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‘Fat’ Or ‘Skinny’, Nobody Wins With These Sexist Body Ideals

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Recently, Robbie Tripp’s open letter expressing his love for his wife’s ‘curvy’ body went viral. In it, he says, “For me, there is nothing sexier than this woman right here: thick thighs, big booty, cute little side roll, etc.” It’s as though women of the world must be thankful for men embracing their ‘big’ bodies, even though it’s not the ‘ideal’ body type. Closer home, actor Kriti Sanon was told by female colleague that she lacks a ‘headlight’ and ‘bumper’, and that ‘even’ a college girl could look better than her! Sanon’s fault? She fails to appeal to sensibilities conditioned into liking the figure of a ‘voluptuous woman.’

This is the paradox we inhabit under capitalo-patriarchy. The same capitalist society which has spent years making the young girl thin and fair (an ultimate female ambition and male fantasy) also simultaneously fetishises ‘meat’ in the ‘right places.’ This, my friends, is the irony of possessing the body of a woman in a flexible global system of capitalism. A system which can at the same time, perpetuate patriarchy while also co-opting feminism.

Source: Mikhaila Nodel

We live in a world where a woman’s body remains an extraordinary cultural spectacle – open to scrutiny, judgement and preferential pseudo-objective beauty standards. But it’s not just the visible markers of womanhood that make a ‘grown woman’s body’ an exception to ridicule, she has to also embrace signifiers of either ‘taken-ness’ or ‘availability’ in order for society to tailor its gaze.

A woman’s (re)presentation of herself is always assumed to be catering to the male gaze. There is a price we pay to remain desirable and even so, to remain ‘invisible.’ In order to transcend the catalogue of a desirable woman, you have to know what makes you desirable is what simultaneously makes you hyper-visible and invisible. Because realizing how men see you can actually make you terrified of being seen at all, at times.

Interestingly, the family-society complex works in tandem to ensure you meet your average cis-gender heterosexual man’s sexual fantasy of an ideal feminine beauty. Have you noticed how when a woman is of ‘marrying age’ sometimes her family asks her to apply anti-tan and fairness creams and gets her a gym membership?

Constructing Body-Positivity On Ruins Of The Body

While growing up, I was acutely aware of the privilege of being thin. I was thankful for my thin frame, because it saved me from being subjected to distasteful jokes and bullying. But I soon began to understand that the regulation of women’s bodies was not simply restricted to rejection of fatness, it was also about ‘looking a certain way’ which is considered ‘appealing.’ I struggled to define my body beyond the contortions of patriarchal signification.

Source: Mikhaila Nodel.

All my life, to my family and the society’s respite, my ‘thinness’ was comforting, till I reached a certain ‘marriageable’ age. My momentous ‘victory’ in the world of body-shaming—‘being thin’ –didn’t last long and was quickly followed by a word of caution, “Work that ass! Men don’t like hugging skinny girls with their poky-bones sticking out.”

Talk about coming full circle.

Celebrating The Body: A Desire Insisting On Fetish

I was reminded of these repressed memories when a friend narrated her experiences of body-shaming after she returned from a foreign University. After years of being made to feel bad about the percentage of ‘fat’ on her body, she was ‘exoticised’ as that dark-skinned Indian girl with plenty of ‘curves.’ Everything that the society back home had trained her to feel embarrassed about was suddenly ‘desired,’ except in a fetishised way.

So even in the reversal of what’s deemed ‘desirable’ in one country and undesirable in another, one can see how cultural practices are inscribed onto the bodies of women. We may even simultaneously (be made to) feel empowered and disempowered, or even violently objectified, as we are desired. What is implied is that desire itself insists on the fetish. It shocks us to learn that so much power still rests with the men in our lives to ‘validate’ our self-development. The power to not only destroy our ideas of ourselves but also to constitute it, it colored our subjective experience of the world with a diminished self-worth while also leaving us chasing a limitless aspiration of ‘becoming beautiful.’

Inverting Shame Against The Capitalist Self-Love Industry

The same system of patriarchy which grades us on the basis of desirability also pushes us into a ‘self-care/lifestyle-monitoring’ zone. The burden to remain within the demarcations of permissible actions of desirability-enhancing choices—a voluntarist compulsion, then rests on women. Thus, feminine bodily discipline works both ways – as an imposition and as self-fashioning – within oppressive adaptive choices to oppose and bargain with the tyrannical notions of beauty and desire.

Body positivity in a capitalistic-patriarchal society is difficult. How do you avoid being captured by the total system of power? The answer is not found in merely attacking those that engage in shaming but to realise a young girl’s appearance is the object and subject of capitalism’s ideological apparatus – which thrives on insecurity!

An ‘invisible war’ rages over her body. Even when thinness as a goal is met, the same socio-cultural standard turns against you, branding you as ‘skinny.’ The game of anatamo-politics of ‘useful’ bodies is endless! But even when so, it is important to dislocate the power of shaming the body from the external source and locate it within the scope of intersubjective powerplay. Where shame also posits women as active subjects capable of collectively making social change.

In a society where fat-shaming and eating disorders coexist, where the complexion of one’s skin remains a signifier of the historically oppressive caste-system, One has to remember to not just identify the symptom of patriarchy, that is the act of body-shaming, but also remember to expose the violence that lies in its kernel.

In a vicious cycle of patriarchy, the two binaries – conventional, conformist beauty and its transgressive counterpart – generate and presuppose each other. We must collectively decide to resist this (invisible) imposition to keep us preoccupied with the way we ‘appear’ for others. And as writer Sreeparna Chattopadhayay argues in her piece, “Analysing Women and Women’s Worst Enemies“, women must collectivise to “realise their own delicate foothold on power within patriarchal terms of engagement to further fewer judgements, greater affirmations, less bargaining with patriarchy.”

 

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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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