Fighting the perfect shape

Growing up, I was extremely skinny. Though I met parts of the ideal body image, I was always asked a lot of questions about not eating enough. Ironically, I was a massive junk food and candy eater. Grass was greener on the other side and I ached to put on weight. At least to stop the inappropriate malnutrition questions being thrown at my mother.

Puberty and certain lifestyle changes had a surprise waiting for me. I began to slowly but steadily put on weight. Surprise, surprise! I was extremely unhappy despite the fact that my wish had come true. Till I began to read and critically analyse body image, I was reduced to covering up the flab and dressing in loose fitted clothes. Finally giving in to the uneasy feelings, I wandered into a doctor’s office to get some clarity on the weight gain. Only to find out I had a health condition (Poly Cystic Ovaries Syndrome) that had certain correlations with weight gain.
Body image is a huge problem across the world. Fat shaming as well as skinny shaming is a common practice. This has led to a lot of eating disorders world over. Only off late are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa being discussed with the seriousness they demand.

While working with media students in Hyderabad, India, I have heard a lot about the temptation to succumb to severe crash diets to get that perfect body. In India, we enjoy policing of the neighbourhood variety. A friendly neighbour who is watching the gradual weight gain drops a off-hand comment about the fat. It perhaps trigger shame and eventually crash diets. Recently, a woman in India was turned away from a store and asked to go to a gym. Similarly in London, women and men were handed fat-shaming cards. Both of these incidents had a lot of response from women speaking up about the viciousness of fat shaming in our society. The slippery slope between fat and ugly make matters worse for those struggling with confidence.

Movies, television, magazines don’t help this struggle with our body. The actresses seem to get skinnier and we aren’t even fully questioning the role of photoshop in this debate. Fortunately, actresses are speaking up about the insidiousness of the tendency to photoshop women’s bodies.

Similarly, individuals  and groups fight this downward spiral of a uniform body type through campaigns rooted in self-love. The recent #BeyondBeautyInitiative of Wear Your Voice Mag is a beautiful campaign breaking the stereotypes of ideal body type. Women of all sizes are photographed.

Similarly artists are imagining society with representation of all kinds of women. It is interesting to see women reclaim this space to assert our rights on our bodies over the right of the market to determine which body is legitimate or beautiful.

Health and weight gain

Like I mentioned above, I have a condition where I am prone to a lot of weight gain. One of the characteristics of Poly-Cystic Ovaries Syndrome is weight gain because often those women have resistance to carbohydrates and sugar. Accompanied with it are also symptoms of excessive body hair particularly on the face, arms etc. One of the biggest problems of this syndrome is the drop in self-esteem of women as they fail to meet society’s and market’s description of an ideal body type.

I am not insinuating that all women who are not skinny have health problems. It was true in my case but that is a rarity. This is another issue as we tend to talk about health issues and weight gain together. But the truth is what the bathroom scales did not tell me was that the extra weight gain or the body hair did not make me any less beautiful. Perhaps we need to fix the problem by demanding better representation in media. What we see right now is a uniformity that is appalling and misleading. Taking back our bodies is not an easy battle, but it is doable – together. And perhaps a good place to start as we enter year 2016 is to not throw the word fat around as an insult.

Featured image courtesy of Charlotte Astrid / Flickr

Mental health and women’s health: Eyeing the ‘treatment gap’

Originally published on Devex

Mental health has attracted little attention considering the huge size of the problem. Ranging from mild depression to major psychosis, it is estimated that one in four people suffer from a mental illness, and estimates from the World Health Organization state that around 400-500 million people worldwide are affected.

Among sufferers, many go undiagnosed and untreated. In developed countries, the “treatment gap” can be as high as 50 percent, while in developing countries it can skyrocket to 90 percent. The dearth of medical attention can be traced to a lack of awareness, a fear of the stigma attached to mental illness, or barriers to treatment such as access or finances.

Within these astonishing figures, another little-discussed fact is that women are at greater risk for certain mental health issues. Partly attributed to biological factors, but also partly because of sociocultural factors — including a lower social status than men and different cultural expectations — women suffer from a higher risk of anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

In addition, women are at risk of gender-specific afflictions such as post-partum depression. Intimate partner violence, sexual assault or sexual abuse, which women experience more frequently than men, are also risk factors for developing mental illness later in life.

Image c/o Adi Sujiwo
Image c/o Adi Sujiwo

The ramifications of mental illness extend beyond the individual. Women — often having a greater role in child rearing — suffer additional stress and the responsibilities of parenting can take its toll on mothers. While some studies have found that parenthood can act as a balancing force for individuals, others show that adding mental illness on top of the stress of parenting presents unique challenges.

One case worker described the difficulty of balancing treatment with child care, saying, “I’ve seen a lot of mothers go into crisis, needing hospitalizations and debating which should come first, their mental health or child care, because they had no one in the community that could help them.” Another described the guilt mothers go through when feeling stressed by parental duties, or by witnessing behaviors in their children that they worry is hereditary mental illness, or a sign of failure in their own parenting.

Further compounding the issue is that many — on some level — assume that mental illness is a condition that can be willed away or cured by logical thinking. This fallacy shames sufferers into silence — often with fatal results.

Suicide, often the tragic final outcome of these diseases, is one of the leading causes of death globally: more than 800,000 people a year die by suicide, or one every 40 seconds. Women are two to three times more likely than men to attempt suicide, though men are four times as likely to die from it. Among suicides, a disproportionate number of the victims are found to have a mental illness, most commonly depression or a mood disorder.

With such a profound effect, mental health in both men and women deserves greater attention and resources. More urgently, it requires an eradication of the stigma that prevents most people from seeking help. A greater focus on raising awareness and channeling resources could have a profound positive effect for men as well as women, as well as the families who rely on them.

Join Girl’s Globe’s #HealthyMeans Twitter chat today, November 13th at 11:00 EST to discuss how neurological and psychiatric disorders impact women and girls. To learn more about mental illness or how to help a loved one who suffers, please visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read more on how gender disparities impact mental health at the World Health Organization.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.