I have been skinny for most of my life. My most recent memory of being body shamed is when my aunt asked me to start taking protein powder to gain weight because no one would marry me otherwise. My earliest memory of being body shamed was when my extended family asked my then 3-year-old sister to call me “poochi” or insect in Malayalam.
My childhood has been generously peppered with names ranging from “kodhu” or mosquito in Malayalam to “sulukku” or sprain in Tamil. The latter was coined since I was so thin and frail that I would apparently sprain my limbs each time I moved them. I have lost count of the times I’ve heard unfunny jokes like “Oh, it is slightly breezy. Hold on to a pole before you fly away,” or every second relative asking my mother if she was not feeding me enough because I looked like a “skeleton.”
But all this casual body shaming were just comments and snide remarks that had no impact on me. Or so I thought.
In 2019, I was working on an agricultural project to combat prevalent malnutrition in rural Madhya Pradesh. One of the first terms we learned during the project was “atigambheer kuposhit” meaning severely malnourished in Hindi. Almost immediately, that became my nickname. We would work with malnourished children and pregnant women and my coworkers would joke how I was one of them.
That was my breaking point. Years of “jokes” and fun made at the expense of my body were catching up to me. I remember the long hours I would spend in front of a mirror as a teenager. Trying to cup whatever belly fat I had, being disappointed in my body, wishing my bones didn’t protrude visibly. All this while some women admired my body for the very same flat tummy and collarbones.
Even typing this feels silly particularly given the amount of body shaming heavy women are constantly subjected to. The implicit bias against them has wide ranging issues from inadequacies in apparels to facing medical discrimination. Conversations around body shaming have often resulted in pitting skinny women against fat women to see ‘who has it worse?’
But the question is not whether one is as bad as the other. The question is why must one be as bad, or worse than, the other for it to be considered a legitimate problem?
Conversations around body shaming have often resulted in pitting skinny women against fat women to see ‘who has it worse?’
My biggest struggle with body shaming is not knowing “how I should look.” I visited a psychiatrist a few years ago and she suggested medication that would help my mental health and also help me gain weight. I immediately panicked. Even though I had wanted to put on weight for many years, when it finally seemed possible, the first thought that hit me was “what if I grow fat?”
The core problem with body shaming is not just unwarranted opinions on women’s bodies. The problem is that body shaming is a system meant to feast on the insecurities of women. By making women unhappy with how we look — skinny, fat, dark, short — patriarchy thrives. Making women hate the very skin we live in is the easiest way to deny us our agency.
The fundamental idea remains that no matter what we look like, our bodies will always be policed and critiqued.
The only way I have found solace in this is by learning radical empathy and acceptance of my body. I have seen women of all sizes, heights and races band together to fight the system. I have seen fat women be unapologetically themselves, even in the face of trolling and harassment. By refusing to hate their bodies, these women have taken power away from a world built to bring them down.
The internet has been my cruelest and kindest aid in this journey. Watching fat women speak about their lived experiences has made me more aware of my own biases and internalized fatphobia.
While the internet largely uses “women’s health” as an excuse to police our bodies, I have decided to actually focus on my health — both mental and physical. That means eating whatever I have to and taking the necessary medication, irrespective of whether I lose or gain weight. I still struggle with how I look. But I have come a long way from hating my body. Hopefully, I will grow to love it soon.