Exploring Body Shaming in South Asian Communities
It was around mid-2015. I was settled happily and comfily in my repeat clients house, as I applied henna to her hands in preparation for her upcoming wedding. We talked and laughed; her mother flitting in and out of the room, admiring my handiwork and telling me how she would only ever choose me to be her henna artist. It was all smiles until after 3 hours of applying henna to her daughter, the mother took her spot beside me on the sofa ready for me to adorn her hands too. I’d been on the Slimming World diet plan for just over a month at this point, and I was feeling good in my skin; eating well and healthily and having lost just over a stone. I was a UK size 14. The mother continuously asked me if I would like something to eat (very sweet, I know), but I told her no, I wasn’t hungry and I would eat at home. I wasn’t being rude – it’s just that I was trying to eat as healthily as possible and I knew that the only food in their house at that time was deep-fried samosas and pakoras, and I really didn’t want to put that in my body or put them out of their way to prepare something else for me. I’d almost completed her henna, when she asked me once more, “Kuch khaalo naa?”. I answered saying “no thank you Aunty, honestly, I’m fine”. Suddenly her face changed and she seemed to spit the words “lagta nahin hai ke tum kuch bhi nahin khaati” – basically translating to “you don’t look like you don’t eat much”. She saw my face drop a little and then brushed the remark off with laughter, while I tried to keep the tears in and did the same, trying to stop my hands from shaking as I completed her henna. It wasn’t the first time I’d been body-shamed within my Pakistani community and I’m sure it won’t be the last…
Growing up in a Pakistani household and community was not the easiest of things for a young, impressionable girl. What I came to learn – although I do not paint every single person with the same brush – is that within such communities, as a woman first and foremost you will be judged upon the way you look. There is a norm among Pakistanis, particularly the women from older generations (or as we refer to them, ‘Aunty Jis’), to comment on the appearance of other women – and unashamedly at that. I grew up around women constantly bashing other women for their appearance; whether those women appeared in Bollywood films on their TV screen, or somebody that they had just briefly met earlier on that day – and to this day, I cannot seem to fathom why these people continue to determine a persons worth based on their outer appearance.
As you’ve already read above, I have been body shamed many a time within my own community and even within my own family so I know how it feels to have someone loudly and negatively comment on your appearance without any thought to how you may actually be affected. But the sad thing is that it has become so normalised that people don’t even realise they’re doing it. What makes me laugh (because it is so goddamn ridiculous) is that as a teenager I lost a lot of weight and became very thin, only to have family members applaud me on the weight loss, only then to tell me that the more weight I lost, the longer my nose was beginning to look! Either way, I couldn’t win and to this day I admit that because of my past, I have deep-rooted body image issues.
I was speaking with a friend a short while back who was going to India to marry her Indian partner and she told me that the first time she met her future mother-in-law she was told by her that she needed to lose a lot of weight before the wedding could go ahead, otherwise “how would it look among the community”. At this point, my friend had already lost so much weight and really did not need to lose any more. But she went ahead and did it anyway because of the pressures of society and wanting to please her mother-in-law-to-be who was clearly under the impression that only ‘skinny’ can be beautiful.
Now, I know body-shaming in South Asian communities is not a rare occurrence as I and many others I know have experienced it. But curiosity of learning about the stories and experiences of others led me to take to social media and ask my followers if they could share any stories or examples of body shaming experiences that they had had too. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that some of the responses I received were utterly heartbreaking – and what is even worse is that the people who make such remarks really do not realise the extent of the damage caused. Let’s delve right in…
REAL LIFE EXPERIENCES
Many of the girls that got in touch with me told their stories about being publicly told they were ‘too fat’ or ‘too chubby’ – one even told me, hilariously, that a couple of months after her wedding she and her husband were invited to someone’s house for dinner, only to be told that she’d put on too much weight!
Here are some more real messages that I received in regards to being seen as ‘too fat’ within the Asian community, which really stood out to me…
‘How can she be happy when she’s fat’
“I’ve always been the larger one from my family of 4 sisters. From being the age of 10 I remember feeling insecure about my size. People telling me all my life that I was ‘healthy’. Being the youngest daughter, yet relatives thinking I was the eldest (compared to my very petite sister who is 13 years older than me). I went through college wearing size 18 clothes when in actual fact I was a 14 but I was trying to cover up. My first boyfriend broke up with my because he said his parents would never accept someone so big – I was a size 14/16.
