At my grandmother’s funeral, one of my relatives told me I looked fat.
In extended Indian families, women’s bodies are always fair game for criticism and commentary. Weddings, birthdays, festivals, and even funerals, are sites of avid discussion about who has gained and lost weight since you last saw them, who is taller, who is fairer, who is darker, who is pregnant and who isn’t (but should be by now). Since the last time I’d seen this particular relative, I had graduated school, done extremely well in my final exams, got into an excellent college and started studying my dream course. I had also lost my grandmother. And still, at the funeral, instead of congratulations for my achievements or condolences for my loss, how I looked was what they chose to comment on.
I don’t know exactly when such comments burrowed into my psyche and became a permanent presence in my head. I don’t know exactly why I allowed shallow criticism from distant acquaintances and relatives to affect my self esteem. I also don’t know exactly how I convinced myself that their approval of my looks was more valuable than the support and love I received from my closest family members and friends, regardless of what I looked like. But if too many people insist on consistently judging you on the basis of your appearance, comparing you to unrealistic standards which can probably never be reached, it isn’t hard to internalise their arbitrary rules. I won’t describe my struggles with body image in depth—this is not an essay about hating myself. Diet culture, fetishisation of certain bodies in the media, and these comments by society at large contributed to my self-esteem becoming dependent on how I looked, and it took a very long time and a lot of mental reprogramming to break out of this mindset.
I like to think that I recovered to a large extent; I let go of a lot of beliefs and behaviours I’d adopted in order to make myself look a certain way, and became much kinder and healthier in the way I perceived myself. But one thing that I could never let go of was this sense of an audience watching me at all times—noticing me, judging me, consistently keeping watch to check if I ever violated some primal rule of what we’re supposed to look like. While this is my personal experience, discussions with people who have gone through similar struggles with body image indicate a universality to this experience of the “social gaze”. Social media intensifies this, because of the actual audience present there, and so do the all-pervasive beauty standards that dictate most visual depictions of female bodies. I knew, rationally, that the opinions of random people don’t matter, because they can only see the outside of my body and not who I really am. But human emotions are often irrational, and it was very hard to get myself to stop caring, and most times I couldn’t.
But in March this year, suddenly, this audience was removed. The pandemic means that interacting with anyone is now a conscious choice; theoretically, it is possible, acceptable and actually recommended to spend all our time indoors and isolated. The freedom that then comes with escaping the gaze of the collective others means that our bodies aren’t made the topic of discussion or critique anymore—isolation has freed us from external pressure about how we should look. People are growing out their body hair, women are going braless, everyone is abandoning uncomfortable practices we are forced to follow to be socially acceptable because no one can police us now.
These months have been a good time to rethink and realign the way I perceive myself. During the lockdown, the content I consume has been intentional, my interactions with people are by choice and with those who care about me as a person, and not what I look like. Interacting only with my family and some specific friends, and limiting my social media use so that I’m not exposed, advertently or even inadvertently, to images that fetishise only very specific kinds of physiques, I have, for the first time in a long time, become neutral in my body.
Taking up the cleaning duties in my house meant that I began to see my body as a way for me to contribute to the household chores, as something for me to use rather than the basis of people’s opinions of me. The targets I set for my body became different too, rather than to reach a number or fit a size, I now wanted to be able to clean three floors without experiencing excruciating thigh pain. Daily walks are now more about enjoying the little of the outdoors we get to see rather than a form of exercise, which means I experience them more mindfully, rather than see them as a means to an end.
I’ve also been able to experiment with the way I look, unafraid of “looking bad”. I cut my own bangs the day our prime minister announced a nation-wide lockdown due to the pandemic. I even streamed it on my Instagram for the 50 or so friends who were, for some reason, interested in me chopping off eight or ten inches of the hair that surrounds my face using craft scissors. No thought went into the decision; what did I have to lose? Nobody was going to see me for a while anyway. In the seven months that have passed since then, I’ve noticed more and more of my friends and people I follow on social media changing up the way they look. There are definitely more bangs, colourful hair, beards, shaved heads, and undyed greys on my feed than there used to be.
But most striking is the sheer nonchalance with which this is happening. It is as if we have all come to a consensus that the pandemic is a “get out of jail free” card for us to look the way we have always wanted to, but couldn’t. The freedom that comes with this means that we can look the way we want to, for ourselves (and only be seen on social media if we want to show off). Shaved off your beard and don’t like how you look now? No worries, nobody needs to see you until it grows back. Bad DIY hair dye job? Just hide it while taking selfies and nobody will ever get to know. Always wanted to ditch glasses for contacts, but were unsure about how they’ll look? Wear them anyway and spend time getting used to your new look. It’s just you and your mirror—no judgement, no standards.
The removal of this societal judgement, of my “audience”, made me realise how many of my thoughts and decisions were governed not on the basis of my own opinions, but of others’. Letting go of these arbitrary internalised beliefs about what constituted the “right” kind of body made me see my body for what it is—a physical object that in no way defines who I am, that is supposed to be reasonably healthy enough for me to achieve what I want to achieve, and that can be made to look the way I want, simply because I want it to—no overthinking about expectations or standards required. We’re in the middle of a life threatening pandemic; the only standard your body needs to meet is to keep you alive. And as long as it does that, it’s a good body.
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