Photo Credit: Flickr user Abhijit via Creative Commons
I don’t know when it became commonplace for Indians to greet each other with comments based on a person’s size, but it happens every time we mingle. What worries me is how socially acceptable it is to make such small talk or to ridicule someone based on their appearance. Our bodies are not ours alone and exist for public scrutiny. This has become an ugly habit laced with sexism and prejudice. Indian movie stars are not exempt from these barbs. Curvier actresses are pitted against their slim counterparts and made examples out of in the news and in the virtual world.
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Every Diwali is greeted with more apprehension than delight thanks to the years of sitting through body shaming directed at me and worse still, used as a conversation point behind my back. This year was particularly difficult from the week leading up to Diwali. Physically, I am at my largest and Emotionally, I am not at my strongest. I wished I could be anywhere but here.
The three basic areas of appearance a South Asian girl/lady is shamed for:
2)Her skin colour
3)Her skin texture
I can visualise the collective nod of assent to this.
While this is not exclusive to South Asia; there are varied types of shaming that occurs around the globe, it is an experience women of my culture are all too familiar with. There is an overvaluing of slimness, fairness of skin and specific facial features considered aesthetically pleasing to the Indian society. The ideal woman of my culture today is fair skinned with flowing un-frizzy wavy black tresses, a size 0-4, has almond shaped eyes, a delicate sharp nose and full lips.
Photo: Courtesy of the author, via Curves Become Her
I have never aspired to be an Indian beauty, nor will I aspire to do so in the future. Especially since all I have heard from childhood are sexist comments about how I would never find myself a groom (I was all of 8 years old when I first heard that) because I stayed out in the sun far too much and had an unappealing tan, that my cropped hair was not feminine, and my features were plain, dull and I needed to bring a little extra to the table by being fairer-skinned. When I became a chubby 10-year-old, there began the ringing of my ears from the fat shaming that ensued. “She is too dark, She is too tomboyish, She is too fat”. It sounded like a hateful mantra I wished I could escape hearing every single time I found myself among relatives and friends of the family. Because I did not compensate for my ugliness with good grades, it provoked the ire of my parents everyday. I was a repulsive reminder of everything I should not be or represent as an Indian girl. As a result, every Diwali felt like a kind of Doomsday – where final judgement would be passed on my body – and I worked myself physically to near exhaustion trying to elicit praise for shedding the weight thus being more attractive.
The reason I am all for women supporting women and bashing beauty standards is closely related to the standards of beauty I have seen women of my culture try to impose and uphold.
Fat shamers in my life wear many faces and thrust upon standards that I can not and will not ascribe to.
There is the gossip-mongering Aunty who ‘only means well for you’ and tries to sell you diet ideas, the mother in law ‘who is concerned about your health’ aka whether your fatness will impede the arrival of a grandchild. There is the well-meaning friend who wants to see you happy (friend or frenemy?) and, therefore, makes it her duty to share fat shaming comments said about you behind your back that will have you put on a stoic face at first will also be the reason you crumble into tears late into the night. Then there are the nosy uncles who have no business sizing you up but still do and the father who worries you will not be a respected citizen of society if you do not adhere to a slim physique. And there is the mother who asks if you have been to the gym for the umpteenth time or jokingly denies you that slice of cake (Haven’t you eaten more than usual today?). Strangers – mostly Indian aunties- accosted in malls who throw you angry looks as if to say ‘How dare you be fat’ and female Indian peers in the train who cringe at the space you take up. Or how about the Indian physical education teacher in school who would kick my butt (literally) if my overweight body lagged behind during class, the South Indian schoolmates who would ask me if I thought I was prettier than them because I am a North Indian and proceeded to threaten me with losing all my friends if I told anyone about what they asked me. Or, the Indian girls (and a lot of times, male) in school who would pick on my appearance because they thought that would make them feel better about themselves.
They don’t respect personal space or differences in opinion. People laugh at fat shaming dialogues in movies starring curvier actresses while sexualising them. That is another troubling trend – a curvier silhouette brings forth sexual objectification – but that will be explored in another write-up. Now that I have a public platform to speak about my lack of interest in whittling my weight down for another’s viewing pleasure, South Asians have come out of their elevators and buses to enter my body positive sanctum to honour me with platitudes like “Hahaha you’re so fat and ugly” and “You’d look pretty if you lost weight, my dear, don’t mind me saying okay”.
