Internalizing Body Image Issues

When I was 14, I gave up playing hockey and was quickly given a hula hoop so that I could “stay in shape” and avoid gaining weight. Throughout my teenage years, I have been told by numerous people to “pull in” my stomach. When I was 17, a male classmate asked me directly whether or not I had had a boob job. (I hadn’t, but that’s beside the point.)

In my 19 years of living, I can honestly say that I have never internalized any body image issues. But I now realize that these comments had the potential to seriously harm my body image and self-esteem. Young women and girls are subjected to comments like these on regular basis from childhood.

Now when people comment on my weight – and it’s mostly other women who do so – I feel annoyed. I have never been what is considered overweight, nor have I have ever been what is considered overly skinny.

Why do we focus so much attention on how much someone’s body weighs? Why don’t we tell someone that they look good or healthy instead of commenting on their body size?

Similarly, when people stare at my body I feel uncomfortable. I enjoy wearing shorts in the summer, but since attending university, I’ve noticed a number of men staring at my thighs when I wear them. It is truly bothering sometimes.

I am sure many other women and girls have stories similar to mine. And it leads me to my question: who do we look good for?

If your daily diet is not a threat to your health, why should you change it because of what other people say? If you feel good in that dress you want to wear, then wear it. Unfortunately, we live in an age of impressing and comparing but I urge you to try to resist it.

I feel lucky that I have always been a person who is not easily influenced by anything. I know that not everyone feels the same way, so I write this to whoever needs to read it:

The weight of being a woman is heavy enough already. If you are healthy and breathing, be grateful for that. Your inner beauty should weigh on your mind more than your physical appearance does. Like your body, it will always be a work in progress and will never be ‘perfect’, but that’s ok.

Can the Feminist Body Hair Movement be Intersectional?

For the longest time, I believed that white women had no body hair. How lucky! No waxing, no shaving = no worries.

I was proven wrong when I was 12 years old and shopping for jeans with my father. I went off to the changing room, only to find Sienna Miller plastered on the door. There they were. Thin strands of hair. Visible only because of the lighting in the photograph and the close-up shot. What a revelation!

I had never seen women in the media with body hair.

It is no wonder that South Asia is obsessed with women’s body hair. A colonial hangover and the hairless ideal promoted by the media don’t make for a good combination. This is evident when tracing and reflecting on the history of body hair removal and hearing experiences of Indian women.

In India, waxing is a sacred ritual that starts as young as 12. It is common to hear your neighbourhood aunty snicker that you are due a parlour visit to ‘clean up’. 

Living in the Netherlands has changed my relationship with my body hair.

Long winter months are greeted with tights. Waxing prices are restrictive. The Dutch dress practically thanks to the wind and rain they cycle through daily. When summer comes around, many women shave their legs. Most tend to be more relaxed about their arms, as arm hair is generally lighter and less visible, and hence, not such an ‘issue’.

However, this is not necessarily the case for Dutch minority women. And this is the exact reason why the feminist body hair movement spearheaded by celebrities like Miley Cyrus have come under fire for lack of representation.

Although I still occasionally remove my hair, the pragmatic culture I’ve found myself living in has rubbed off on me for the better.

I suppose getting older (and wiser) also has something to do with it. I don’t remove hair as often, nor do I let my hair removal calendar dictate when I can or can’t wear a skirt.

Of course, I am not advocating that we must all stop removing body hair. We navigate and negotiate our ‘choice’ in the issue. When I return to India, I slip back into old patterns – albeit consciously. To avoid uncomfortable stares, I choose to wax. This is the reality for many with poly-cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and for minorities with coarser hair, for whom the costs of rebelling against societal norms are too high.

How do we move away from the idea that hair is ‘dirty’ and create an intersectional feminist body hair movement that all South Asians can own?

Reframe and contextualise body hair in sex education.

Sex education should go beyond mentioning pubic and armpit hair. Discuss the options of body hair removal so that young women can be informed, without encouraging it as an inevitability. Talk about why it has become common, and place it in your country’s context. Frame body hair within changing fashion trends. And parents, support your kids to develop self-confidence.

