I’m Indian, British and Confused About Body Image
Updated: Nov 30, 2019
I am five foot three, 7 stone and 3 pounds. These measurements may or may not ring alarm bells indicating that my BMI isn’t within the range it should be. I am underweight but not so much that I need medical attention. I do not have an eating disorder and by no means could I relate to lived experiences of those whose weight is debilitating and life threatening.
Having said this, my self-esteem and sense of attractiveness has taken a battering recently and this is rooted in my reflection of my tiny frame in comparison with the type of body deemed sexy today. It is apparent that the pinnacle of attractiveness, at least within the western world is as follows: thin with a prominent backside and a definite cleavage - I’m talking about the Emily Ratajkowski and Dua Lipa’s of the world.
It seems as if the yearning for a flat stomach, sizeable bottom and breasts, is as strong as ever due to this being a standard tends to be maintained via social media. Of course, just because a specific body type is seen as the most desirable, this doesn’t mean that women who have them should be lambasted for doing so. The issue lies in a specific body shape being deemed the epitome of beauty in the first place. Self-love should transcend any body shape whatsoever.
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on why it is that women have to deal with condescending labels such as apple, banana, pear and hourglass to describe their body shapes. I believe that they merely act as misogynist tools for women to evaluate and scrutinise themselves. What purpose do these labels serve? An example how women can make ‘tragic’ fashion choices by dressing for the wrong body type? Currently in popular culture, the hourglass figure is revered, meaning by default, the others are not. I consider the problems caused by the fact that the hourglass shape is considered the epitome of attractiveness. South Asian women are genetically predisposed to gaining weight on the stomach (Sniderman et al., 2007) and would therefore, be more associated with the less revered body type. I think about how diet culture is an example of another factor used as a misogynistic tool for women to use to self-evaluate in order look a way they feel they have to.
In the last few years or so, I have grown to despise my small frame and lack of breast and thigh fullness – something largely attributed to current notions of beauty. There is also a huge cognitive component to this. My perception of having a childlike stature, means that I have also internalised a sense of vulnerability that comes with being a child. My mind has managed to conceptualise my weight and small frame as ‘I look weak, therefore to an extent I am weak.’ I feel as though my frame acts as a signal for other people to intimidate me, whether that be with via their words or their actions.
My metabolism and small body frame means that I have to eat high calorie foods frequently and in a way that feels unnatural to me. I have a good relationship with food because I enjoy eating and don’t attach a sense of guilt to indulging. However, having to maintain a calorie surplus by eating at times I do not feel hungry, is a challenge for me. It’s difficult because I know that I have to force myself to eat during times when it feels uncomfortable to do so. Furthermore, gaining weight when my body (genetically speaking) isn’t well adapted to gain weight, means that my progress is a case of small changes over a long period of time. I want big changes quickly, but I know that I have to accept that reaching my ideal weight is a going to be a long, uncomfortable process.
Putting all this into consideration, it can be seen how my struggle to gain weight becomes undermined by common throwaway comments, ‘What a problem to have’, ‘I would kill to be in your position’ ‘there’s hardly anything on you.’ These are what I tend to be told when I tell people I’m trying to gain weight. I am told that I am privileged to be thin. My personal struggle which is driven by bodily hatred, automatically become bypassed. Whilst these statements are disheartening as much as they are irritating, I know that they are not rooted in malice. They are a product of society championing thin bodies and shaming larger ones. Don’t get me wrong, the prominence of fat-shaming and the visceral hatred toward bigger bodies, does make the nature of struggle between thin and larger bodies, differ entirely. Being thin doesn’t have the same type and extent of shame as being a larger bodied person – at least within western culture.
Western notions of desirability are not the sole components of the body image struggles that are experienced by women of colour (WoC). Growing up in Britain and being the daughter of Punjabi immigrant parents, makes me part the South Asian diaspora. South Asian cultural attitudes toward the body therefore, add another dimension to my battle with weight. I am writing from the position of being a thin person as oppose to explaining the damaging impact of fat shaming – something of which blogs and media outlets are saturated with. Whilst fat shaming is an issue in the South Community, it’s part of the wider fabric of South Asian women having specific beauty expectations to conform to of which, are considered feminine and therefore beautiful. Being light skinned, light eyed and thin whilst maintaining curves in the ‘right places’ is part of that fabric.
Recently, my mother invited a couple of her middle aged yoga friends to the house. Upon my greeting, I was, met with remarks (in Punjabi) on my ‘weak looking figure.’ I was infuriated but not surprised. Amongst South Asian communities, female bodies with defined breasts, buttocks and thighs, can often be thought of as synonymous with health and radiance. In a study exploring diabetes amongst South Asians by Bhopal (2008), it was stated that ‘being a little overweight is perceived as both healthy and a sign of social and material success (Bhopal, 2008). I certainly felt this whilst reflecting back on the comments I received from my mother’s friends.
Being part of the South Asian diaspora puts me in a strange place. Not only do I experience self-esteem issues stemming from westernised notions of the idea feminine figure, I can sometimes be burdened with South Asian definitions of beauty and vitality, as well as cultural customs relating to eating. I do not seem to meet the engineered, ideal boxes within both cultures I am exposed to.
I believe that the notion of an ideal body image needs to be obliterated. There must be a cultural shift where body size need not be associated with beauty, but rather an objective picture of health and how good someone feels about themselves. I wish to see a day where beauty needs to be redefined as something that equates to personal health and happiness and this needs to transcend race and culture.
#Identity #Culture #Indian #BodyImage #SouthAsian #Diaspora
Guest blog by: Simran Sahiba Kaur Takhi
Simran is an aspiring psychologist based in the West Midlands, UK. She has a huge interest in the voices of women of colour and the championing of independent publishing. In her spare time, she loves exploring and writing about the experience of navigating British and Indian identity. As a massive Jeff Buckley fan, she can often be found teary-eyed, listening to his whole discography on repeat.