Looking At My Body Through Everyone’s Gaze But My Own

Trigger warning: This essay contains instances of body image concerns, self-objectification and fatphobia.

Back in school, I once learned about the concept of ‘mirrors’ during our life skills workshop. “These ‘mirrors’ are essentially the people around us serving as a reflection of who we are,” we were told. This abstract idea of looking at myself in others seemed pretty fascinating at first. While they did explain the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ binary of mirrors, I never understood how to distinguish between the two. We were taught how to use these mirrors, never to break them.

Most mirrors in my life helped me believe they knew what’s best for me till they completely distorted my sense of reality. I looked at my body in the same mirrors all these years and realised a few things. My bigger bust size was okay, as long as I had a tiny waist accompanying it. “Not too tiny though,” my ex-best friend said, “otherwise you’ll just look photoshopped.” I didn’t have a ‘fat ass’, I had fat in my ass and thighs.

So, I began hating that word.

Baby fat, tummy fat, fatty arms, fatty fat — apparently there were subsets and one was worse than the other. I had to get rid of this fat from certain parts of my body but ensure that it stayed on in the others. Right, but why do I need to? Someone told me I could get a boyfriend easily, while others thought I could get laid. “Your breasts are the right size, and with your broad shoulders and specs, you look like this ‘pornstar’… but… lose weight from your waist, arms, thighs, back, neck, and five different places. Then, you’d be perfect!”

So, I began envying that word.

I was far from perfect, and I had internalised this as my truth. I tried to get rid of that fat. I was in Class 12 and I could fit into my old skirt, and my jawline was visible. On my first day after summer vacation, I entered the school building with confidence I didn’t know I possessed. I felt a few eyes following me as I headed to the class. All my friends were quick to notice and cut to the chase. “Bro, did you lose weight? Your jawline is visible!”, and “Oh, you look so good, what did you do?” were some of the many remarks I received that day. I remember because not even a single person asked me why I did it. They assumed that it is a good thing, losing those ‘extra’ inches.

Also read: How the Male Gaze Alters the Way We See Ourselves

It took a degree in psychology, sessions with a therapist, and what felt like a lifetime to finally understand my experience. I thought this process would be harder, but it wasn’t. The real struggle was to stop objectifying my body every time I look into a mirror (an actual one, this time). I would fixate for hours on any part of my body that was ‘chubby’. I used to feel my tummy rolls every time I sat down, and imagine how I would look while sitting around friends. I’d ponder, “What if somebody took my picture and how would I look? I’ll maybe straighten my back and pull down my sleeves so my arms aren’t visible. I’ll look up and get some hair on my face so my non-existent jawline stays out of focus.”

The hardest part is that even as I am typing this, I am more concerned about how close the table is to my stomach than the keys on my laptop. That, every now and then I bend my back a little so my butt is more visible.

I know Bigg Boss is just a TV show, but it feels like I’m the contestant and there’s a camera crew following me all day.

Last year, I read about something called ‘Objectified Body Consciousness’ (OBC). On exploring further, I randomly scrolled past a long article. But, author Shin Yu Pai’s words caught my attention,

“We are rarely taught to question the ‘all-American beauty’ ideals or the Western beauty standards that celebrate whiteness alone. As a result, we end up imitating the dominant culture. We unconsciously accept the idea that unless you fall within the spectrum of ‘normal’ bodies, your life is less worthy. How can we form a more personal relationship to beauty that can embrace non-Western features, histories, and inspirations? How can we see beyond the distorted body images that we are fed on a daily basis, and let go of the lies that we may believe about attractiveness?”

When the objectification theory was first introduced as part of the larger feminist discourse in the field of mental health, it was able to explain the tendency of vulva-owners viewing themselves as ‘objects to be looked at’. The rigorous conditioning of those with vulva in a typically misogynistic society has led them to internalise a message that their body is a showpiece — it can be materialised and gazed upon or used (sexually) by others. OBC hence manifests itself as surveillance of sorts, wherein one may feel stuck in a perpetual loop of body shaming and controlling the way others perceive their bodies.

It’s a fairly common experience for many female teenagers who grow up in a society dominated by fatphobic comments and an overtly sexualised gaze. Unfortunately, we still live around people who cannot tolerate the sight of cleavage. We have failed miserably.

Anuja Razdan is your friendly queer neighbour with a blue typewriter, living three blocks away, probably writing about you.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty