How old were you when you were first made conscious of your body’s flaws? When you were first told that you didn’t measure up to an arbitrary standard of perfection? Okay, I’ll go first. I was 13, scrawny to the bone and learning fast that it was a “problem”. Teenage kids can be harsh, and the nicknames flowed fast and fierce. Nothing could however, beat the unbridled worry in my mother’s eye each time some wayward relative dropped a throwaway taunt. “Maa kuch khilati nahi hai kya?” became a standard greeting.
Me and my siblings struggled to come up with witty retorts, while my mother scoured the internet for all the miracle diets available. Later, rather than sooner, we came to the conclusion that my metabolism just wasn’t conducive to the 36-24-36 mandate and our focus ever since has been on eating healthy and keeping the stamina up.
At 22, I won’t be caught in a sleeveless dress, having been made acutely aware of how skinny my arms and legs look. Even at the beach, I consciously cover up with jeans of full-length tights. Getting the sand out of my clothes is a proper two-day process.
Body-shaming starts young
“The pre-adolescent stage (between the ages of 10 and 11) is the most common age for children to develop a warped idea of what their bodies should look like,” explains child psychologist Lisha Chheda. “Influenced by their peers, parents unknowingly start projecting their ideals of body image onto their children and at this susceptible age, young adults are more prone to internalising it.”
This parent trap is something lifestyle journalist Baishali Chatterjee knows all too well. As an 8 year old with jet black hair and dusky Bengali skin, her mother used to “slather various concoctions on my face to make my ‘skin glow’. But in my heart, I knew what the purpose actually was,” she recalls, adding, “Knowing that her concern was well-intentioned and stemmed from love, I don’t blame her, but the truth remains that I did have crying bouts.”
Since this form of body-shaming comes from a loved one, they tend to leave behind deeper scars. “Sibling-to-sibling comparisons are very common. In India particularly, concerns over dark skin is one of the most common triggers for body shaming. At the end of the day, since this criticism is well-intentioned, the most common course of action for parents is to ‘fix’ the problem,” rues Chheda.
Apart from the lingering mental trauma, body-shaming can also have stark consequences on your physical health.
Celebrity nutritionist Suman Aggarwal recalls a teenager who wreaked havoc on her menstruation cycle with her extreme weight loss. “Body-conscious teenagers are rashly attempting quick fixes (high-protein diet, water diet: take your pick). They are purging their diets of carbohydrates which demand a phobia-like level of aversion,” explains Aggarwal.
The constant scrutiny amplifies into a long-term behavioural pattern and predictably, comes to a head when the child reaches marriageable age. If you’re looking for proof, do a quick mental recall of how many times you’ve heard the statement, “She’s a lovely, educated girl but…” *insert body image paranoia here* Chheda adds, “Since our society works in the way that it does, overweight girls will be paired with overweight guys; darker-skinned boys will be matched with girls of a similar complexion in a misguided attempt to find balance.”
HOW TO DEAL WITH BODY-SHAMING IN YOUR FAMILY
Keep in mind that avoiding the person and situation altogether may do more harm than good. “Young people tend to shut out things that cause them hurt as a defence mechanism. Not only will this silent combat do nothing to alter the situation, it can also inflict permanent damage to a relationship,” Chheda warns.
Confronting the person responsible and frankly telling them how their behaviour is hurting you is also an option, but she recommends attempting this with the knowledge that ultimately, you can’t change a person.
Chatterjee recalls, “Once I had accepted myself, I sat my parents down and talked to them. Over a period of time, seeing the way I expressed myself, they came to see things in a positive light.”
The experience was a sobering lesson and has, in turn, shaped her work ethic as a media professional today. Chatterjee ensures that Hauterfly, a fashion and beauty portal where she works as managing editor, remains as inclusive as she can make it. “Our focus isn’t on being skinny or looking a certain way, but on being happy and healthy,” she declares.