Get the boys on board.

If you are lucky enough to have received sex education, you will know that there is often very little dialogue between girls and boys during puberty. As a result, many boys and men in India have disappointing attitudes to hair on women. Boys must not only learn about their own body hair, but also that of women, so that they understand what is natural and normal.

Let hair be seen.

Even adverts for razors in India are afraid to show actual body hair! Deepika Padukone, a famous Bollywood actress, shaves an already hairless leg in this one to show the wonders of her Gilette razor. I think a serious makeover of Indian school uniforms is needed, too. Mandatory skirts don’t allow girls to show their hair on their own terms.

Let us change the way women are represented. Have images in school textbooks that depict women with body hair. Check out illustrator Aqya Khan for inspiring examples.


Let’s take control of the narrative of body hair and allow it to be seen – for all those 12 year-old girls across South Asia.

Redefining the Gym as a Feminist Space

If you walk into a gym, anywhere in the world, I think you’ll notice a similar pattern.

There will be women frenzied at cardio machines, and there will be men grunting as they lift weights. Whether in Mumbai or Amsterdam, the pattern persists; women and men seem to use the gym differently.

While this might seem like a harmless statement, in fact, it reinforces gender norms. It is loaded with expectations of what an ideal body type is. And it restricts use and access of certain facilities.

Gyms as Gendered Spaces

I first noticed this difference when I began spending more time at the gym. I realized that while I would comfortably lift weights at home, it felt a far less inviting activity at the gym. Men tend to dominate the weight-lifting sections and, in some instances, are guilty of ogling or staring at women.

In fact, there have been a handful of times when I felt ready to go over to the ‘men’s side’ to access the weights. But each time I went, it took me extra energy to feel comfortable and claim my space. I relate to this piece on Ravishly, where the writer describes finding herself apologising to men as she used ‘their equipment’.

The same narrative applies whether women are occupying space on the streets or occupying space in the gym. Gyms are primarily considered male spaces, and men seem to inhabit them with comfortable entitlement.

So is it their fault? Perhaps in part. But it’s not that simple.

Harmful Body Image

In gyms I’ve been to, I usually see women either running or following what look like Instragram-style workouts which require minimal equipment. While these workouts have made working out very accessible, particularly for women, they can propagate a restrictive ‘ideal’ body type.

These types of workouts are not a recent phenomenon, but date back to the 80’s, when Jane Fonda popularized the at-home workout. To some extent, she was successful in getting more women to be active. However, a constant influx of images of a singular body type is toxic, not just for girls but for women of all ages.

I have often had friends tell me that they don’t want to get ‘too bulky’ or that they need to amp up their cardio because they ate a chocolate brownie.

This is not to say that I have a perfect, healthy relationship with my body.  I am complicit in perpetuating this behavior as I strive to meet standards that I do not think I actively chose for myself, but which society has handed down to me.

Not only do traditional gyms reproduce unequal ways of accessing space for women and men, they also reproduces a certain body type ideal.

Moving Forward

So how can we all – women and men – make the gym (and exercise) a more liberating and equal space?

Occupy:

Women: Push the boundaries. Take up space at the gym wherever and whenever you want – unapologetically. It might help to take a female friend along with you at first.

Men: Make space for women. Ensuring others can make use of the same space as you requires an active mindset.

Support:

Women: We need to support one another. Compliment other women, help one another out and don’t be so quick to judge. (And on a side note, lifting weights can make you feel invincible!)

Men: Any fitness advice? Given that you have had quite a head start in the gym, I’m sure you’ve learned some things along the way! (But avoid being patronizing or using this as a chance to hit on a woman.)

Love:

For us all, let’s look at the gym and exercise as a means of self-care and a way to look after ourselves.

Our quest should be more for happy hormones and a healthy lifestyle, and less for a specific waistline. Enough research has shown that lifting weights for women has many benefits, so if you have been hesitating so far, I encourage you to take that extra step.

Yes, it can feel unfair that we have to fight for our space. But if enough of us do it, whether it is at the gym or on the street, we make more space feel available to others.