When I was a teenager, my dad would tell me not to eat/drink certain things because it had too much fat in it. He would always say it in the nicest way, only with genuine concern – but that never stopped it hurting.
Oh and not to forget the aunties would tell people that I was Masha’Allah because I was always so happy. Like what the actual f**k. Would they prefer me to be some miserable trumped up b***h so that I would lose weight?!?
It all boils down to the fact that this one thing is the stem of all my self-confidence issues. And the reason I allowed past boyfriends to treat me like shit… because I never believed anybody could ever love someone fat.”
“You can move your hips like that but you’re still THAT fat?”
“I’ve always been a bit bigger than most Asian girls. I had a big butt and thick legs before it was fashionable. I was always aware that I was bigger than other girls and so I’d be reluctant to let my mum buy me jeans, I’d wear leggings and long dresses or loose bottoms because I was so self-conscious.
Around November 2016, in my third year at uni, I decided to start working out and losing weight properly. I started weight training and for the first time, I felt so comfortable in my own skin. I stopped feeling bad for wearing jeans and I ditched my dad’s baggy jumpers.
My friend’s brother recently got married and at his dholki, my friends encouraged me to get up and dance. I danced to “Cheez Badi Hai Mast” and I thought I killed it! Everyone was applauding, coming up to me after and telling me how much they enjoyed it.
When it was all over and I went to help my friends clean up, a woman came over and said, “you can move your hips like that but you’re still THAT fat?”
There were 7 other women standing there and a few of them laughed, others looked embarrassed on my behalf. My cheeks went red and I laughed it off saying, “I was born this way!”
For days, I thought about what the woman had said to me and I felt awful. It wasn’t the first time. I have cousins who are far slimmer than me who have told me whilst I’m out shopping with them that I shouldn’t buy a certain top or jacket because I’m “a bit too fat” for that. I visit Pakistan every other year and the women from the village tell me to wake up and drink hot water with lemon because it will “melt” my fat, advising me as though I have some kind of an illness.
I guess I’ve just learnt to live with it, and love myself for who I am. I’m not fat. I’m a size 14, with a big butt and thick legs, and I’m proud. You know what else I’m proud of? I’m proud that I can walk in to the gym, squat 65kgs on the rack and leave a whole load of men astonished that I even entered the weights area. Let alone have squatted that weight. Being strong and comfortable with myself, that’s more important to me than what some Auntie Jee has to say.”
“Eat green apples!”
“When I was a teenager I was chubby but not overweight. I always fell in the normal weight category while my cousins would fall in the underweight one. They were considered slim and good looking while I was seen as chubby and everyone would say that I’d be fat later in life after having babies. I was around 13. My biology teacher once mentioned that models used to eat green apples as the only food to keep slim. There I started my first diet of eating only apples for the whole day and bingeing on food at night.”
As impactful and as horrible these stories are, I think it is the following one that got to me the most and shows just how extreme the effects of body shaming can be…
A Mother’s Struggle
“I have teenage daughters whose weights go up and down and there are extended members of the family who notice and comment (they do it in a jokey way) which really gets me angry as it’s so rude and I have had to have words with them. My youngest daughter was a little bit chubby and there were some certain people that would always make comments about this on family occasions.
Recently she lost a lot of weight and everyone said how great she looked…. But…. She carried on losing weight and then came the comments that she was looking ill and wasn’t eating. My husband and I were beside ourselves with worry as she had changed from a lovely, bubbly, happy child to and anxious and sad teenager with health problems. She had become borderline anorexic… I was heartbroken that at such a young age she was going through this. She would always put on a brave face in front of everyone but I could see the sadness and turmoil behind her smile.”
I wish people would think twice before they open their mouths and reflect on how their jibes may affect others. On the other hand, there are also those who are just nasty and like to put down others in order to make themselves look or feel better… shame on them.”
