Let us begin this time with a personal story of yours truly. This is one of my earliest memories.
I was probably 5 or 6 years old and was playing by the side of the street outside our house. The street was empty and I was lost in the intricacies of whatever game 6-year-olds play by themselves. Suddenly, a man on a bicycle went past me, shouting, "Kaunsi chakki ka atta khaati ho?" (Literally: What mill does your flour come from? Colloquially: Look how fat you are.)
By the time I looked up, he was gone. I remember actually checking left and right to see if there was someone else he had addressed that remark to. I had never heard the expression before and it sounded like an odd thing for an adult to say to a child.
When I saw no one else, I shrugged and went back to play, thinking, "Poor man, I hope he finds a good place to meet his flour needs."
I did not know then that I had just had my first brush with what was going to be a long and illustrious career of being body shamed.
Bhavna loves dancing. Growing up, dancing was a form of self-expression for her, a way to feel unbridled joy.
A classmate once saw her dance and said, "Arey, ye moti toh bahut achha dance karti hai!" (Oh, this fatso actually dances well!)
Bhavna says the comment tainted something she truly loved and was an assault on her self esteem as a young girl.
As a young girl, Sukanya remembers friends, relatives, and even strangers regularly commenting on her dark skin. A popular running theme among relatives would be "who will marry such a dark girl?"
She would be especially heartbroken when her mother and grandmother - both strong women she deeply loved and admired - would comment on the colour of her skin and compare her with her fair-skinned younger sister.
"I still remember my mom denying to buy me a bright coloured dress that I really loved as a little girl because she thought it would look glaring on my skin. I was sad and hurt to let go of the dress and replace it with a dull brown coloured one that she preferred for me. Constant reminders like this would make me feel like less of a person."
Neha says many of her childhood experiences led to a slow build-up in her mind of all the ‘defects’ she had. Her mother would worry about how much body hair she had. Aunties would give her mother condolences and home remedies in whispered voices. At school, boys would make fun of her for having a moustache.
As a result, she began the painful process of waxing at a very young age. Even there, the aghast comments made by the beauty parlour staff about her hair growth would hurt her more than the pain of ripping her hair off with hot molten wax.
She says that all of this has perpetuated a lifelong battle with shame around her unwaxed body.
Sukhada used to play cricket at college-level. As a sportswoman, she preferred wearing comfortable clothes that allowed her to play her best game. This often led to unsolicited advice from friends, asking her to wear 'more feminine clothes' to hide her ‘thunder thighs’. Even off-the-field, people would suggest she should trade in her favourite t-shirts and jeans for long kurtis and tunics to look 'more like a girl'.
Sukhada says the comments made her adamant to not dress the way these people wanted her to. In fact, she began to discount girls who wore 'girly' clothes as shallow and frivolous.
“It wasn't until much later in life that I began to appreciate that - contrary to what people will have you believe - femininity comes in all sizes, colours, and clothes”, she says.
Aparna is a senior sales professional who helps large organizations grow their business further.
One day, after addressing a company's top management at a successful sales meeting, she walked out of the boardroom with one of the CXOs. As they were exchanging pleasantries on the way out, he turned to her and said, "So, you've put on a few kilos, it seems?"
The comment left her not only furious but also deeply disappointed.
She says, "If the head of a prominent digital brand - a highly educated man who has undoubtedly attended plenty of sensitivity trainings at work - goes around making such off-handed remarks about women's bodies, what hope is there for the rest?"
Two months after her son was born through a C-section, Radhika realized she was suffering from post-partum depression. Her body was still recovering after the surgery, and she had not started losing the baby weight. Her son was a healthy but skinny-looking baby and the depression made her constantly question herself as a mother - including whether her body was generating enough breast milk for her son.
She decided to begin her journey of healing physically and mentally, by getting out of the house with her baby, and taking a short walk around the block every day.
One day, a random stranger stopped her on one of her walks and said, "Oh saara khana tum hi kha rahi ho? Apne bacche ko kuch nahi khila rahi ho?" (Oh, so you are eating all the food? Not feeding your baby anything?)
She cried every day for weeks afterward, thinking about his comment.
It is not that body shaming happens only to women. Men can go through it as well. Among women, however, it is a universal experience. You will be hard-pressed to find any woman who has never been called too fat, too thin, too dark, too pale, too short, too tall, too heavy-breasted, too flat-chested, too pimply, too hairy, or a million other permutations and combinations of failures to meet some imaginary Holy Grail of beauty standards.
Let us stick with Radhika a bit longer.
All her life, she had been fat-shamed when she put on weight (stop eating so much!), and skinny-shamed when she lost it (aren't you eating at all?). Today, Radhika is a FitLife coach. After decades of being uncomfortable in her own body, and suffering through an eating disorder, she has now turned the crusade against body shaming into a career.
Radhika says body shamers operate from a very deep sense of insecurity. "They might never acknowledge it even to themselves, but a part of them feels threatened when they see someone content and happy as they are. They belittle others to feel good about themselves."
If you call such people out, the retort is often "I was only trying to help." She says, however, that if it makes the other person feel small and humiliated, then no matter the intent, it is body shaming.
In her personal fitness journey, Radhika recently achieved the milestone of dead-lifting 100kgs of weight. If you are thinking "at least now people will stop commenting on her body", think again.
For Radhika, fat-shaming has now turned into fit-shaming. An uncle in her family recently told her, "If you become too strong, it will make your husband insecure. Trust me. I am a man. I know how men think."
Radhika says she has realized now that absolutely no one can meet the world's impossible standards for women's bodies, and the realization has set her free. Besides, she adds, her husband is her biggest champion, and loves to brag about her fitness.
"His only complaint is: I look at my muscles more lovingly than I look at him!"
A quick circle back to the other leading ladies of this week: Bhavna sponsors her maid's children's education. In a past life as a journalist, Aparna helped generate awareness about a street calligraphy artist from Vidarbha. His letter to her, telling her that she changed his life, is her most prized possession. Sukhada regularly runs crowdfunding campaigns to raise finances for people in abject poverty and immediate need. Neha is one of the women behind the campaign that led to changing the brand 'Fair and Lovely' to 'Glow and Lovely' - a small but first step in the direction of body positivity for a brand that has made generations of dark-skinned girls feel less-than. Sukanya went on to adopt a baby girl, who was born to an underage mother and abandoned at an orphanage. Her daughter now has a home full of love and acceptance, and a strong mother who is determined to raise a stronger daughter.
Just in case you were wondering if the women whose stories you read today are beautiful.
Recommendation of the Week
For those interested in body positivity, I recommend the Fat. So? podcast where Ameya and Pallavi discuss being fat - the pain, the joy, the learning, the dark humor, and the silver lining. Tune in alternate Sunday evenings for new episodes.
Have a great weekend, you!
Unless you have body shamed someone recently, in which case, I hope you find a good place to meet your flour needs.