One of my most vivid memories is standing stark naked in front of my dressing-table mirror, in middle school and thinking, ‘Only if I reduce weight around my belly and thighs, get rid of the stretch marks on my body and the darkness in my underarms, I will have the perfect body.’
At the age of 12, I was one of the only girls in my class to wear a bra to school and was actively made aware of the fact that my body was far from ‘perfect’. Pre-adolescent me got really worked up and looked for ways to escape the body that defined my experiences. She snuck into her Aunt’s Femina collection, where Health and Wellness experts would talk about ways to lose huge amounts of weight in almost no time.
In retrospect, I do not remember if it was the glossy magazine covers, or the women I saw most often being represented in pop-culture, the general banter of friends and relatives or a combination of all of these factors, that shaped my notions of what beauty meant. However, the low self-esteem that ensued, haunted me through all of middle school and high school.
The experiences of having my body scrutinised was very different in middle school and high school. I was in two different cities and changed schools in 9th grade. Yet what remained in common was the notion that there could be a ‘perfect’ body where this perfection in question is quantifiable and definable, and the idea that it is okay to ridicule and shame any digression from the normative perfection, whether it is weight, ‘flawless’ skin, hair, or colour.
I do not remember if it was glossy magazine covers, or women I saw being represented in pop-culture, the general banter of friends and relatives or a combination of all these that shaped my notions of what beauty meant.
In middle school, I was embarrassed of my developed breast, perpetually oily hair, acne outburst, early period onset and dense body hair growth. I distinctly remember the first time that I got waxed. The physical pain did not compare to the scrutiny I underwent the next day in school, where most of the other girls claimed to be naturally hairless and called me an ‘aunty’ for using parlour services.
To my utmost relief, my father got a transfer when I had just finished 8th grade and I began thinking of it as an opportunity to start afresh. In the new school, things were quite different. No one would openly vicious to me or comment on my body. Yet the notions of a ‘perfect’ body still seemed to be casually lingering around. In came the hilarious fat jokes (which of course meant no harm, I was told), the gentle teasing (all in good humour, of course) and the frequent ‘casual’ reminder that I was not as pretty as my best friend was.
Other things, like my school letting only ‘pretty’ girls act in school plays, despite some of them not faring as well as the others in auditions, and me being told by a close friend that the only way to get my high school crush to like me back was to lose weight or ‘get in shape’ or get a ‘makeover’ kept making me feel conscious about myself. I would resort to not socialising as much, wearing clothes that made me look slightly slimmer and covered all of my body, not pose for photographs until absolutely forced and scrutinising and body shaming myself. This resulted in me spiralling into very dark times.
Becoming a body-positive person was not a moment of epiphany for me. I cannot think of any one moment or incident that made me put my foot down and stop the torture I was letting myself go through. It was a slow and gradual journey where I went back and forth on my levels of self-esteem and had the occasional defiant day where I would stand up against hurtful comments that were loosely thrown around.
Funnily enough, I have come to realise that looking out for yourself is not looked upon as an act of rebellion or an act of self-care. Calling someone out on their body shaming ways just implies that you cannot ‘take a joke’ or are ‘easily offended’. In the process of shutting out people who would constantly remind me of my ‘flaws’ I have been made to feel guilty about the fact that I was finally coming to terms with my being and not submitting to scrutiny.
And of course there was the health argument. Concerned relatives pointed out how I needed to lose weight to be ‘healthy’ and how it would affect my bodily processes if I did not become thin enough. I did get my daily quota of exercise, but they simply could not fathom how a person could be fit and fat at the same time.
It took me conscious effort, regular counselling from my mother, lots of soul searching, another change of city (college this time), a liberal arts department that pushed at all our notions of ‘normal’, a bunch of great classmates and a group of really close friends who shared my body positive ideals, to finally come to terms with my body and feel comfortable in my own skin. There is just something about living alone in an unknown city that made me more confident and wilful than I ever was.
I have come to realise that looking out for yourself is not looked upon as an act of rebellion or an act of self-care.
I strongly believe that this seeped into other aspects of my life and shaped the person that I presently am. I do have my slips now and then. The moment of hesitation before buying the crop top I had been looking at, reminds me of how long it has been since it all begun.
I would like to believe that by the virtue of being in a liberal arts course, the environment that I am in now, and the people around me, encourage body positivity. It is probably because the idea of social construction has been discussed at length in many of our classes. We have been made to question the stability of all that we take for granted- structures we operate under, frameworks that we have become all too comfortable with.
So does this mean that bodies are not under scrutiny in my college and everything gets better once school ends? How I wish that were true. I was recently in for a rude shock when a couple of my acquaintances were making fun of girls who do not get their body hair removed regularly. They pointed out how girls in my department were’ prettier’ because we made effort. When I pointed out how problematic the idea was, the allegations were of course, vehemently denied and passed off as friendly banter.
This just goes to say that my journey of self-assurance has not come to an end. I, like most other body positive warriors, have a long way to go.
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