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We Need To Put Emphasis On Feeling Healthy Rather Than Looking Fit

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Growing up, I remember the shock and concern of my family over my sudden weight gain. This concern arose primarily due to looming hereditary diseases and was followed up with multiple trips to different doctors. Despite an already healthy diet and added solutions, my weight gain refused to stop. The constant push to exercise, monitoring of my diet and embarrassing comments did not for one moment consider what I felt. 

To be honest I refused to exercise for the most part because I was so annoyed with the nagging that not working out became a form of rebellion. Which child would not be angry when nicknamed “sumo“, “moti” and the likes? Yes, I hated my body, but I hated the remarks more and no way was I going to bow to them. Despite my stubbornness, I did get affected. My confidence collapsed and no one knew why a child who had loved to dance on stage since she was 3 years old gave it up when she was 14. 

It is still difficult for me to forget the mocking laughter of my classmates. Initially, I restricted myself to dancing alone with locked doors and curtained windows. Still, later as I tried to regain my confidence and took the stage in school, that laughter kept ringing in my ears like a creepy radio tune reminding me of all those moments when I was too ashamed to perform anymore. 

Like most people, especially women who have faced body shaming, I have felt shame, embarrassment and hatred towards my body for the longest time. I won’t lie; I still do. Comments like “she takes so much space”, “you’re a burden on the universe” and “haathi ka bachcha” from my childhood bear an imprint on my mind that no amount of self-love seems enough to erase.

Coming back from the memory train, how the concern for health risks of weight gain shifted to a concern for my attractiveness because “no boy will like you”, I’ll never know. Being obese and in your 20s sucks (to be honest it sucks at any age).

“You’re amazing! I would have definitely dated you if you were slimmer.

Beta, if you don’t work on yourself, how will any boy even talk to you. After all, how you look is the first thing that catches the eye.

“We’ll have to look for someone like you — fluffy.

You need to reduce your weight. How do you think you’ll manage the house and work if you’re not physically fit?

Daud lagao thodi, fir tum attractive lagogi.

The annoyance of young-me on always being bugged to exercise more is nothing compared to now when I’m bugged to reduce weight to please others, especially to find the right man. In a flash, all my achievements and constant efforts on building my character cease to matter. Hence, my conflicted relationship with my body continues.

I wanted to be comfortable in my body, but it always felt strange to me. I wanted to feel healthy and ward off the looming threats of hereditary diseases, but at the same time my annoyance with the nagging and uninvited advice would make me angry and I would end up avoiding everything. Often, it made me stress-eat because I started believing that I will always be unloved. The much-needed conversations about body positivity emerging as a beacon of hope are sharply contrasted by the increasing dimensions of propagating the desirability of perfect bodies. 

From the clothing industry to fashion guides with recommendations for hiding flab or compensating for the absence of it. Quick food solutions for the appropriate party figure to a large part of the fitness industry thriving on selling the perfect body. Media imagery of what is beautiful and what isn’t. Online comments from people hiding behind computers bulldozing imperfections to families, friends and society that casually remark on our bodies — we are constantly hounded by this idea of a perfect body. 

How many of us have ended shopping trips on the verge of a breakdown, often crying in the trial room itself? How many of us have failed to find clothes that fit and hated our bodies more? How many of us have turned to crash diets, intermittent fasting and extreme workout plans to lose weight fast — all in our desperation? How many of us have cried our eyes out listening to or reading comments about our bodies?

Borrowing from my experience I would like to highlight another point. We are often told that the suggestions come out of a concern for our health, but is it so? “Looking” healthy has always trumped “feeling” healthy. When acceptance of me as I am by a few friends finally put me in a better position to take care of my body, my focus was on nutrition. While I was delighted with the results and started “feeling” healthier, those around me were still stuck on me not “looking” fit and I failed to convince them otherwise.

Model Rampwalk
Looking healthy has always trumped feeling healthy.
Credit: Bollywood Hungama

The pressure to lose weight made me more inactive, lost and left me feeling unloved, whereas the acceptance made me want to be better. Having a healthy body has nothing to do with body shape and size. That has been a daring lie we’ve been fed. A healthy body is about nurturing ourselves and feeling healthy. One can be the same shape and same weight, yet feel healthier by focusing on nutrition. No handles, big butts, heavy thighs, stretch marks (or their absence) can determine an individual’s health.

While body positivity might help us feel less embarrassed, there remains a long way for most of us to feel adequate and at home in our bodies. Unlike a cloak we don’t like, there is no way for us to switch bodies and there are so many of us that go on living, disconnected from our bodies.

If I can dare say, most of us want to feel good and healthy in our bodies, to indulge guilt-free in eating what we like, to be seen and loved for who we are and not how we look, to not succumb to society’s mythical standards, yet we desire to be accepted for once. It was acceptance which helped me overcome some embarrassment and start caring for myself. 

Yet, is it enough when the broader message from society remains the same? I still end up hating my body on most days. We are still bombarded with the inadequacy of our shapes. How do we form a connection with our bodies when a specific waist size is preferable over nurturing our body and mind? Despite conversations on body positivity, the ideal body narrative takes more than enough space to make a healthy relationship with our bodies a conflicted one: accepting yet embarrassing.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons
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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.

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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.

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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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