UAE Real Life: Battling Anorexia
Tall and elegant, Samira Al Romaithi is a pin-up girl for Emirati success and beauty. She’s got a string of accolades attached to her name, so it’s hard to know where to start when meeting her. There’s the fact that she’s a Jiu-Jitsu champion and competitor. There’s her work at a high profile division of the Abu Dhabi government. There’s her own business on the side and her two masters degrees (and yes, she’s contemplating a PhD). There’s the intriguing mix of cultures and experiences that colour her character, as she’s half-Emirati and half-British. And then, there’s the factor that has been both her main motivation and main impediment to the pursuit of success in life: anorexia.
This beautiful girl who seems to have it all nearly lost it all a few years ago. Had it not been for family intervention, therapy, and a treatment centre in the UK, her face darkens at the thought of what might have happened. Speaking openly, with a voice full of emotion and fragility, Samira is keen to share her story to let women today know about her personal struggle with anorexia. Her candour is inspirational and bold, because Arab women are often too shy or unaware or worried about bringing scandal to their families when faced with the dangers of this eating disorder.
“It began after I graduated from college in the UK and until today I don’t understand what made it start,” she says softly. “I really did reach rock bottom and I managed to overcome it somehow, so I decided that this really shouldn’t be kept under cover because there are other women who need to see that they can overcome it, too.”
She didn’t just go public with her battle by doing some publicity, this over-achiever took it a step further. She started her own company, Yalla Healthy, which is a chain of vending machines with healthy food, such as quinoa or granola products. She also wrote a book about it and published a website, which she maintains. She tries to promote healthy eating, healthy body image, and a healthy mind.
“It all started off as a diet when I got back from uni,” she recalls. “Then I just kept cutting things – carbs went out completely, then it was proteins, then fat, until I was down to one apple and one orange juice a day for months.”
She carried on this way for months, wearing baggy clothes in attempts to hide her shrinking figure and lying to family and friends about her eating habits.
“I knew I’d hit rock bottom when I contemplated suicide,” she says. “At that point, I told my mother everything and asked her to help me get out.”
Her mother quickly signed her up to a specialized clinic in the UK, The Priory, www.priorygroup.com, where she spent three months undergoing treatment. It included monitoring food, limiting exercise, and therapy sessions. By the time she returned home to Abu Dhabi, she was back at her normal weight of 58 kilograms – up from a chilling 31 kilos at her lowest point.
While she declined to be photographed by VIVA, her hope is that by sharing these intimate details, that she can raise awareness of this scary illnesss.
“It wasn’t about my body, it was about controlling weight, and feeling a sense of achievement if I saw the numbers on the scale go down,” she says. “It’s about control and negativity and complete denial that there’s anything wrong until it reaches a very low point.”
She was able to get back on track, although comments from people about her obvious weight gain – no matter how good and healthy it looked – would irk her. She began work on her first masters degree in the U.A.E. in business administration, followed by a second masters degree in diplomacy and international relations. Her biggest turnaround was learning to be positive and attract positivity.
At that point, Jiu Jitsu became a part of her life. It happened to be introduced into the school curriculum and she was curious why that particular sport was chosen. In 2009, she competed in a Jiu Jitsu championship and currently holds a purple belt – two away from black. It typically takes 10 years to get a black belt. She’s been competing for four years straight and she still loves the sport because it allows her to be creative – unlike karate and other martial arts which have choreographed moves, Jiu Jitsu is a martial art that allows a competitor to be creative and make up moves on the spot. Samira loves the challenge and fluidity of the sport, saying it’s the only one she’s stuck to for longer than a few years.
“It’s like chess, you have to be strategic and anticipate what an opponent will do,” she says, eyes gleaming. “It’s a very mental sport and literally anyone can play.”
She continues to play in local tournaments, including the Abu Dhabi World Professional Championship in ADNEC.
“I was very nervous, all these people are watching and you don’t want to make a fool out of yourself,” says Samira with a laugh. “Then I remember hearing all these little girls cheering for me and it was so inspiring, to hear them encouraging me was one of the best moments of my life.”
Her professional career has also taken off. Her company Yalla Healthy, now one year old, is rapidly expanding. Aside from her own series of vending machines, she plans to branch out and become a supplier for other vending machine companies. She plans to continue climbing the corporate ladder at work as well, hopefully in a sports-related capacity which is her passion.
A few years ago, making plans like this would have been an optimistic test of fate. Today, Samira is happy and healthy because she sought help right on time. Her mission is to enjoy life and spread the word to other girls who may not understand why they are feeling or behaving a certain way.
“On the positive side, it has made me much stronger,” she says. “I’ve become confident and problems seem like nothing.”