Various forms of media have prescribed to us, a set body image to adhere to. For women, it is a flat stomach, fair skin with no traces of stretch-marks, an arched back to emphasize breasts and butt, clearly visible hip bones or collar bones and, let’s not forget, completely hairless skin. For men, it is to conform to the image of rugged manliness, defined muscles even in places nobody knew they had, and the pressure to adopt postures of activity and aggressiveness. The images generally overstate the secondary sexual characteristics of men and women. Still-photos used in ads are the best example of what these prescribed body types are, and they carry with them an implicit order to become the ‘desirable’ image we see.
When a Bollywood-related website casually drops a sentence about Esha Gupta as “a voluptuous beauty who can attract any man she wants” or marvels at Malaika Arora Khan’s body in spite of childbirth, it creates a dangerous mode of thinking rendering the body as an object rather than subject. Our body’s worth is then open for public judgment, and is also yoked to the degree and nature of sexuality exercised by said body. Advertisements and action movies, where the primary target audience is assumed to be male, tend to combine hyper masculine attributes with sexual conquest, sending a message to even very young boys that this is what their body’s worth is built on. To put it more bluntly, body image promulgates the idea that female sexuality is passive and male sexuality is active. Moreover, it is only heterosexual body images being served up to the general public, which already has a skewed understanding of desire (need I say anything about various sexualities, consent, non-procreative or pre-marital sex?) Proper sex and sexuality education has the potential to establish the link between body image and sexuality and also pave the way for respectful and inclusive body politics.
Now, the trouble isn’t with hemlines and cleavage-show, or low-rise jeans that bracket six-packs. It isn’t even about morality or shame, because everyone has a right to wear what they please. The trouble is that when you Google search “bikini models”, or “men’s suit”, or “plus size bras”, you get the same body type right down to the last scroll. The problem here is invisibility. Why are we not seeing more people who look like us? Why are we not seeing more clothes that fit us? Why are we being told we are too fat, too thin, too short or tall? Why are we not, then, as Fat Body Politics writer Amanda Levitt puts it, “[challenging] the gaze on [y]our body by having control over how [y]our body is visible”?
Here are the image results of “man standing” and “woman standing”, respectively. There seems to be little or no variation in body type, that is weight, height and other surface features.
Invisibility of all sizes, skin tones, differently-abled bodies, et al, is a deep concern for representation politics – which admits body image into the fold, along with race, gender and queer representation. People expressing disappointment over whitewashed characters like Khan, of the Star Trek Reboot, or the cast of Exodus, or the low ratio of women to men characters in any given primetime TV show, should have no trouble supporting a reform of body image(s). The immediate effect of having only one visible body type is associating it with ‘correctness’ and your own with imperfection and undesirability. And though we may remind ourselves that people come in all shapes and sizes, and that Photoshop exists, we can’t deny how compelling these images are.
As far as representation is concerned, however, many will argue that non-ideal body types also appear in media, but my question is, in what capacity? More often than not, there is a deliberate mapping of negative or disagreeable personality traits onto very fat or very thin bodies. Cartoons, a form of media we begin consuming at an early age, do this a lot. Here are some recognizable Disney villains:
The princesses and other protagonists are a metric for these characters’ ‘grotesque’ bodies. Think back to Indian soap operas as well, where Saas-Bahu characters are physically different from each other – the Saas is usually projected as someone with no ‘sexually desirable’ characteristics, and a bitter approach to life. Corollary to this, is a culture of body shaming, that tells you your body is not worth representing, that casts only those actors with ‘good bodies’, and that perpetuates resentful or even cruel language directed at ‘non-ideal’ body types.
What is most amazing about body image, as is with most socially constructed prisons, is that it is arbitrary. Body image is contingent on the standards that are set in a particular time and space and are susceptible to change. While a hairy chest was all the rage between the 60s and late 80s, the 2000s show immediate revulsion to the trend. Slim-figured and size-zero women were treasured by all at a point of time, until the image of the ‘curvy’ woman took over. However, far from being evolutionary, these trends are exclusionary, which is precisely what we, in 2015, should be trying to avoid.
To construct an environment of body-positivity there have been attempts to topple the toxic attitudes that surround the ‘ideal’ and, frankly, profitable body image. A purely social media-based movement, #Fatkini has inspired many women, through the phenomenon of selfies, to inhabit their bodies at home and in public without shame or fear. Similarly, Instagram communities have begun using #MarshmallowGirl, #HonourMyCurves and #EffYourBeautyStandards to challenge unhealthily one-dimensional body images. Debenhams came out with a more inclusive fashion catalogue, featuring models over 40 years of age, an amputee, a Paralympic athlete and people of colour. Haley Morris-Cafeiro challenged body-negative sentiments by documenting them in a photo-project and posting it online. Indian actress Nandita Das’s controversial Dark Is Beautiful campaign aimed as a counter to India’s colour bias and obsession with fair complexion.
Sometimes in our personal capacity we too can counter the body bias we face. Exiting a clothing store thinking your body didn’t suit the clothes is a habit that should be replaced by demanding clothing that suits your body. It can even be as simple as asking for the haircut you want, rather than one the stylist thinks will hide your double chin or the roundness of your face. Sometimes it can take as little effort as publicly disagreeing with people who body-shame.
What remains obvious is that it is important to stop further damage caused by a negative body image, which plagues people at puberty the most. The absence of sex-positive and body-positive education runs the risk of giving rise or contributing to feelings of inadequacy, frustration, low self esteem and confidence, anxiety, and may sometimes even lay the foundation of eating disorders in many young people. Including body positivism within sexuality education will help address such feelings as young people would be urged to think about the politics behind ‘body image’ and will be more informed regarding how to perceive and tackle this issue.
Here is an excerpt from Eve Ensler’s “The Good Body“:
“Do you see that tree? Now, look at that tree. Do you like that tree? Do you hate that tree ’cause it doesn’t look like that tree? Do you say that tree isn’t pretty ‘cause it doesn’t look like that tree? We’re all trees.”