I have often searched for home, in places and people.
I have felt rooms, rooftops, the arms of my friend, or the side of the bed – which are only temporary – to be my home.
But it took me several years to recognise that I also looked at my body as a temporary home – something that eventually has to change.
It is heartbreaking that we all look at our bodies that way. Change, of course, is natural but we don’t like to believe it. We all look at our bodies and refuse to accept the fact that it might, more or less, remain the same even as we age.
We almost always hope to change it irrespective of our body’s size, shape or colour. We always want to fix a certain body-type irrespective of how we look because body image issues don’t exist in the body, they exist in our minds.
When I was in the eighth grade, I was fortunate enough to be studying in a school that used to organise sessions with NGOs where people would tell us about body positivity. I didn’t realise that the perpetual grief and the issues I was struggling with had to do with how I was looking at my body, but hearing them speak made me aware of my own negative body-image.
Most schools, or students studying there, are not as lucky as I was.
Issues relating to body image are not even considered a problem unless you are born in a privileged setting. I believe that the way we look at our body affects a huge part of our lives and how we chose to live it.
When I talk about body negativity issues, I wish to cover a myriad issues ranging from body size, body weight, hair, skin tone to something much more internal like having a body as a result of poverty, or hating your body as result of your caste or religion. For me, the sections in society that we chose to ignore are actually the ones that affects us the most.
It is no secret that there is a stereotypical image of an ‘ideal’ Indian woman; the one which we are exposed to on an everyday basis.
This happens through what we see on television shows, advertisements, movies, pictures and social media. Also, the fact that the ‘skin’ colour in crayon boxes is not the skin colour most Indians have also perpetuates the very same stereotype.
While growing up, everything around us is governed by Western beauty standards. It starts early and in our own homes. I have seen mothers fretting over new born babies about the hair on their arms or their skin tone. There are many dadi maa nuskhas to make babies fairer and have less hair on their arms – but only if they are girls.
I have seen people being discriminated on the basis of their skin colour and caste. I have seen underprivileged people cry with joy if their daughter is born traditionally ‘beautiful’ because it would make her social mobility much easier. It might ensure that she leads a better life than them.
As we grow up with such beliefs, we start becoming aware of our body from the age of adolescence.
The patriarchal structure of Indian society teaches women, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, that their primary goal in life is to settle down and to be able to marry ‘up’.
And in that process, most of us start identifying ourselves – often unconsciously – as objects born to please men. When we look in the mirror, we notice things that a man would notice, and if our features don’t match those standards set for us (with different things being the focus according to the region we belong to), we internalise hate and eventually, whittle our self-esteem.
This affects performance in schools, at home and how we envision ourselves to be when we grow up. I was fortunate enough to understand this at a young age but most girls do not realise this until much later in life, if they do at all!
In India, it is not just about how bodies appear to people but also about how ideal beauty standards are forcefully placed on unconventional body-types.
There is a custom in India of rubbing food ingredients – based on your community or region – on the skin of a new born baby girl to improve her skin tone and decrease growth of body hair. For me, it was uptan or gram powder mixed with turmeric and milk.
This is also a common practice during weddings and there is an entire ceremony dedicated to this.
These seemingly mundane rituals not only affect the person performing but also the young girls observing them. It leads to an unconscious acceptance and desire for a different body that they might not posses.
I have seen many young women, from low-income backgrounds, being silenced when they refuse to get married. They are silenced by being told that they are ugly and that even if they are young, they should get married. In fact, most women are married young so they look youthful to their husbands.
And those who don’t, have to bear the brunt of society.
I have heard several people pass comments on the bride’s age during her wedding and how her age is ‘showing’ as if she was supposed to remain stagnant and 21 for the rest of her life.
Women across India, especially rural India, are married at a young age because beauty is a myth being sold to us. In urban settings, multi-national companies have been known to hire women on the basis of how they look.
Men seldom face this issue.
In the sales industry, a lot of women get rejected because they do not have the ‘looks’ for it. Obviously, careers like modelling or acting are not even considered for women who don’t fall in the ideal size and height range.
On the other hand, the plus size industry is still at a nascent stage in India and more so, access to this industry is heavily determined by one’s privilege.
In our everyday conversations, we may not directly side with ideal body standards but at times we subtly end up practicing it.
We need to help teenagers recognise that over the course of our lives, we internalise these insecurities to the extent that it hampers our growth.
But for all this to happen, we will have to stop looking at our own body as a temporary body and not fantasise constantly about how our body will someday change.
Varisha Tariq is a recent undergraduate from Ashoka University and she likes reading about politics and deconstructing gender and patriarchy
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty