Growing up, we have been always taught to think and understand that beauty exists in binaries. We have been told from a very early age that being tall is beautiful while being short is shameful, being fair-skinned is lovely while being dark-skinned is ugly. With the emergence of body positivity movements and awareness regarding body-shaming across the globe, we have learned to question these notions. It is important for us to unlearn the idea of beauty that we have known, and to realize that at the end of the day, beauty truly comes in all sizes, shapes, and colors. It is for the same reason that it has been tweeted by a person who describes herself as a womanist and literature graduate that, “Beauty standards are psychological warfare against women. The quest for the ideal beauty is futile because the goal post is always moving. I hope I can unlearn all of this. It will be better for my pockets, mental health and would save me a lot of time.”
We need to unlearn these beauty ideals. We need to understand the importance and urgency of realizing that beauty is not restricted to particular body size or shape. Body image issues affect nearly every person in this society and yet, they are often not talked about or addressed in the public sphere. In April 2019, India CRS Network reported about a survey conducted by Fortis Healthcare among 1,244 women between the ages of fifteen to sixty-five regarding body image. This survey was conducted across different cities, Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Mohali. Some of the main findings of this survey were: 90% of women said that body shaming is a frequent behavior; 84% of women reported that women experience more body shaming as compared to men; 47.5% of women reported being body-shamed at their school or workplace; 32.5% of women reported that their friends often make hurtful comments about their physical appearance, their body weight and body shape; 76% of women felt that the media portrayals of beauty promote the prevalence of body shaming; 90% of women believed that films and television shows often mock characters who do not conform to the beauty norms and expectations dictated by society. Most importantly, 97% of women believed that the issues of body-shaming, fat-shaming and skinny-shaming need to be addressed in schools.
Children and teenagers in schools, need to be taught about body diversity. Children often try to fit into the beauty standards which they are made to believe in while growing up. When they think they fail to have slender waists or fair skin, it affects their physical and mental health and simultaneously damages their self-esteem. Moreover, this may also lead to further complications, such as eating disorders. They may suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, also known as BDD, which is a mental illness with an uncontrollable focus on a perceived flaw in physical appearance. They may spend hours a day trying to fix it, try several cosmetic procedures, or exercise excessively. Due to this disorder, they may also frequently examine their appearance in front of a mirror, compare their appearance with that of others all the time, and also avoid social gatherings or getting clicked for a photograph. Getting bullied by peers or being fat-shamed or skinny-shamed by teachers is something that most children in schools have experienced at least once in their lives. Sexualizing the bodies of children and expecting them to conform to beauty standards often results in depression and feelings of isolation in children.
In a popular movie named Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in a conversation between two the protagonists, Clementine tells Joel, “Sometimes I think people don’t understand how lonely it is to be a kid like you don’t matter. So, I’m eight, and I have these toys, these dolls. My favorite is this ugly girl doll who I call Clementine, and I keep yelling at her, “You can’t be ugly! Be pretty!” It’s weird like if I can transform her, I would magically change, too.”
The constant desire to change how one’s body looks is found in many men as well. “We often talk about women’s body-image issues, but we forget that men are increasingly becoming victims of body-image issues too. In recent years there has been a spike in men being targeted and shamed for their bodies,” explains a Delhi-based psychiatrist. There is a toxic idea of the “perfect male body” with features such as sharp jawlines and a six-pack. It creates a lot of pressure on men. They seek to photoshop, surgery, and steroids at times because of this stress, body-shaming, and the desire to seem desirable to others. They develop ‘atypical’ eating disorders and get addicted to substance abuse. Men also tend to not address or talk about their body negativity in most cases.
Jason Momoa, an actor who has been labelled as an icon of male beauty by the media, was extensively body-shamed when his shirtless picture was leaked. He was trolled for his sudden weight gain and being less muscular. This created a huge impact and made people understand that body-shaming spares no one and must come to an end. Momoa later said that as the only biracial child in his elementary school, he became a target for many, was severely bullied at times, body-shamed and beaten up.
Fat people and people of color are often bullied while growing up. They are portrayed in mainstream media as people who are evil, villainous, cunning, and scary. Later, they may also be told by their relatives how they should try to lose some weight, use fairness creams and get rid of their acne. Aranya Johar, an Indian poet, addresses issues like gender equality, mental health, and body positivity through her poetry. She uses slam poetry to confront beauty standards. Her “Brown girl’s guide series” has inspired and helped a lot of young people to address their body image issues. Her words read, “We brown girls revolt against our reflections every single time an Indian magazine puts a light-skinned girl on a cover, calling her brown.” She speaks about asking her mother to get her some ‘haldi’, the Indian word for ‘turmeric’ which many women use to make their skin appear brighter, because “anything is better than brown, anything is better than dark.” One of her poems concludes with the message, “Forget Snow White, say hello to chocolate brown,” and she unapologetically asserts, “I’ll write my own fairytale.”
We need to break the beauty ideals that society presents us with and understand that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and features. To achieve this, schools must speak to children about the difference between friendly teasing and bullying. Classrooms should be a safe space where body diversity is not only accepted but also celebrated. Following body-positive accounts on social media may also boost one’s self-esteem. We need to have more dialogues regarding body positivity at home, educational institutions, workplaces, and others. Moreover, many people are now preferring the concept of body neutrality to body positivity. Body neutrality promotes acceptance of your body as it is. It allows you to recognize your bodily abilities and non-physical characteristics over your appearance. The foundations of body neutrality were set by many plus-sized women of color such as Gabi Gregg, who aimed to reclaim the word “fat”. She also initiated discussions about anti-diet and photoshop culture, weight bias, and body inclusivity on social media, while promoting body neutrality. Taking a neutral perspective towards your body means you do not have to force yourself to cultivate a love for your body or make an effort to love it every second. This is very helpful for people suffering from severe body image issues, eating disorders and so on, for whom it may be next to impossible to start loving their bodies all of a sudden in a day. Regardless of what society has taught us about our bodies and beauty, this is how we may attempt to break beauty norms and help one another find beauty in ourselves.
– Tania Banerjee