Rajshree Saraf has never herself dealt with eating disorders, but witnessed the ugly illness take over the life of a friend. The 22-year-old communication design student first spotted signs of bulimia in her friend four years ago. “I noticed that she was exercising way too much but barely eating anything,” said Saraf. “We were just starting college and she, under the impression that she needed to lose weight, had begun following a diet and exercise regime to become thinner and look good. But she was taking it to an extreme and going through periods of extreme guilt at eating and was confused about why.”
Thin is not always beautiful
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterised by periods of binge-eating, followed by either purging or over-exercising. Ideas such as “thin is beautiful” and “thigh gaps are sexy” have taken over popular culture and especially social media to the extent that men and women barely eat and they exercise much more than they should. Searches for #thinspiration or #bonespiration on Instagram throw up disturbing visuals of women who celebrate having nearly 0% body fat.
In order to understand what her friend and thousands of other women go through, Saraf turned to the medium that makes sense to her – art. In 2016, she created a series of images and titled them The Purple Heart Project, in an attempt to showcase bulimia as a psychological disorder and not just a physical one.
“[The project] started more therapeutically,” said Saraf. “Words don’t come easily to me and the only way I could make sense of what was happening was through these images. Visual communication is a powerful tool, which can show people a different perspective even when no one is willing to listen.”
A dangerous obsession
The Purple Heart Project is named after the military decoration given to American soldiers who have been wounded or have died in the line of duty. According to Saraf, the images not only show the side-effects of anorexia and bulimia, but also attempt to demonstrate the emotions of those who live with these disorders – “The lock of hair in one photograph doesn’t just symbolise the hair fall that comes from undernourishment that follows eating disorders, but also is a symbol of commitment. In earlier times, a girl would cut out a lock of her hair and give it to her loved one as a symbol of commitment. That is kind of commitment one feels to their disorder.”
In another image, five bloodied ice-cubes are arranged to look like the spinal cord. The ice denotes how, because of the absence of essential body fat, those suffering from anorexia or bulimia tend to feel cold most of the time. The reddish tinge added to the ice symbolises the damage incurred to the spine by over-exercising.
According to Saraf, anorexia is easily ignored because being thin is associated with an idea of beauty. “However, if you pay attention and you’ll see the upsetting secrets and insecurities that they carry with themselves,” said Saraf. “It has no fixed physical form. The disorder is about their inner struggle. It’s not about food – it is about control, hope for perfection, insecurity and obsession. I have arranged my photographs in a way that at first glance, they look pretty, but paying attention to the details will show what is disturbing. Much like the people affected with this disorder. I used objects and not people because the idea was to show that it is more than a skinny girl refusing to eat food.”
The invisible disease
Because these disorders often tend to be associated with the West, a conversation around bulimia, anorexia and purging is largely lacking in India. Bollywood actor Richa Chadha talked about her own experience of battling with bulimia at a TedX talk in 2016 and called it the “big B” of Bollywood. And in a news report published in Pune Mirror in August, Dr Udipi Gauthamadas, a Chennai-based neuro-behavioural medicine expert specialising in treating eating disorders, was quoted as saying: “Various studies of Indian school children have shown that disturbed eating attitudes and behaviours affect about 25 to 40 per cent of adolescent girls and around 20 per cent of adolescent boys. While on one hand there is increasing recognition of eating disorders in the country, there is also a persisting belief that this illness is alien to India. This prevents many sufferers from seeking professional help.”
Saraf is frustrated by the fact that there is no acknowledgment of these disorders, which are often dismissed as dieting. “Anorexia is not a diet gone wrong. The difference between dieting and anorexia is that one is restrictive eating for weight loss and the other is restrictive eating for an illusion of control and perfection. You’ll hear people talk about their uncle’s daughter’s cousin who’s been on a diet for years, yet you’ll never hear them discuss the possibility of them being anorexic. I believe, if we were more aware of this disorder we’d realise how widespread it already is in India. It can affect anybody from any demographic – your 14-year-old daughter or your 35-year-old male neighbour.”