How would you describe your relationship with your body? On being asked this question, the teenage me would have described it as uncomfortable, or maybe hateful to some extent. But the present me, a 22-year-old woman, would rather describe it as a relationship of learning and caring.
Body image and body consciousness has been a coercion thrust upon women, bounding us within the famous 36-24-36 matrix. But to think about it rationally, our bodies are not baking batter that can be moulded into such standard silicon moulds. Diversity among human beings exists not just of the mind, but also extends to our physical appearance, which our society finds hard to come to terms with. For the most part of my life, I grew up around this matrix of the ideal body or, as I shall put it brutally, the “bikini body”.
Growing up as a fat kid in the household, adolescence brought a stream of bodily changes. Preoccupied with this change, my media and popular culture consumption during my teenage years was majorly focused on watching Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and other Disney stars (prodigies of the perfect White body). This consumption simply lead me to believe that this is how puberty changes your body and turns you into a woman with a flat stomach and what I considered normal breasts. Bollywood, on the other end, featured heroines, clad in a low waist saree, with cameras zooming in on their flat belly. The perfect Indian figure would often be advertised on movie posters. Looking at my own body, I could not see myself in the women I liked.
With my thunder thighs, a bulging stomach and big breasts, I felt as if I had been cheated by the Gods of Puberty, or if there was some ill-luck that struck me. At the time, I obviously could not understand that this idea of one perfect body is a hegemonic social construct, manoeuvred to be coerced on to the minds of young women to perpetuate society’s homogeneous perspective of women’s bodies. For me, it was my body’s shortcoming, that I could not wear crop tops or maybe look a certain way, and not society’s narrow approach on body and diversity.
For many years, I read articles and styling tips on social media, on how to make my body look “decent”, fashion dos and don’ts for chubby women, and what not. I believed and religiously followed all these tips. Then, accidentally, just as I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, I came across a picture of a beautiful woman (Sierra Schultzzie) posing in a bikini. To my horror, she was breaking all plus-size fashion police rules and still rocking the look. I liked the photo and dug deep into her profile, and that is when I read about body positivity and body image for the first time.
(There have been various debates around the idea of body positivity. Most of the criticism against body positivity is surrounds the fact that this movement promotes categorisation of bodies, normalises obesity, and discourages exercise and physical fitness. It is also seen as non-inclusive of different ethnicities and is essentially an idea centred around White bodies. However, major proponents of the movement see it as a movement for social justice, one that includes every person. It is seen as an encouragement to work on health and fitness goals, and all this, accepting and not hating the way your body looks in the present.)
My social media consumption took a roller coaster ride from reading articles on how to fit my body into the ideal standard to watching YouTube videos of Sierra Schultzzie, Carrie Dayton and Lucy Wood who were breaking all plus-size fashion myths, and talking about thigh gaps and chub-rub. And it was not some random liberal movement far out in the West. There were people here in India, breaking those body image stereotypes and proudly owning their bodies.
I came across the work of Sakshi Sindwani, Meenu Goel Khade and Komal Narang. Their content is not just about promoting fashion trends, it goes much beyond that. Brutally Honest Reviews by Sierra Schultzzie and 11 Seconds 11 Styles by Sakshi Sindwani end up instilling more confidence in women with bodies of all shapes and kinds to feel a certain way. Apart from fashion, these influencers have also been outrightly honest about their fitness routine, and the struggle of working out in a society that expects outright results.
After surrounding myself for the past few years with all these women who were unapologetic about their bodies, open to accept and embrace their ‘not-so-ideal-bodies’, I learned that there is no such thing as an ‘ideal body’. Every human body is different and being different does not necessarily mean that you’re wrong; rather, it’s a sign of strength. This reversal of the cultural content that I have been consuming on social media has helped me become the confident woman I am today who is open to learn and accept her body. But the road to this journey has not always been smooth for all of them.
Sierra Schutlzzie, in one of her videos, talks about her struggle with an eating disorder and the constant pressure to have the right kind of body, by talking about the effects of mean comments on her mental health. Even Sakshi Sindwani has been very vocal about being a big woman in Indian society. She recalls being bullied for being “fat and tall”, and going for therapy in school. And the bullying didn’t just stop there — she also recounts criticism from her own family commenting “Isse kaun shadi karega?”, “Zyda moti nahi ho gayi ho?”.
Although these women have evolved with their journey to become more confident in their bodies, being a public figure also comes with its own baggage. There are always instances of cyber-bullying and facing mean comments that extend not just to the person, but even to their family, which ends up leaving an impact on their minds. There are still times when I am not the most confident with my body, or when I feel insecure about wearing a body-con dress or hot pants. But this does not mean that I do not accept my body. Rather, it shows how far I have come in accepting my own body where I feel confident, and not the need to “fix” myself. One thing that I have learned watching these influencers is that there will be moments of self-doubt every once in while, but we need to find a way to deal with such moments.
Popular culture and media have their own facets, just like the two sides of a coin. Obviously, there is a marked inconsistency between the representation of forced body standards, as against body-positive content, but the gap is bridging. Social media is what we, as a society, put up as media and popular culture. To break this fixation on a standard body image lies in our own actions, and the type of content we prefer to consume as well as create.