As a kid I remember wishing for a slim figure every time I looked at myself in the mirror. Being the only overweight kid in the family, I wished with all my heart that I had smaller hips, slimmer thighs and arms, thin lips and thick lustrous hair, hoping that I would look like the other girls in the family, hoping to fit in. As long as I can remember, I have never felt comfortable in my own skin or at ease with my body. It was suffocating, and frankly, sometimes it still is.
Most of us have felt like that at some point in our lives and many of us are still struggling to accept our bodies the way they are. There is a tiny voice inside us that keeps saying that our bodies are not right, that we need to change the way we look.
The voice that tells you that you are not good enough, is not your voice but, in fact, it belongs to the system. It is the system that we live in, which has conditioned our minds to think that there are certain idealized images which every individual should live by.
The systemic standards of beauty prejudices us against our own body. This standard comes from an ingrained functioning of racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism and casteism and upheld by our systems of capitalism, family, media, science and more.
Each body is different and we all experience our body differently. Sometimes we might constrict ourselves to live in a certain type of body, but this may be an internalised struggle to conform to the expectations we were raised to believe in.
Body Acceptance and Intersections:Marginalised Bodies
If we take a look at the historical context of idealization of bodies, a need for establishing superiority and power comes into play. Where, certain body types and colour were given more precedence and made to be akin to a superior person. What is preferred by the majority becomes the normative and people who do not fall into the bell curve of normative become ostracised to the margins.
The standards of beauty are spelled forth by how a cis-straight-able body must look like.
Womxn have been struggling with body image concerns for ages. Our world often teaches us to feel dissatisfied with our bodies, which might lead womxn into taking drastic measures in an attempt to change the way they look. Like plastic surgery, implants and fillers. Womxn may regard size as a definite element of their identity. They may assume that there is something wrong with them if they are unable to fit into some standard size set by the society.
Men feel like they are not only trying to live up to the traditional personality expectations like being strong, a leader, emotionless, independent and logical, but also possess a masculine physique. This body image concern begins in childhood where they are taught to be manly and in control, through sports that focus on their physical appearance like wrestling. They are exposed to an idealized masculine body type on a daily basis via social and mass media.
Disabled people face physical and cognitive challenges on a daily basis, however, the system fails them by not providing them with equal opportunities for education and employment, and not offering them with right healthcare to help them lead a normal life. The infrastructure, for example, is built mostly to benefit the able bodied more than the disabled. This exclusivity disseminates the disabled. It’s just a matter of taking a few extra genuine steps and implementing them properly, that the system can reduce this exclusivity.
Queer folks’ bodies are both stigamatized and ostrasized for not fitting the cisnormative and heteronormative versions of bodies. The stigma, prejudice and discrimination that they face, aside form their body image concerns, can often lead to higher levels of stress. They experience harassment, discrimination and victimisation.
Violence against transgender folk has been a painful reality. Social stimatization and discrimination prevents transgender folk from repoting these acts of violence that were committed against them.
Intersex is just a general term that is used for babies who are born with physical features that don’t fit society’s expectations of a male or a female body, and when that happens, the doctors and the parents decide the gender based on the expectations about how a male or a female body should look like. The bodies of intersex variations are seen as different. This puts them at a risk of facing discrimination, abuse and harm. They are pressured to go through medical procedures to make their bodies look more “typical” male or female. Going through surgery or hormonal treatment can be harmful, especially if they aren’t given any choice in the matter. Medical intervention can have numerous negative impacts on people with intersex variation as they grow, like pain, loss of sensual sensation, having a body different from one’s gender identity and mental health issues. For instance, an Intersex activist, M. Gangabhavani, says that she almost lost her life due to the surgeries she had, which her father made her go through, to conform to a male body.
However, history has provided us with ample evidence that there is no perfect body type, that they are not set in stone. Like in the 1950s and early 1960s, womxn considered to be beautiful and desirable if they had a curvy body like that of Marilyn Monroe, who was acknowledged as the most beautiful woman of that time. This affirms the fact that, for centuries, individuals have been brainwashed into thinking that their bodies are not enough. They feel this urge to compare themselves with whatever body image is the “latest trend”.
These so-called “right body types”, are nothing more than glorified norms made acceptable by a messed up system. No one has the right to tell you how to be, how to feel or what your body should look like. Just because some people don’t want to fit into these boxes of standards set by the system, does not mean that they should not be ostracised by the society for being different from their definition of “normal.”
Body Acceptance and Mental Health.
Many years ago a Belgian mathematician named Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, invented a formula for the government to give a quick and easy way to assess the degree of obesity of the population. Soon that formula became the very means to check what a “normal” person’s body should look like.
The BMI (Body Mass Index) calculation is based on a person’s height and weight and it is widely used to determine whether they are in a healthy weight range or not. This is the method widely used by many professionals to calculate the body mass of a person. However, it is getting clear that BMI is a poor and incorrect indicator of percentage of body fat. For instance, a person could be fit and have a higher muscle mass but according to the BMI indicator, they might be overweight. Each person has a different body type, no one is the same and each has their own perception on how they should be. But this perception often depends on a general concept of societal norms. Like some people may consider themselves as overweight even if they are well within the population based references. This is not only due to societal concepts of an ideal body but also due to the thinness being a goal promulgated by the fashion industry and reinforced by commercial advertising.
Among the different kinds of social expressions that influence an individual’s body, mass media plays an important role. Magazines, newspapers, TV, social networking websites provide a platform to portray how an “ideal body” looks like. With the growing exposure of the media itself, Western or Indian, this generation is trying to match the unrealistic standards of physical appearance, with beauty.
Over the years, unattainable body images were propagated as ideal for every individual. Celebrities often resort to dire measures such as unhealthy diets, exercise or even use of drugs and plastic surgery, to maintain these “perfect images.” The minds of young people are conditioned to think that their bodies are not enough. They believe that one way to improve their self-image and feel better about themselves is to lose weight and become thinner, which leads to early onset eating disorders and anxiety.
The movies, TV shows and social media have flooded the minds of these young girls and women with such unrealistic beauty ideals: fairness, thinner, clear and spotless skin etc. These impractical standards, not just for womxn but also for men, are prominent factors for conditions like body dysmorphic disorder, stress, depression, anxiety and substance use disorder. It also results in low self esteem and low self confidence.
These photoshopped and impractical images of celebrities and influencers on social media had resulted in individuals engaging in social comparisons which often leads to self-depreciation. These artificial images portrayed in mass media, approved by this system, puts people at risk for negative effects like body shame and body image disturbance.
We somehow tune ourselves to the fear of being different, lest we are ostracised by the society. But what becomes important to hold onto is that every individual is different. Our bodies are bodies with varied experiences, carrying stories of resistance. This idealization of bodies makes us want to “fit in”, when in fact we should be standing out. Let these whispers that have been shunned by societal expectations become louder and question these predetermined, unrealistic standards and show the world that they are not going to be disparaged, they are who they are, beautiful and unique, and that is enough.
This post is written by our writer and psych student Insha Fatima