feminine. Ideally, people would have appropriately responded to my cries for help. Ideally, I wouldn’t have felt so much shame for having a brain that works differently than others’. Ideally, I would have learned how to say, “that hurts my feelings,” or even more simply, “I hurt.” Ideally, I wouldn’t have spent the majority of my life trying to cope with my emotions by self-destructing. 

A wise woman once told me, “you’re only as sick as your secrets, and your secrets keep you sick.” Indeed, my shame, fear of judgment, and secrecy kept me sick for far too long. The culture in which I was raised—one that is very much Sri Lankan and very much American—allowed an eating disorder to flourish. I felt the pressure to be a kind, respectful, modest, thoughtful, well-educated, accomplished, and talented people-pleaser. It’s no wonder I developed an eating disorder. An internalized pressure to be perfect lends itself to self-flagellation and an unhealthy coping mechanism, and an eating disorder fulfills both of those things. 

As hard as it is for anyone to open up about their eating disorder, the anxiety can be amplified in South Asian cultures. There was fear of disappointing my family after a lifetime of only ever striving to make them proud. There was fear of rejection. Fear that the daughter and sister who seemingly had it all together was a fraud, a failure, weak. So, what happened when I finally let all parts of me—even the scared, sad, lonely parts of me—be seen? Did my worst fears come true? No. Turns out, I am still loved. 

I’m fortunate to have such a loving family, and one that has come to learn that eating disorders are serious, painful, and nothing to be ashamed of. And I think that’s the crux of it: they learned. Just as we learn to be ashamed of mental health issues, we can learn to treat them just like we treat any physical maladies. My culture isn’t one of openness, but family has learned to be vulnerable. My culture values enmeshment under the guise of respect for elders, but my family has learned that boundaries are critical for my well-being. My culture views mental health problems as a sign of weakness, but my family has learned that we who fight these inner battles every day are so very strong. 

It’s not easy speaking up. It’s still often done in hushed tones, unsure of myself. But each time that I speak up and my eating disorder isn’t judged, my voice gets a little bit stronger. Each time we speak, someone learns, people change, and slowly, incrementally, culture shifts. 

Shalini lives in the suburbs of Washington, DC with her husband, Scott, and rambunctious German Shepherd, Maddie. She works for a nonprofit that focuses on substance use disorder policy. In her free time, she enjoys baking, attempting mindfulness, stomping on crunchy leaves, and spending time with her supportive, loving, and hilarious family.