When a teenager looks at himself in the mirror, he is more often than not reminded about how his bodily dimensions are inferior and inadequate in comparison to the men who grace his television screen each evening during the ad breaks of his favourite show. Almost each one of us has some insecurity or the other with regard to our body. Constantly being bombarded by images of ‘perfect’ men and women with the ‘perfect bodies’ only tends to aggravate such insecurities.
Before we are able to have a discussion about the body issues that people tend to face we must clearly acknowledge that despite what we may popularly believe, it is not only women who face such issues. Although far less highlighted in terms of media coverage, men too tend to face body issues of various types. In certain circumstances, the body image issues that men face can be even more serious than what women tend to face, owing to the prevalence of misinformation, almost complete lack of discussion and absence of support with regard to body image issues that males face. Another myth that needs to be dispelled is that only youngsters have to deal with body image problems. Much to the contrary, any person can face body image issues regardless of their age. This means that body image issues can plague not only your next door teenage neighbour but also her parents.
It is interesting to note how the very concept of a perfect body has undergone a large-scale change over the years. At a certain point in the past, say even three decades back, a fuller body was most sought after. Women who had a larger bosom and a wider lower torso were seen as the most desirable. At that point, skinny women tended to face body image issues since a substantial section of society told them that their bodies did not fit the society’s definition of a beautiful figure. Ironically, today it is skinny women who adorn the covers of popular fashion and lifestyle magazines, causing body image issues with women who are larger than them in terms of dress size.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is another group of persons in our society which hails the fuller figure as most attractive body type for women. Adult movies in particular have perpetuated this belief among masses of persons, impacting the psyche of young and old viewers alike. This ensures to a large extent, that those women without much ‘flesh on their bones’ are made to feel inadequate in their own skin particularly in the context of physical intimacy. Evidently there is no clear consensus with regard to the idea of a beautiful woman and numerous contradictory opinions on the subject. So as it stands these mixed signals ultimately seem to serve one purpose, which is to make all women feel that she can never have a perfect body; no matter how hard one tries, there shall be someone telling her that she needs to ‘shape up’ if she wants to be considered beautiful. If she has a fuller body then she must work out to ‘burn off all of the fat’, while if she is skinny she must still work out to ‘get fat in the right places’ and the cycle continues forever.
Now it is equally important for us to take a look at the evolution of the concept of the perfect body for men to get a better picture of the existing situation. Even in the older days, men whose body structures indicated the presence of strength were appreciated. As time went by this idea of a strong man with ample help from patriarchal stereotyping began to dominate the media’s depiction of a perfect man. As it stands today a man with a height close to 6 foot, a well toned body with chiseled abs is looked up to by a large section of society as the epitome of desirability. Taking cue, companies have filled the market with health powders and supplements which promise to increase the muscle mass in men so as to provide them with the ideal body. This has led to a systematic loss of confidence in men who are not so well built due to various physiological factors. Therefore no matter where a man goes, the narrative of strength and the pressure to adhere to it is likely to follow him.
The obsession with being skinny rather than fit has reached an all time high in the present decade. In the race to become skinny, health has taken a backfoot. Anyone who is a regular on social media must have come across an incredibly unhealthy trend called the A4 Challenge where the determination of whether a girl had a good figure or not was based on whether her waist was thin enough to be covered entirely by an A4 size sheet held in portrait orientation. The great response that this so called challenge has received is particularly terrifying.
Today, Instagram and Pinterest are filled with accounts which mete out health advice based solely on brand sponsorship. The followers of these accounts mostly fall for the trap, buying into the myth that eating the ‘health foods’ suggested by these slim and beautiful women will turn transform their bodies overnight. The reluctance to seek medical advice in such situations especially when changing dietary habits, like the adoption of a raw food diet or gluten free food regime, is definitely problematic. The widely circulated (mis)information in this regard however is not solely targeted towards women. There exist numerous dedicated social media accounts which also regularly seek to convince men about how they need to take health supplements from particular brands in addition to some other branded ‘superfoods’ to buff up and become a sought after man.
While physical size and shape constitute the subject matter of a large number of body image issues, any discussion about body image is incomplete without touching upon the issues related to skin colour and the dichotomy that exists in this respect. Europeans spend hours and hundreds of dollars in pursuit of the perfect tan so as to avoid being called pale. On the other hand Indians tend to believe in the supremacy of white skin. Spray tans rule the market abroad while fairness creams rule the markets here. This further highlights the fact that body image issues exist almost everywhere in the world, just the form of these issues change based on culture and location. The popularity of creams named ‘Fair and Lovely’ and ‘Fair and Handsome’ are testament to the existing body image issues among the Indian masses. With popular consumer products following such nomenclature it is hard to not rethink about whether we have internalized racist projections to such an extent that a majority of us do not find the equation of fair skin with beauty to be problematic.
The movie Dum Lagake Haisha is an apt documentation of the prejudice that people tend to hold towards plump persons. The movie Shandaar too provides us with a glimpse into the body image issues that a plump bride tends to face in our Indian society. The movies do a good job in depicting the plight of chubby brides who are humiliated repeatedly in pursuit of societal approval for their bridal bodies. We must all come across that one story about a determined bride who lost weight to fit into her wedding lehnga which was atleast two sizes smaller than her original plus size. For me, the compulsive dieting and excessively straining weight loss training that usually follows in such stories, goes onto shows how far the idea of a petite bride as the prettiest bride is entrenched in our minds, courtesy of course the slim models adorning the pages of bridal blogs and magazines. (Just to clarify, my problem is not with the models who are merely doing their job but my issue lies with those magazine editors who refuse to hire plus size models, completely disregarding the need to be representative of a large portion of their readers.) Adverts like the Kellogs Special K have taken it a step further by asking wedding guests to also cut down on their size before they attend their relative’s wedding. Essentially where the problem lies is in the fact that people are changing their diets and their lives not to become physically fit but to fit into the arbitrarily set image of a beautiful person.
This overwhelming obsession with becoming thin in case of women and becoming buff in case of men may seem innocent enough; however, we must not ignore the serious long term repercussions that it can have on one’s health. Today, eating disorders are at an all time high across age groups, and the rate of cosmetic surgeries is increasing day by day. When there are people willing to remove their ribs and risk internal damage in pursuit of that elusive Barbie-like figure (refer to Human Barbie and Human Ken for more insight on this) it is time that we acknowledge that there is something seriously wrong with the message that we as a society are giving out.
The need of the hour, as I see it, is to slowly replace the images that are dominating the public discourse at the moment. It is only when we embrace our insecurities and improve on our flaws that we can become better at something. It is only when we are comfortable in our own skin that we can teach the newer generations to be comfortable in theirs. We have to learn to accept the stretch marks, the tanned areas, the hairy patches of skin and learn to love our body as it is. Our priority should be achievement of fitness and good health, not adherence to social norms of beauty, if our goal is to have a happy and healthy world. Body positivity movements can only do so much, but it is us who have to take the initiative and reject random projections of beauty in favour of a happier and healthier existence. Remember that you must learn to love yourself before you can expect others to do so; after all (quoting Bruno Mars) “…you are amazing, just the way you are…”!