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It’s getting pretty serious

As the contours of body shaming go out of proportion, it is time to ask whether beauty really lies in the eye of the beholder.

April 22, 2016 06:58 pm | Updated 07:25 pm IST

Radhika Apte in Culture Machine video.

Radhika Apte in Culture Machine video.

Culture Machine’s YouTube channel Blush recently put up a new video as part of its web series, Unblushed. Less than five minutes long, the video shows Radhika Apte playing with the word “beautiful”, questioning and remoulding and reshaping it, so that it is no longer just what is expected of it, but much more; unlimited in its scope, effortless in its existence. In her hands, the word loses its edges, its cover of certitude blown by her relentless questions (Who decided what the perfect body type is? Or the perfect pout? Who set the rules of ‘moral social behaviour’? Who defined, ‘beautiful’?”) And when Apte makes sure that no single definition fits, she asks you to make new meanings. “Find your beautiful”, she says.

Because if you don’t, you are left with the rigid lines someone else drew for you; lines that can be almost painful to toe, dangerous to cross, and far too easy to unwittingly cross. After all, it’s so easy to go wrong with beauty — a loaded, cumbersome word, so fluid that it escapes you almost as soon as you touch it and all you are left with are questions. Yes, you don’t look bad, but are your eyes too far apart, too close together, hair too long or too short, nose too big or too small, thighs too far apart or too close together? Does your body always seem to be too thin or too fat, too tall or short, too curvy or not curvy enough? No wonder we can’t hold on to beauty, all our standards defined by a word that escapes definition, changing with people and borders and regions. How laughable then, that the world is always judging this beauty it can’t make up its mind about, measuring it by a standard that can’t stay still long enough to even count as a standard.

Enter body shaming, and all the impossible ways in which it wields the need for beauty, as if aesthetics were a prerequisite to earning your self-respect and dignity. Today, like never before, body-shamers find themselves amassing a growing arsenal — fed by everything from the internet and the veil of anonymity it provides, a popular culture that seems to swing like a pendulum between positive body image and impossible, air-brushed standards, and that internalised, inherited idea that somehow, we owe the world our beauty; that it can demand it from us, and should we fail to deliver just what it wants, we’ve only rightfully earned its contempt.

So, what can we change? In a world that won’t stop shaming people for how they look, how does one stop feeling that shame? I decided to turn to two writers for answers; each, in her own way, a kind of warrior, battling stubborn notions, fighting restrictive ideas, and trying to cross the lines that were drawn for us centuries ago. Rupi Kaur’s book, “Milk and Honey”, was first self-published in 2014. A book of poems accompanied by her own evocative, simple sketches, the collection is now often touted as one that every woman needs. And then there is Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has collected more than 80,000 stories by women on their daily experiences of gender discrimination. In her most recent book, “Girl Up” (Simon and Schuster India), Bates explores the idea of body image, the trials of social media, and the idea that women need to, and must be, a certain way.

To begin with, Bates questions the disproportionate way in which women are judged and valued in society according to their looks, while men can be valued, praised and appreciated for much wider accomplishments, regardless of their physical appearance. In a poem from her book, Rupi echoes the same sentiments. She writes ‘i want to apologise to all women/ i’ve called pretty./ before I’ve called them intelligent or brave./ i’m sorry i made it sound as though/something as simple as what you are born with/is the most you have to be proud of…”

“And who gets to decide what ‘beauty’ is? Powerful men in the media and corporate companies who want to create an unattainable ideal to sell women products!” says Bates, adding that “the idea of women’s beauty being the most important thing about them is very deeply ingrained (it starts when we are still babies, as we tell little girls how pretty they are, and little boys how big and strong).”

This need for beauty is used, unfortunately, against women, and more often than not, it becomes yet another tool to control them. “You have this concept of beauty and women are shamed for not having it. So they aspire to it, in how they look, how they dress. They spend an hour or more each day trying to look beautiful for the world, instead of spending that time going outside and experiencing it. They are forced to concentrate on the outside, because if they turn inwards, they’ll find out how powerful they are, and men want to keep them from doing that.”

