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Of Curvy Women And Rugged Men: The Endless Search For ‘Ideal’ And ‘Desirable’ Bodies

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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.

body image3

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 article does not condemn or endorse any visuals used here for illustrative purposes only.
The article does not condemn or endorse any visuals used here for illustrative purposes only.

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.”

Can you remember/share any such experience from your adolescence when you wanted to change something about your body? Do you remember your reasons for feeling that way? Share in the comments below.
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  1. Diksha

    U r absolutely right… The social ideas of beauty are overwhelming youth and it is interfering with young who want to explore their sexualities. I feel if we stop depicting a perfect body shape and instead tell them that they are perfect, they will be more comfortable in their own skin.. Rather than hating themselves for not being beautiful in the way society wants them to.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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