I readjusted the pleat of my black sari making sure no skin was visible, applied lipstick, and entered the embellished reception venue. “Pooja, beta, lovely to see you!,” I heard a familiar voice gush. A middle-aged aunt who I had not seen in four years embraced me. She gave me the once-over, swiftly glancing up and down my body, analyzing every imperfection.
“You became a little jaadi,” she concluded, puffing her cheeks and holding her arms out to illustrate my weight gain. “No, not fat, a little too healthy,” she continued, as if the nuanced modification changed her intention. She set down her plate, ironically overflowing with samosas, and proceeded to give me unsolicited advice on the benefits of kale.
The encounter between my aunt and me is just one example of a cross-cultural phenomenon in which a well-meaning family member body shames another. Unfortunately, it’s fairly common during the holiday season. Your weight becomes an “appropriate” subject to discuss, often brought up by a relative, to the point that you worry that family gatherings over Thanksgiving will become an open forum to discuss your appearance.
I have been victimized by this exchange innumerable times. When I was 10 years old, I performed a solo dance at my cousin’s wedding donning an age-appropriate outfit. Later during dinner, an uncle insisted that I skip some meals, or I would have difficulty finding a husband in my adulthood.
At family gatherings, distant cousins would inquire about my marital status, or lack thereof, and correlate my singlehood to my unshed weight. If my mother posted pictures of family vacations on Facebook, others in her network would not shy away from remarking, “Pooja is so pretty for a chubby girl!” I became accustomed to enduring a list of grievances for not being a size 0.
Body-shaming is like a chronic disease, one that lasts for a long time, and may go into remission or periodically relapse. I received my diagnosis years ago. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, body dysmorphia, depression, eating disorders or frequent dieting, and low self-esteem and confidence.
The attitude towards weight and body shape is one where elders feel like it is their duty to counsel the younger generation on their health and wellness.
As a teenager, I would hide behind oversized sweaters and loose pants justifying my wardrobe as a means to be comfortable. My closets burst with bags of dismissed clothes that were sizes too small and too colorful–they made it harder to be invisible. In college, my roommates would indulge in guilt-free treats post nights out, while I would be calculating the number of hours on the elliptical I would need to burn off the shame. I used and abused a series of diet fads, eventually developing an unhealthy relationship with food. I avoided sweets and calorie-dense foods, categorizing them as “evil” in my mental library and agonizing overeating anything that wasn’t a fruit or vegetable.
Over-exercising was the crutch I relied on to conform to a set of societal standards where beauty is defined by the lightness of your skin, the thinness of your waist, and your marital status. Each culture battles certain stereotypes. In my South Asian culture, there is undue pressure on women, especially towards their bodies and societal roles. A woman should be curvy and feminine, yet skinny and dainty. Her hips should be wide enough to bear multiple children, but slim enough so her hip bones jut out. She should stay out of the sun, but somehow maintain a natural tan. God forbid her skin becomes dark, she must immediately use skin lightening creams like “Fair & Lovely” or worse, be the object of shadeism, a form of discrimination that systematically privileges light-skinned individuals. She should be educated and intelligent, but compliant as never to voice her own opinions.
Growing up in an Indian-American household, I became well acquainted with the traditional expectations of being an obedient woman who would never dare speak back to elders. To fulfill the “good girl” mold, I learned to stay silent and nod when told I was chubby or needed to exercise more. After all, my community does not consider it insensitive to openly judge others’ appearances. In my culture, weighing in on someone else’s body-type is interpreted as a reality check or a matter-of-fact guidance. The attitude towards weight and body shape is one where elders feel like it is their duty to counsel the younger generation on their health and wellness. In reality, there is a blurry line between tough love and destructive advice; many never realize the long-term damage of either.
My despair over these words was neglected since these “suggestions” were born out of genuine concern others had for my well-being. My parents told me to shrug it off and toughen up. My grandmother told me to do yoga and meditate, as if a downward dog will suddenly erase systematic verbal wrongdoing. I allowed the steady stream of toxicity to flow out of people’s mouths- a poisoned river I would drown in when I was alone.
But not anymore.
That evening at the wedding reception, I was both exhausted and empowered to break down the long, deep silence that no longer served me. In that moment, I transformed into a one-woman gang to champion for myself and for many others who inevitably shared the same experience. For so much of my life, I let others speak on my behalf or speak of me. It was time to take control of the narrative.
After a lengthy conversation about the ratio of vitamin C in kale, my aunt gestured me towards the stall piled with spiced cheese puffs. She wanted to refill her plate.
“Thanks, aunty. I drink spinach and banana smoothies daily and go kickboxing and running, too. You may not think I lost weight, but I like my body.” I smiled and helped myself to a cheese puff.
It was undoubtedly against my “Indian” values to vocalize my reaction to a potentially innocuous observation. But, my weight should be the topic of conversation only if I choose for it to be. I have wasted a lot of time being ashamed of how I look when I can’t fit into a new pair of jeans or feeling anxious when publicly ordering food at a restaurant. At some point, all those inferior feelings became overwhelming. I realized that if I wanted others to accept me I had to learn to advocate for myself first. Self-advocacy, though, is a learned process that is a conscious effort to overturn any negative perceptions of oneself. I began to change the narrative, not only out loud and to others, but more importantly in my mind and to myself.
Although there are times that I still surrender to the harshness of other people’s opinions (both intended and unintended), I have grown to be body-positive. There is no “ideal” South Asian body, and there shouldn’t be, because conforming to unrealistic beauty standards is a disservice to all the beautiful forms that exist. Body-positivity starts inward emotionally and mentally and expands outward.
And with that, I headed toward the bar.