Of course, it’s not just women, but men too, who find themselves body-shamed. “There is a stigma around men speaking out about these issues because of the idea that men should be strong and tough, or ‘boys don’t cry’, which means men don’t always get the help they need to deal with emotional issues. But I do also think that body shaming is an issue that overwhelmingly and disproportionately affects women - while men do experience body image pressure, they experience it far less frequently than women and usually less severely as well,” says Bates.

Another point that emerges is that we often find women body shaming other women. Kaur says that this stems from a primal need to project the self-hate they might be feeling themselves. “If I body shame a woman, it is more a reflection of me being critical of my body, me not being able to keep up to certain standards I have, and so making sure that the women around me feel the same way.”

Both Bates and Kaur agree that there is a certain level of normalisation that comes with body shaming, and cruelty can come disguised in casual wit and jokes between friends, to be taken “lightly”. These comments can, Bates says, “have a cumulative impact - when we make little comments constantly about women's bodies and appearance we adding to a wider narrative that suggests women should be worried about their looks because this is what they will be most judged on. Fat-shaming, particularly of women, is also very widely acceptable in society, so it is normalised and people feel comfortable joining in and laughing, instead of standing up to it.” For Kaur, a lot of how she reacts to comments on her body depends on who is making them. “I can sit down with my sisters and they can talk about my body in a certain way and I will laugh about it with them. That’s such a comfortable and loving relationship. But if a stranger I meet in a party makes the same comment, depending on their tone, that’s not okay.”

We do, though, live in an age where entirely personal, judgemental comments from strangers is a norm. Today, you don’t need to be famous to earn criticism, and a personal picture on Instagram can bring hate and scorn to your virtual doorsteps within minutes. Of course, there’s always been certain arrogance in the way we have demanded that celebrities look their best, that they shed their post pregnancy baby weight immediately, or undergo strenuous routines to earn the body we deserve to see. The most recent example that comes to mind is a frothy, mocking article that takes Kate Middleton to task for not having the “curves” to pull off a sari. So, celebrities continue to be under fire; it’s just that they aren’t the only ones anymore. Once upon a time, the common woman just had to fend off family and friends, and the occasional stranger. Today, she needs to prove her worth to everyone, everywhere.

Even with the virtual onslaught of negativity, Bates believes that it is possible to fight body shaming in many different ways. “First, we need to call on law enforcement to enforce existing laws about making death and rape threats, or create new ones where they don’t exist. Second, I think social media platforms themselves should be doing more to protect their users. It isn’t good enough to say women should just go offline if they don't like it – we should be making these spaces safe for them, not punishing the victim for the behaviour of the harasser. Third, I think within the online community there are things we can all do to try and be part of the solution – like standing up and speaking out when we see harassment happening.” She adds that some other steps, like “improving the media portrayal of women so it focuses more on their actions and less on their looks, promoting female role models of all different shapes, sizes and skin colours, and teaching young people about gender stereotyping so they can be aware of it and step outside it,” can go a long way.

Some of these, of course, have already been set in motion. Support groups, online and offline, are making a huge difference, allowing women to come together and make their voices heard. More and more people are stepping up and taking control of their bodies and their self-image, responding to attackers instead of staying silent. Whether it is celebrities like Zarine Khan sharing pictures from her past, or regular every day working women like the 30-year-old in Mumbai publicly taking to task the auto driver who fat shamed her, voices against this ridiculous but constant battle are getting louder. For Kaur, the most important person this fight involves is the individual herself. “I don’t think that at the moment it is honestly possible to completely prevent something like body shaming. It is one of the downfalls of social media. So what has to happen is a level of understanding within yourself. Really, at the end of the day, the only thing you can control is yourself; the only person you can truly educate is yourself. You have to redefine what beauty is to you so you can’t be affected by what people are saying.”

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