Everything I Know About Body Positivity I Learned From Saris and Tattoos
Everyone looks beautiful in a sari.
One of my favorite things about the five-and-a-half years I spent living in India for middle and high school was the saris. If ever there was a democratic piece of clothing in fashion’s history, it is that marvelous sheath of cloth with its underskirt and choli. The sari fits every body type, from portly to pint-sized, and makes them all look beautiful in their unique glory. And, depending on the design, it can be worn for everyday use, or dressed up with sequins, gold thread and jewels for special occasions. The contrasting patterns within each sari teach us how to be bold and take risks, and the bright colors remind us to shine.
While I would pore through fashion magazines and feel bad about my brown body in comparison to these skinny white models, I could look up and a woman in a sari would show me that there is no one way to be beautiful, and no matter how fancy or simple, curvy or not, every single body looks gorgeous in a sari. I wore a sari to my high school graduation, and if I hadn’t found the most perfect vintage wedding dress for 20 euros I would have worn one on our big day.
While I was marveling at India’s glorious women and their saris, tattoos began appearing on American bodies in 1990s Hollywood movies. The first time I’d ever seen a tattoo on a woman was when I was 16. She told me to never get one, saying I’d regret it. The second time I saw a tattooed woman was in The Craft, and that was the moment I knew I wanted lots of them.
In the meantime, I got trouble at home and at school for constantly drawing on myself and getting my friends to Sharpie elaborate designs on my arms and back, remnants of which stained my bedsheets and pillowcases (and sometimes even my clothes).
Finally, my first tattoo.
I was obsessed, and finally at 19 — my sophomore year of college — I took a deep breath and got a quarter-sized ankh just below my belly button, the tattoo I’d been dreaming of since I was 16. It was the first time in my life I ever had the feeling that my body belonged to me and that I could shape my physical appearance as I pleased. I bleached my hair and began working my way through the rainbow, much to my parents’ (and especially my conservative Sri Lankan father’s) chagrin. I pierced my tongue, my belly button and my lower lip, but none were as satisfying as that ink under my belly skin I knew I would never in a million years ever regret.
My second tattoo was the translation of my Turkish-origin name Sezin Menekshe — “Sensitive Violet” — into Pali, the predecessor language to Sinhala, running vertically down my spine. The tattoo was meant to be an homage to my Sri Lankan heritage, and its placement signified that I had both American and Sri Lankan culture at my back pushing me forward. I thought it was an incredibly meaningful tattoo, well thought out, and executed beautifully.
However, my dad’s reaction was not at all what I expected. “Sri Lankans don’t have tattoos,” he shouted at me. “And especially Sri Lankan girls. Ay-oh, men. Get that bloody thing out of my face.” Once again, just by being myself I had disappointed the Sri Lankan patriarch of my family and my Pali tattoo would be the public butt of jokes for years. My father would even go so far as to buy me shirts that would make sure my tattoo would remain covered, especially in the presence of other Sri Lankans.
That didn’t stop me from getting more tattoos, though. My next was a vine to adorn the ankh on my belly. Then came a rabbit in the moon on my right forearm, another nod to the East-meets-West theme of my tattoos. Next came the memorial ankle tattoos in honor of my friend Wendy Soltero, who was taken from us too soon in a random gun crime I witnessed. My Wendy-Bird and Blue Bondage Woman embellish my left and right ankles respectively, and though the small designs were the most painful tattoos I’ve ever gotten, grief adds a new level to the pain.
Next came a star on my left shoulder to match my husband’s — wedding presents to ourselves. Then another star on my right shoulder, and later both stars adorned with large fairy wings. Falcor the Luck Dragon was next, and then Edward Scissorhands, each flanking my name in Pali on my back. My henna-inspired forearm sleeve was next, and then my jellyfish with peacock feather tentacles taking up my entire right thigh.
With each tattoo I become more me, I felt better about myself, and still I have no regrets. The only thing that slows my tattoo collection down is money.
But all was not well in my body: around my 30th birthday I mysteriously began to gain weight. A lot of weight. Over the course of five years my 5’10” 135-pound frame gained 80 pounds. While my mother was more than happy to snicker and comment on the weight I’d been gaining — “Oh, my big girl is really a big girl now!” and pulling my husband aside to privately troll me, “What happened to Sezin? She used to be so pretty and now she’s just so fat!” — for some reason it never occurred to her to tell me that this extreme weight gain might be due to a genetic thyroid disease that not only she, but also my grandmother had. For both, the hypothyroidism kicked in around their 30th birthdays, too.
Last year, at 36, when I topped out at 215 pounds and seemed to keep growing no matter what I did, how well I ate or how much I exercised, my doctor finally diagnosed my hypothyroidism and got me on medicine to start regulating it. It was really hard to stay positive about myself when I recognized the woman in the mirror even less than usual, not to mention the high blood pressure, pre-diabetes and elevated glucose and lipid levels that alarmed me and my doctor in someone so young. In the year since being on the thyroid support meds I’ve finally started dropping pounds from both exercise and a low-carb eating habits. Now that I’m back in control of my health, I’m finally feeling myself and digging my curves.
Body positivity has come to mean accepting that my brown body has changed and will continue to do so, whether by my own tattoo designs, aging, or any number of other factors, and that is perfectly fine. My body has been through a lot these past five years especially, and I can’t be bothered to judge it or care about what other people think — especially about my weight. Body positivity means I feed myself nutritious meals, not relying on shortcuts and quick fixes. It means taking the time out of each day to move around — to walk, to swim, to dance — because it makes me feel good to be physically active. I especially love that my brown skin itself has become a canvas for my own unique wearable and ever-growing art collection.
My tattoos teach me how to own myself, to shape my figure into who I want to be, not the person anyone else expects. My new curves make me feel solid and present in my body like I’ve never felt before, fierce and strong. And now all I need is a sparkling plus-size sari to pour all this fabulousness into.