January 31, 2021 6:10:46 am
Walking in a park in the winter sun, among families sprawled on the lawns for Sunday picnics, I was particularly drawn to a little girl, maybe around seven years of age, dancing to a Bollywood song. Carefree and completely oblivious to the people around, their stares or smiles, as if transported to another world, she swung her hips and swayed her hands, with eyes closed and a smile on her lips.
I walked on, but that sight stayed with me. My initial delight and warmth gradually gave way to a sense of unease. When would this little girl lose this disinhibition and start becoming aware of the constant “gaze” that follows women? When would the indulgent smiles turn into looks of judgement? When would she start finding her thighs too fat, voice too loud, spirit too wild? When would she start checking what she says, how she says it, measuring her worth through her body measurements?
When would self-consciousness creep in, making her suck her cheeks in, tuck in her tummy or pull and push at different bits of flesh in despair? Taking selfies, adding a flattering filter before putting it up on Instagram, anxiously waiting for the world to acknowledge her worth. Maybe scrolling down and checking other accounts with Insta-perfect bodies and glowing skins with a sinking “I’m such a failure” feeling, and slowly shutting herself off or starving herself.
Many adults reading this might dismiss it as “girls these days!” As if they are the problem. I’ve often heard words like “obsessed with their looks”, not realising that the problem actually lies in our society’s constant judgement of women’s bodies. Women have not been allowed to own their bodies — there are strict norms on how “good girls” carry their bodies — cover up, kowtow, have meek voices and try to be “thin, fair and lovely”. Social media and the diet, beauty and fitness industry have exploited it with minimal regard to the damaging impact on young women or complete disregard for ethics. For decades, we were force-fed the idea of Body Mass Index (BMI) as a criterion of fitness and obesity only to discover that all it did was fatten the weight-loss industry.
In my work with young girls, I’ve found that this “gaze” or judgement hounds us through these tactics:
Comparing: Pushing young girls to evaluate their bodies and worth through self-surveillance. A 13-year-old told me, “Every time I meet someone or see a picture on social media, the first thing I check is if she’s thinner or fatter than me. It’s become an automatic reaction.”
Convincing: Another 15-year-old shared, “I live 24×7 with the shame of being so ugly”. The voice of judgement is so compelling that it’s difficult to fight it alone. What happens if all the women in our lives are also going through similar battles, and body shaming becomes a taken-for-granted way of relating with ourselves and each other?
Concluding: The trickiest bit is that judgement keeps us always dissatisfied with our bodies, as we never match up to the toxic perfect-body advertising incessantly fed to us and conclude we are “weak”, “lazy”, “not good enough”.
I’m not here to advise you, we know that does not work. Instead, let’s sit back and reflect on the workings of this judgement and ask a few questions of ourselves:
— Do you see how it isolates each of us into little cocoons and makes us believe we are the problem? Doesn’t the problem lie in the way women’s bodies have been judged and controlled over centuries?
— Do you think it is fair that judgement (comparing, convincing and jumping to conclusions) robs us of joy, confidence, self-worth and peace of mind?
— Do you think it is unjust that the problem has been located in women’s bodies rather than the problematic cultural notions of beauty?
In my collaborative work with young women, we’ve found three effective steps to flip the gaze on the judgement and reclaim our agency, our bodies:
Micro acts of resistance: Sanna (name changed), 21, shared with me that she had experienced intense body-shaming as a child and now was committed to taking tiny steps by not letting other people’s comments define her. “I’ve found my own style of dressing that expresses my identity,” she said, adding that it was “a daily battle but I look at myself in the mirror every morning and say, ‘I’m hot, I’m gorgeous, and I’m not letting anybody steal that away from me.’” She has informed her family and friends of these “respectful boundaries”, and they are her biggest allies now.
Documenting these resistances: What would it look like if we started a counter-culture that objectifies the “gaze” rather than let it objectify us? We need to raise our voice, write about it, make online videos to question the narrow idea of beauty. Social media is a double-edged sword where, on the one hand, it indoctrinates constant preoccupation with perfection, while on the other hand, it’s witnessing a movement where women are resisting this oppressive idea of beauty by posting pictures with unbridled, unfiltered swag.
Solidarity: Self-judgement can isolate us into locating the problem in ourselves, but what if we refused to let it pit us against each other? What if we stopped body-shaming ourselves and each other and committed to finding beauty in all shapes, sizes and colours? Sanna said she will do whatever it takes to ensure that her 12-year-old cousin doesn’t have to go through what she had to because “If I do not look out for her who will?”
Standing up for body diversity is not a personal battle but an issue of social justice. We owe it to that little dancing girl and millions like her. Are you ready?
(Dr Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, co-founder, Children First, writer, and, in this column, she curates the know-how of the children and young people she works with. Write to her firstname.lastname@example.org)
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