Photo: Courtesy of the author, via Curves Become Her
NO ITS NOT OKAY.
Read my capitalised font: MY FAT BROWN BODY IS NOT A BATTLEGROUND.
It is not okay to taunt a child for being chubby and chalk her size up to the increasing standards of obesity. I AM NOT A STATISTIC. It is not okay for you to put me down and hyper-sexualise me in one breath. It is not okay for you to make me feel bad for not wanting to be a size 0. It is not okay for you to pinch my cheeks, pull at my love handles out of jest and tell me how “healthy” I am. It is not okay for you to make me starve myself, cry myself to sleep and hide from social activities/festivities in order to avoid the stares and casually hurled remarks. It is not okay for you to tell a child or lady you hate her for how she looks and make her hate herself. It is not okay for you to tell her she is not deserving of love and belonging in life because of her size. It is not okay for people to minimise a person’s worth, talent, character based on looks alone. It is not okay for women who have been through the wringer of being forced to conform to beauty standards to force it upon other girls or women.
YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER.
With how society is today, every woman has been shamed because of her appearance at some point.
The overvaluing of thinner bodies in my opinion started when the beauty queens began to dominate Bollywood screens – Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra – soon after their respective Miss World or Miss Universe wins; actresses that formerly ranked number one were replaced by the slimmer, lankier beauties. It sparked the need to ‘Keep Up with the Joneses’ and suddenly every other actress was on a slimming regime and changing up her aesthetic. Of course we did also begin to see the new Bollywood hero avatar who was remarkably more muscular-but-not-sure-if-he-can-open-that-can-of-baked beans (I kid, I kid). It is a fact: the South Asian society looks to its movie industry to dictate beauty standards. Which is troubling seeing how the big screen is part-illusion, part-embellishment and consciously conjured. The Indian movie scene is mostly fantasy and if society has clouded their realities with that of fantasy; it can get ugly.
I cannot remember the last Diwali, festive occasion or event that did not make me cringe.
Since this has been a more challenging year for me, I decided to do away with the stressor that is finding Diwali outfits in my size. The past few years of shopping for the festive season has involved the clicks of a few buttons online for Punjabi suits and kurtis that fit me (not necessarily of my liking), instead of heading to a brick and mortar store. When my cousin in law was to be married a few months ago, I decided to head to Little India for a change and look for a few suitable outfits (it is never just one outfit, since Indian weddings don’t just end with just one event). As I walked in and out of stores trying to squeeze my frame into clothing, I began to hyperventilate because it dawned on me that there was no space for someone like me in a fashionable Indian clothing store. After my husband sat me down and had me take a few necessary gulps of breath, I ventured the last time into a store and picked the first outfit that fit me even though I did not like it one bit.
Since starting a fashion blog, my personal style is constantly evolving in leaps and bounds. So when I have to make compromises that harken back to a point of my life that makes me very sad to remember, it makes a dent into my freshly moulded sense of self. After the distress from shopping for the wedding, I was DONE for the year. Granted, there are stores that will have my size but the price and quality was not something that appealed to my style sense. For years, I hid beneath loose Patiala pants, full sleeved or ‘slimming’ Punjabi suits, oversized kurtis to hid my form during Diwali. I am ready for a brand new ethnic wardrobe of my liking and the compromise for shoddy ethnic wear ends today.
But what about the shoddy opinions?
That is going to take persistence.
Since my mid-20s, I have refused to let fat shaming remarks go and shut it down with a simple ‘I do not like people talking about my body’. However, this goes often unheard and snarky comments are repeated on loop when I attend a function/festival. I put on a brave face, tell the person off and deal with the hurt later. This has been the story of my life since I was a child.
It is going to take education – shaming a person’s body is not going to have them running to the nearest gym; it most probably will have them hiding from the public eye. It is going to take time. Most importantly, it is going to take an initiative. Just like people have started talking about mental health in the South Asian diaspora, it is time to take body positivity to the next level.
My next Diwali will most probably be met with some internal dread, but I hope that a year of unlearning old thought processes and unburdening some of the causes for self-loathing will make a difference. And I hope the same for you too.