School life always comes with a host of cherished memories and bitter-sweet nostalgia. Today I would like to look back and share one of those moments. I didn’t know at the time that this particular theme would play out for years afterward. I faced an occasion when I was excited to perform on stage in a school event. I was early to school and happily wandering around, all ready to go and perform. Until I ran into the shocked faces of one of the teachers in charge who sharply remarked,” I hope you’re not going on stage like this”. I was promptly rushed into one of the empty classrooms as if I was an emergency case and assigned to 3 older girls to make me “presentable”. The message was clear – I wasn’t acceptable or stage-worthy until I had on 4-5 layers of make-up. I still don’t remember much else from that day.
I was watching a video of Youtuber Dolly Singh and I couldn’t help but yell “Same” and felt a startling moment of connection. It wasn’t about her comedy skits or her Insta-worthy apartment. It was her talking about being body shamed in school. She now makes a living on her own Youtube channel as well as acts in several comedy skits. Basically she spends a considerable amount of time in front of the camera. Recently comedian Sumukhi Suresh was told to “f***ing lose some weight,girl”. Celebrities such as Serena Williams, Jennifer Anitson, Beyonce, Vidya Balan , Leonardo Dicaprio ( called Great Fatsby, seriously ?), Jason Momoa, Ben Affleck and several others have received hate for their looks. It seems no one is immune. I understand that it took a lot of courage for them to open up about their struggles and I write this after much debate myself over opening up like this. Well,here I am.
Fast-forward to several years later. My weight has changed, my hairstyle too. In fact I had gone through 2-3 haircuts only I seemed to like. My dressing style had changed. Most importantly, I felt that I was finally reaching body positivity and accepting my appearance for what it was. But the comments never stopped. I still flinched when a “friend” patted my stomach and giggled every time I wore a t-shirt. I was told that I could be pretty if not for my pimples. I felt that same sinking feeling when I heard ,” You’re curvy, just in the wrong places.” I would have thought that arteries were the wrong part for fat build-up but I guess I was wrong.
Sadly enough, my experience isn’t that unique. People all over the world have been peering into mirrors, wincing at perceived flaws and hurtful comments. In a country where the common greeting is “Kitni moti hogi gayi ? “, body shaming is nothing new. We have all received casual suggestions from seemingly well-meaning teachers, neighbours, relatives and even friends on our appearance. Adolescents who are already undergoing hormonal changes are especially at risk. Many of them battling issues of insecurity and identity are prone to mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and even suicidal tendencies.
On the heels of shame over these painful comments came anger. I had done the work to accept myself. I thought I had grown comfortable in my own skin.The Body Positivity movement with its celebratory messages and the chorus ‘to love every inch of your body’ had arrived. Stretch marks were ‘tiger stripes’, daily affirmations rolled in and we were all set to proclaim “All bodies are good bodies”. So why was this happening to me ?
What happened was that the recently popular ‘body positivity’ clashed against decades of deeply ingrained conventional beauty standards. We couldn’t resist slapping on a filter, using clever camera angles, snarky comments and the internalised need to idolize the beauty models we grew up with. Here’s where the devil lay – Body positivity, cheery and rose-tinted as it was, still focussed on outward appearance. Repeating positive affirmations you didn’t really believe in, only left me feeling fake and worse than before. The feelings of internal conflict it generates results in feeling worse. Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, agrees that the pressure to focus on your body and maintain such high self-esteem at all times is enormous.
Having been considered both “skinny” and “curvy”, I’ve come to realize there’s no pleasing anyone. Being called ‘curvy’ instead of plain ol’ ‘fat’ didn’t make me magically happier. I believe we have always been taught a very confusing relationship with our bodies. If you worry about your appearance and invest time and money into it, you are considered “vain and superficial”. If you don’t, you are considered ” lazy and unattractive”. Go to gym and diet and you are labelled one of those fitness freaks who eat only grass. Use beauty products and be labelled plastic, fake, filling yourself with harmful chemicals. Hearing these constant suggestions, even if well-intentioned, only decreased my self-esteem further.
What then are we to do ? Should we keep repeating the affirmations hoping we would one day believe them ? How could we replace the clamour of negativity from outside and within our own minds ? Enter Body Neutrality. Body neutrality focusses on function, the ability of the body to support our life, what it can do as opposed to how it looks. The concept gained popularity with the Body Neutrality Workshops by former fitness instructor, Annie Poirer, who defines ‘body neutrality’ as the next gradual step towards acceptance and self-love.
Body neutrality frees us from the constant pressure to sculpt our bodies to perfection or love it in all its imperfection. There is space to simply exist as we are. At times I dreaded trial rooms and googled home remedies. On other days I was struggling desperately to see beauty where I only saw flaws before. This constant oscillating between the two extremes was tiring. Body neutrality reminded me of a simple truth that I had forgotten while searching for crash diets and staring at the mirror in disappointment. My legs didn’t need to look stunning in every pair of jeans in the store. It helped me go places, run, play and dance the blues away. My face need not always be photo-ready. It was enough to smile, frown, talk and express my mind. My nail polish may be chipped and the wrong shade for my skin and my arms unwieldy and tanned. Still they happily typed, cooked, hugged and helped me through life, didn’t they? Simply put, hitting a pause on how I looked and considering what I did and how I felt allowed me to enjoy my favorite brownie without guilt or the need to convince myself I was still beautiful.
Mumbai based dietician Sheryl Salis and Dr Kavitha Fenn Arunkumar, consultant psychiatrist at Hannah Joseph Hospital in Madurai agree that being grateful for a healthy, functioning body is beneficial for mental health too. The Instagram campaign ‘I Weigh‘ championed by Taylor Swift and Jameela Jamil encourages women not to focus on or feel ashamed of their body weight but rather observe the unique individual as a whole.
A word of caution: Body neutrality doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the very real risks of obesity and unhealthy choices. It means being mindful about your body’s needs and how it feels. This may mean merely enjoying exercise or dancing without worrying if you look graceful. It could be wearing clothes you feel comfortable in. It could be grabbing your favourite treat once in a while without berating yourself over the added calories. Being mindful about your need for sleep and nutritious food and honouring that is a necessary step too.
In the moments of silence when I put on hold my complaints about my appearance, my body seems to ask me this, ” What haven’t I done for you ?”. I have subjected it to teeth-chattering cold and scorching sun. I have pulled late nights, skipped breakfasts followed by bingeing unhealthy snacks, gruelling trekking and 12 hour bus journeys. I have popped zits, ditched sunscreen or moisturisers and expect radiant, clear skin. I have gotten on various recommended diets and skincare products and crashed even faster onto junk food, ridiculous sleep cycles and enormous amounts of coffee. Yet it fights everyday to keep me alive and functioning. When I show it just a little patience, care and warmth, it readily blooms and carries me through life.
What I’ve realised is that self-acceptance and inner growth aren’t one-time-cure-all pills. There will keep being moments where you slip up and go back to old patterns. There may be treatments and diets to boost your immunity. There may be vaccines against polio and rabies. But there is no magical shield against casual insults and thoughtless words. To me and everyone else who is going through something similar, let’s keep fighting !