I find it incredibly hard not to contextualise the following story before I begin to narrate it - I have struggled with my weight, the fluctuating numbers on the scale, emotional eating and a skewed sense of worth that’s inextricably tied to the shape of my body for 10 years. The truth is that my uncomfortable, strained relationship with the mirror continues to take a toll on me, even today, and I don’t remember the last time I liked what I saw. Over the years, I have continued to shelve sleeveless shirts, skirts and shorts, in favour of a ‘uniform’ - one that best conceals all my ‘flaws’. On a day I’m feeling particularly confident, I’ll let a bit of arm peek through or I’ll risk wearing a pair of shorts, but coming to terms with my body has been an uphill battle. Unfortunately, I know I’m not alone and the pressure to conform to standardised sizing is unsettling at best. At worst? It could be the beginning of a much more serious eating disorder and a lifelong battle with mental illness.
Even as the conversations about mental illnesses have gotten louder, sensitive artistic portrayals of them are still incredibly rare. However Rajshree Saraf’s photo series, titled The Purple Heart Project, documents the struggles of living with anorexia nervosa with surprising empathy. A young 21-year-old communication design student from National Institute of Fashion Technology, Rajshree realised very quickly that having a strong personal opinion in today’s world comes with the risk of ridicule, scorn or worse bigotry. So, she “resorted to art to question the conventions because talking about them was not an option.” Speaking to Homegrown about the project, Rajshree explains why she chose this name for her photo-narrative - The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration, awarded to those who are wounded or killed at the hands of the state’s enemy and “living with anorexia, or any mental illness for that matter, is sort of like a war with yourself.”
What started as the artist’s personal journey to better understand and, in the process, help a friend who was suffering from anorexia actually revealed itself as a poignant commentary on how little we truly know about this eating disorder.
Scroll on for the full interview with the artist.
HG: What are the key issues you hope to shine light on through these powerful photos?
RS: I wanted to show anorexia in a new light and tell people that it isn’t really about food - it’s more than its physical implications. It is about control, hope for perfection, insecurity and obsession. It sounds crazy but it brings with it a sense of achievement and power. Individuals with anorexia nervosa tend to be competitive and are quite driven to succeed. They have a strong, even extreme, desire to attain perfection. Starvation for them is just a passive reaction to society’s shallow and narrow idea of ‘perfect’.
HG: What are the barriers, in your opinion, to understanding and treating anorexia with sensitivity in India?
RS: Anorexia is a not a choice. What frustrates me the most is that people think it is a lifestyle choice. No one will ever choose to develop this illness. If you know anyone with anorexia, you’d know how much they wish to have a meal without consequential repentant. Asking them to ‘just get over it and eat’ is how most people react to it and it is also the worst way of dealing with it.
We need to understand that the need to be skinny is not the goal, it’s a way to achieve the goal. Fixing the body will not fix the illness. In India, we need to be more open to the idea of counselling and therapy especially since there is no medication for anorexia. Body policing shouldn’t be our priority, looking after one’s mental and emotional well-being should.
We need to not shy away from the topic and, instead, talk about it more openly. But first, we need to accept that there is a problem.
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. It’s addictive. That’s why people are especially vulnerable when they are going through transitional phases and feel like the can’t control their lives. We need to learn how to tell them apart and then address the problem. We need to start being more accepting of everybody’s flaws and our own.
As long as we a beauty standard, we have a problem.
HG: While creating The Purple Heart Project, what (if any) did you find were the lesser- known and rarely talked about issues associated with anorexia?
RS: Hair fall, heart problems, infertility, substance abuse, depression, anxiety or OCD are all known issues that often come with anorexia. One such issue that not a lot of people know about is that it often changes the way they interact with people. Anorexia alters their communication skills and information processing. It’s like they’ve lost the ability to interact socially, they become more isolated, withdrawn and irritable. I think more people need to know about this issue because while other symptoms are harder to notice, a sudden change in behaviour is something everyone is bound to notice.
HG: Tell me a little bit about the aesthetic of these photographs - they’re stark and striking, while still being easy-on-the-eye, which I find interesting.
RS: I wanted to represent the disorder for what it is; not a physical state but an endless inner cycle of expectation and disappointment. For a world that is so obsessed with the outer appearance of things, I wanted to tell them that everything requires a closer look. Just because you can’t see the problem at once, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and this is true for all mental illnesses.
Yes, superficially, these pictures look pretty but the devil is in the details - much like the people affected by this disorder. You see them every day and they look pretty normal but it takes close attention to notice the upsetting secrets and insecurities that they carry with themselves. I used objects because it’s a very delicate subject; any kind of a physical representation would have been a trigger.
HG: What has been your biggest takeaway from The Purple Heart Project?
RS: The biggest takeaway for me has been being able to look at it as a psychological disorder. Body weight doesn’t determine who is anorexic, even the heaviest person you know could be anorexic. Vanity has very little to do with the disorder - they’re usually just stuck in an unhealthy coping mechanism. This project has helped me look beneath the surface and showed me the structuralist that I am.
HG: Will body image and the notions of what it means to be beautiful be a recurring theme for you?
RS: Yes, definitely. Body image issue is the new age epidemic. I have seen it up close and personal, in its ugliest form. I want to help in any way that I can.
I want to make work that is not just art but also a force for change.
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
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