Aside from girls who were body shamed for having bigger bodies, I also received stories on issues to do with body shaming from girls who grew up constantly being told they were too thin…
“I’ve been told many a time that I’m ‘too skinny’ and why do I go to the gym when I’m already skinny? Don’t I eat food? I’m ‘maari jaan’ which means I’m too weak (usually a response to me requiring help to open a jar or something stupid like that). Sometimes it’s even said with a hint of open jealousy, that it’s not about people wanting me to be a ‘healthy weight’ but that they’re just obviously jealous that they’re not skinnier themselves.”
“You’ve had a baby – put on some weight!”
“I’ve always been told ‘you’re too skinny’. When I had my first baby – ‘put some weight on, you’ve even had a baby now, you need some weight on you’. Had a second baby – ‘why are you still so skinny?’, ‘you must starve yourself!’ and more recently, ‘thank God you’ve put some weight on!’. Also, having a very healthy and slim daughter, I’ve had so many comments about how I mustn’t feed her which usually continues on to how I mustn’t eat myself, therefore I must not feed my child.”
Honestly, reading all of these messages, it seems that no matter how you look, an Aunty Ji will always find a negative comment to make. Other girls told me how they were constantly bashed for being ‘too dark skinned’ (even having aunties sending skin whitening creams over from Pakistan for them to use); while another girl told me that she was always being told from elders that her boobs were too big and being asked why they were growing so quickly. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
So what is it about the older generation of women in our communities that makes them feel that they have the right to comment on the appearance of younger girls, and what do they feel will be achieved through doing so?
I could talk for hours and hours on these issues and the space on this page is just not enough to accommodate everything that needs to be said. But in a nutshell, I believe the reason why body shaming is so common among South Asian women is deep-rooted and comes down to the traditional South Asian mindset that all a woman is for is to serve and please a man, and a woman’s main aim in life is to be married off and bear children. When a daughter is born, it’s seen as a huge responsibility in the eyes of the community and sometimes even in the eyes of the family – it’s as if they’re just rearing her to be married off as soon as possible so that their burden is removed and passed on to the husband. In the minds of these people, small waists and white skin is beautiful (a lot of this has to do with British colonialism too, which, let’s be fair, has messed up South Asia tremendously) and if you don’t fit into these categories, then no one will ever want to marry you. It is preposterous but honestly I think this is what it all comes down to: that your appearance determines your worth in terms of being marriage material, and if you don’t look culturally or socially ‘acceptable’ then the more difficult it will be to marry you off.
How to change mindsets
One woman that has embraced her body and her beauty in its natural form is Bishamber Das, Britain’s first plus-size South Asian model who uses her platform as a voice for South Asian women all around the world. Me being me, I decided to contact her and ask her what she believes needs to be done to shake off such mindsets. This is what she told me,
“Growing up, I was always told I was very beautiful – for a fat girl. And I was always made to feel that I was never going to have somebody that would be equally or more educated than me or somebody that was attractive, because according to them I wasn’t attractive. It’s a horrible feeling and people in the older generation feel like it’s their right to enforce it upon you. It’s taken me a long time to come to the level that I’ve come to, and I’ve come to realise that people will only comment from the level at which they see. If they see from down there, they will comment from down there. This is why it’s so important for us as the young generation to educate people around us and to confidently challenge these peoples’ perceptions. If we don’t challenge them in a respectful manner, how will they know what they’re doing is wrong? They’ve been brought up to believe that what they’re doing is correct – and that’s the right way for them. When I was growing up and being bullied in this way, I had no one to look up to. This is why education and role models are so important; that people who have a platform openly talk about it, so other women can come forward too and relate. Education is definitely the key in moving forwards.”
I completely agree with Bishamber that speaking up and education are key to change, but as I always say the change has to begin with us individually first. I know that body shaming isn’t limited strictly among South Asians – by God, this happens everywhere, in every society and culture. But if each and every one us begins to make a conscious effort to understand our social, cultural and familial conditioning and our thought processes, and if we would only just think before we allow words to escape our lips, there would most definitely be a lot less insecure, anxious and broken women in our communities and in our world.
So, this is a message to all of my South Asian sisters: let’s stick together, speak out and show our communities and the world that we are all beautiful not despite of our differences, but because of them. As the younger generation, let’s stop body-shaming one another too (our cousins, friends, sisters) and set the example for our elders and our youngsters to follow. Elders aren’t always right (regardless of what they will have you believe) and it’s up to us to light the way for them and beckon them to take our lead.
Begin today. Begin with YOU.