Posted by Meghna Mohandas
Big boobs. May seem like a weird way to start an article but it is the crux of this story, and also my life.
I have always been heavy, a fact that people in my life have reminded me every day without fail, because I have ‘Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome’ or PCOS, something I discovered after having suffered with body image issues for 26 years. This meant that I got my period and developed breasts earlier than most girls in my class.
It was my 13th birthday, the first after I started menstruating, that I discovered the ugly truth about society’s perception of my body. Like every year, I was excited on my birthday as I could wear casual clothes to school. I had already bought the outfit – a sleeveless t-shirt and a pair of jeans. The day began like any other, everyone wishing me happy birthday and distributing sweets. During the lunch break, two boys in my class threw something next to me and asked me to pick it up. In all my innocence I put my arm forward to pick up this piece of paper. And that is when I heard the sound of laughter. Not only of the two boys who asked me to pick up this piece of paper, but also of a couple of girls. I did not understand why they were laughing but somehow it made me conscious as it was quite clear that they were all laughing at me. One of my friends came close to me and whispered in my ear to ‘keep your arms close’.
Turns out that the two 13-year-old boys had thrown that paper at me and asked me to pick it up in order to get a peek at my breasts, which was apparently easy because I was wearing a sleeveless top. Unfortunately for them, 13-year-old me did not have breasts big enough to be seen through the arm hole of a t-shirt but the incident made me so conscious that I went home and told my confused mother that I no longer wanted to wear sleeveless clothes.
After attaining puberty, it was only obvious that my body would go through many changes. Unfortunately, the reaction of most teachers at my school was to shout at me for not being more conscious about my clothes. If the length of my skirt was even a centimeter above my knee, I would get told off. And this was the time when I was growing, so getting shouted at was a common occurrence every few months.
I have also been a dancer since the age of five but after crossing the age of 13, dance practice at school became a whole new thing. Teachers would pull me aside and tell me to stop wearing synthetic brassieres and start wearing cotton ones so that ‘there would be no movement while dancing’. I tried to shift to cotton bras as I was tired of the constant attention I was drawing to myself but they were extremely uncomfortable hence I went back to wearing what I was comfortable with. One day, not soon after I switched back to synthetic bras, all the girls of my class were called to the auditorium where teachers actually pulled aside our shirts to check what type of bras we were wearing. While this entire procedure was embarrassing in itself, one particular teacher took the liberty of loudly telling me that my breasts are so big that if I kept wearing such bras they will keep moving around. At that moment I just wished the earth would open up and swallow me whole.
This woman, who was supposed to educate me in my most sensitive years was telling me that my body was ugly and that I should bind myself in such a way that my most prominent features would become inconspicuous. Having had endured body shaming all my life I had already stopped wearing some of my favorite clothes. This episode was the nail in the coffin, and I resigned to wearing only kurtas as I honestly believed that those were the only clothes that would ‘suit my body’.
Cut to college, at the age of 18. At this point of time, the idea that my body was ugly and that I needed to cover myself at all times was ingrained in my head. It was not surprising that the body shaming continued during my days at college. There were casual comments from the boys in my college who thought it would be okay to say things like ‘tight t-shirts don’t suit you’ or ‘wear the next size, loose clothes fit you better’. One friend of mine justified body shaming me by saying that it would motivate me to make my body better. Once in a while I would get a sudden boost of confidence and wear a sleeveless or short top but the comments that followed would make me lose my confidence soon after and I would just resort to wearing loose clothes in order to avoid dealing with consequences.
The one episode that changed my life was when I visited a boutique in Bhopal to get a sari blouse stitched for my farewell party. For obvious reasons I’ve hated visiting tailors all my life. But I wanted to wear a backless blouse at the party. The lady at the boutique asked me if I wanted a padded blouse. For those without context, padding is something that is put in a blouse so that one does not have to wear a bra for support. I said no, because someone with my body type should not be wearing a padded blouse. She looked at me with a smile and told me that no one can make me feel bad about wearing a padded blouse if I wear it with confidence. I said okay, she took my measurements, and I went back to my hostel. That night I cried for hours because it was the first time anyone had told me that I could be comfortable in my own body if I chose to. Even though it came from a complete stranger it was the first time I had felt that I can wear whatever I want to – I just need to be confident while doing so.
I am now 28 years old, and I would be lying if I said I am now comfortable in my own body. The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is look at myself in the mirror and wish I could reduce the size of my breasts. Even after 15 years, the sound of my schoolteachers shouting at me for ‘not taking proper care of my body’ and the laughter of the teenagers trying to take a peek at the breasts of the 13-year-old me still rings in my ears.
What is most outrageous about the trauma I endured during my school days is that the entire objective behind constantly telling me to keep my breasts under control was to avoid male attention. The idea of ‘men will be men’ was so ingrained in such misogynistic practices that not one teacher in my school thought it would be a better idea to sensitise the boys or reprimand them for objectifying female bodies. Instead, it was always the women who had to hide their bodies and avoid being objectified. And of course, if a girl was objectified, like I was, many times over, the fault was always hers for wearing a skirt that was one cm shorter than her knees or for wearing a bra that did not painfully restrict her big boobs. While my trauma has ensured that I probably will never be comfortable enough to wear the clothes I want to, I hope that people reading this will ensure that the young girls in their lives do not have to face similar experiences. You are beautiful as you are and you should never have to feel embarrassed about your own body.
Meghna Mohandas holds an undergraduate degree in architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal and a postgraduate degree in urban sociology from the London School of Economics. She is currently an independent researcher working on issues of urbanization in Indian cities. Having struggled with body image issues all her life she is on a journey to understand nutrition and exercise for people struggling with PCOS. Her immense love for all things sweet resulted in a passion for baking and Black Widow is her favourite Avenger. She is also a mohiniyattam dancer and has recently become a yoga enthusiast. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. You can check out her website here.
Featured image source: Homegrown