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.

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.