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.

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