Why Everyone’s Talking About Jameela Jamil & I Weigh

You may have heard Jameela Jamil’s name recently. Maybe you’re already one of the 145,000 followers of @i_weigh, her Instagram post turned social media movement currently sweeping the internet.

In Britain, where the actress, tv presenter, radio presenter, activist and writer is from, she’s been on screens, in magazines, on podcasts and on the radio talking about why and how she wants to change the conversation around how we, as people, define our worth. And it seems that maybe, just maybe, what she’s doing might be working. Things might actually be changing.

It all started in response to a post on her Instagram feed. Jamil saw an image of the Kardashian family, each of whom had their weight in kilograms written over their body. The caption invited followers to comment on the Kardashians’ weight and compare to their own. Scrolling through the thousands of comments underneath from despairing, self-hating young women, Jamil was enraged and incredulous, and decided to post a photo documenting her own ‘weight’:

 

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Jameela Jamil didn’t ask anyone to do anything. She posted the photo simply because she was annoyed and fed up. It turns out that thousands of other people were annoyed and fed up too.

So many people sent Jamil their own version of her photo that she had to create a whole Instagram account to showcase them all. Women, and some men, have sent photos of themselves with all of the things they value and love about themselves written over the top. It is, in Jamil’s words, a “museum of self-love”, a place where people can “feel valuable and see how amazing we are, and look beyond the flesh on our bones.”

 

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The speed with which Jamil’s photo has grown into a full-blown body positivity movement is a testament to the intensity of our collective dissatisfaction with the toxicity that surrounds us and dictates how we view ourselves.

Nobody wants to feel awful about their body. Nobody wants to hate themselves.

Nobody wants to see magazine page after tv advert after billboard after Instagram post of female bodies that look nothing like those of any of the human women we know in real life. Nobody wants to feel self-disgust when they eat a chocolate biscuit. Nobody wants to hear a friend say that they’ve already eaten lunch and know that they’re lying.

We don’t want the narrative we’re being served, and yet it has become impossible to reject or avoid. Young people – young women in particular – grow up marinating in toxicity until it has seeped so deeply into our bones and hearts that it can no longer be washed off.

But now there’s Jameela Jamil. She’s appeared like a big breath of air, holding nothing back, refusing to be airbrushed, shouting and swearing and shining her light on the injustice of how women women continue to be represented, valued and treated in our society: “it’s so upsetting, it feels like such a betrayal against women. I will not be part of it and I will not stop calling it out when I see it.”

What she’s offering is a wake up call to the media and to all of us consuming it. What she’s saying is that this is not ok, it’s damaging all of us, and it has to change. What she’s already proven is how many people are ready and desperate for the change.

Want more? As well as @i_weigh, you can follow @jameelajamilofficial on Instagram & @jameelajamil on Twitter (do it, she’s hilarious). You can watch this interview for Channel 4’s Ways to Change the World podcast, and read this interview with Stylist. If you’re in the UK, you can also listen to Jamil’s recent documentary about consent – The New Age of Consent – created for BBC Radio 4. 

Snow White and the Seven Damaging Beauty Standards

So, we need to talk about the new Snow White movie. I was scrolling through Twitter the other day and came across a huge debate.

I learned that the marketing for the remake of Snow White includes the slogan: “What if Snow White was no longer beautiful and the 7 Dwarfs not so short?” Next to this slogan there are two pictures of Snow White, one of her being tall, skinny and wearing a lot of make up, next to another showing her as short, curvy and without make up. This image shows and sends out the message that being tall, skinny and made up is the same as beautiful. It says that being short, curvy and natural symbolises being ugly.

How can it possibly be okay, in 2017, to suggest that only certain kind of girls are beautiful? And how can it seriously be true that this message is sent out by a movie that will be seen mostly by children? Why is there even a focus on being beautiful at all? Isn’t it more important to teach and encourage girls to be brave enough to be themselves, no matter what?

In the trailer for the movie, we are shown two dwarfs hiding in Snow White’s house and watching her undress. She walks in wearing a tight red dress and high heels. She is tall, skinny and wearing lots of make up, and the dwarfs are totally amazed by her looks. She unzips her dress and takes it off. The dwarfs are about to explode from enthusiasm, until the second she drops the shoes and becomes short, curvy and natural. Then they become disgusted. Not only does is the video an example of body shaming, but it also sexualises the female body in an extreme way that nobody should be exposed to – especially not children.

