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Do We Ever Stop Feeling Insecure About Our Own Bodies?

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As Anuja lines her immersive eyes with kajal, touches up her full lips with burgundy, slips on her arch-framing sandals, a vision of feline sensuousness, I, her obese, overweight, hysterically weeping husband, a full-grown ‘man’ of thirty-two, sprawled in an unravelled heap of my own mess, bark from the bed, “I have NOTHING, not ONE SINGLE thing, that fits me! Everyone will laugh at my face!”

This beauty and the beast routine, a tad different from the fairy tale, was my reality, and by consequence, my wife’s and mine. An unfairly shared, nightmarish truth, each time we were to step out in public, a dinner, a function, a show, an outing. Frantically I’d bring down cartons; I exaggerate not, cartons of clothes from the loft – each one containing a phase-of-life – one 46s, another 44s, still one more, the slim-days, 42s!

Ever since I can remember, I struggled with my weight. As a very young child, I was ‘fat’. Why? Because my overtly-loving Bengali nanny, Shanti didi, expressed her unflinching love and devotion toward me, the only way she knew – by cooking the criminally fattening Mete Curry (that’s Liver in Bengali), and following that up with the copious quantities of the most vulgar dessert – Malai (cream) and Chini (sugar). Clearly, chini-kum, was a concept alien to her.

man standing on hilltop looking at sunset
Representational image.

That she lavished me with such unbridled culinary savagery wasn’t what worried me, naturally, it didn’t, for I had no concept of its ongoing, real-time manifestation. What didn’t worry me either, was that I was, a ‘healthy’ (read countless Indians’ euphemism for overweight). It was that there were people in my immediate universe who made fun of me!

That is where, precisely when, it began. My life-long conflict, complex relationship, inextricably toxic dynamic, with my own body, and, as a byproduct, with my own, fast-depleting self-worth.

The emphasis that is paid in the world to a person’s body-type, is simply, entirely not commensurate with how healthy that person is, with how ‘fit’ that individual is. Nor does it relate in any manner, to ‘beauty’, which also, not unlike fitness, is pronounced good or bad on the most bizarre parameters. It is absolutely skewed.

Why? How? We could investigate, even debate those reasons, till the owls sleep off. Perhaps, in my experience at least, it has been a combination of the judger’s own frustrations and complexes, and what society has dictated over decades and generations. You’re too thin, you must be ill. You’re too fat, there must be something wrong with you. Too short, too tall, everything is a problem!

When I think back to my own childhood, I realize that I was very happy while I was away at boarding school. I used to until recently, feel that those were my glory years, years when I accomplished a great deal. Upon deeper introspection though, the ugly truth reveals itself like the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ lying in bed, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood’s Grandma – it was body-image all that while.

How? Simple. Throughout boarding school, perhaps because it was a number of very active years, in addition to being away from Shanti didi and her inglorious, gluttonous meals; I was ‘thin’. And hence, respected, cool even. The moment school drew to an end, the frantic sporting and other physically demanding lifestyle ceased, back came the weight, in oodles.

It coincided so perfectly with the start of college that all the confidence and self-worth that I’d have liked to have at the cusp of a new life in Delhi University, slipped from right under my feet, like a shag-rug away to the cleaners! I was, once again, the ‘fat’ Kartik from my pre-teens. The ‘butt’ of many jokes, taunts, hushed mockery; that I’ll never have a girlfriend, that I wouldn’t be able to go for a little run; all manner of assertions were made purely based on my ‘physicality’. And it drove me entirely over the edge.

Representational image.

In a recent post on YKA, I graphically described the genesis of my awful smoking addiction. To now realize that it was, in fact, this specific insecurity that played a huge role in adopting the former habit, is eye-opening even as I write this!

The pursuit of being cool, fitting in, belonging, being accepted, depended, and continues for millions, on how others, and most importantly we ourselves, perceive our bodies, and the conclusions we come to, basis that.

Years later, in Anuja, I might have met a partner who genuinely couldn’t care two hoots about how ‘large’ I am, evidenced by her dating, marrying, and staying with me (happily!). The sad irony is, even she, ‘thin’ and pretty as she is, has not been able to escape the ire and discriminant gaze of judgers who have, through her life, labelled her, too thin!

Today, bringing up our wonderful three-year-old daughter Krisha, I see the same judgment and pressure. It is woefully palpable. To equate a girl’s beauty to princesses from fairy tales and boys’ ‘handsomeness’ to being strong, like He-Man (read chiselled, ripped, built), to me is the most reprehensible, damaging, and permanently scarring conditioning.

We are what we are. We have grown up, and even into our early 40s, will continue to battle our body-image-demons, best we can. On days we will overcome, on others, our insecurities might prevail.

As a new, young generation of to-be-parents however, there is an unmissable opportunity to understand this and take corrective action. To bring up a generation of children free of body-bias. To be, healthy, fit, happy. To define beauty, on their own, through their own mind’s eye, and not only based on ‘reflections’!

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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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