In society today, girls and young women are taught that our outer-self is more important than our inner one. Not always, but in many cases, looking good in the eyes of others is central to how we are perceived, and how we perceive ourselves. Society teaches us that being skinny is equal with being pretty and achieving a ‘good body’ is central in most young women’s lives.

Studies show that a negative body image in the early years of a woman’s life results in an even worse self-image later on. Finding real and new perspectives and structures for improving the self-image within young women is essential. Another article presents the fact that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illness and that these diseases affect almost 30 million people – mostly women – in the United States alone. Knowing this information, how can it possibly be okay to market a movie like Snow White in this bizarre way?

We need to create new and sustainable guidelines in order to make a change. A message like the one Snow White is sending out takes us, in some ways, all the way back to the beginning. For me, it’s almost impossible to understand how in the world the movie industry can be allowed to send out such an awful message in a such an easy way – and to children. Not only could it affect thousands and thousands of girls around the world, but boys too. It will teach boys that a beautiful girl is one who is tall, skinny and wearing make up. It will teach boys that short and curvy girls are less worthy. It is just too easy for a company like this to have an effect on young men and women. But it’s okay. It is just a movie and just for fun, right?

I want to encourage all mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends to talk with kids about these issues. Every adult has to take responsibility for giving children today a wide-open mindset. For teaching kids that all people are valuable, no matter how they look, and that it is the inside that counts. For teaching them that being kind holds a far higher value than being pretty. And for teaching them that Snow White is probably still the nicest princess out there, no matter if she’s skinny or curvy.

Female Sexuality in the Trump Era

The photo of Donald Trump signing a ban on funding to organizations involved in abortions (even if just by providing information!) has been all over the net this week. That image makes me think of a recent post in a closed, all-female Facebook network – a post about abortion but also, on a deeper level, about our views on female sexuality.

One of the members of the network wrote a very naked post about her visit to an abortion clinic. She had made friends with the girl in the bed next to hers, and as they opened up to each other, it turned out that they were both there for the same reason: they had been convinced to accept sexual intercourse without protection. Both girls had felt uncomfortable, unwilling, and pressured, but had in the end given in to the man they were with. Now the girls found themselves dealing with the aftermaths of unprotected sex: not only taking that test, finding a doctor, taking time of work, enduring bleedings and pain, but also living with the choice they made.

Girl’s Globe is a global forum and some of the views  and opinions of our readers, and even members of our network, on sexuality surely differ from mine. I come from a culture where sex with no strings attached is accepted; we even learn in school how to use a condom, and why it is important to do so. So, we do learn how to practice safe sex. However, what we don’t learn is how to tackle matters like pressure, responsibility and the opinions and norms of the society. Those opinions and norms are almost always linked to the female sexuality, outlining and controlling it: be sexy, but not over the top, enjoy sex, but not too much.

Sex is still almost exclusively viewed and discussed from the male perspective. How about female sexuality and our relation to our own pleasure? Accepting female pleasure is the first step towards understanding that sex is for women as much as for men. Teaching girls not only to say no, but also to demand that which actually makes them say yes, is giving them the key to their own pleasure.

We also have the right to state our conditions – not only for having, but for enjoying sex.  

Trump has, again and again, made blunt, ignorant, and plain-out scary comments about women. Their looks, weight, figure… The example set is not exactly an admirable one. Today’s boys – tomorrow’s men – need to learn to see women as their equals. They need to understand why pressuring their partner into not using a condom is not ok. That in sex, the woman isn’t only  there to please him, but that he is also, just as much, there to please her.

What about the two girls in the abortion clinic? When leaving the clinic, they agreed on that never again would they give the power over their bodies to another person. And one of them, she wrote a Facebook post about it, a post that was read by about 2,000 other young women, and hopefully that post will make at least one girl out there confident enough to state her own conditions when it comes to her body – and her pleasure.