I struggle with perfectionism in every aspect of my life, including my appearance. But it was not until last year that I realized the amount of pressure I put on my body to appear ‘ideal’ to others.
There were many features like my hairline, my lips, my waist, my legs, my body hair, that were mocked at or scrutinized. Some came from previous partners, friends, and relatives, and some through the media’s messaging of beauty ideals. Unaware of my critical perceptions, I was being self-destructive to an extent that affected my behaviour and my sexuality. I relished in being able to count my ribs, due to under-eating and stress, and switched to high-waisted pants and lingerie to hide away my flabby bits.
But I knew I was not alone in this.
How did many others, like me, end up ashamed of their skin and shape? When did we place our body in the hands of others?
What is Body Image?
Despite what many of us believe, body image is our view of our body. How we see and feel about it. This can be negative or positive and can affect our behaviour and our actions.
Pre-Defined Body Standards
No one is born with an understanding of what is considered beautiful. We learn it through visual and verbal cues. In the Indian context, ideal women are fair, slim, and hairless (except for their long, luscious hair). Men are tall, hunky, and muscular, with a thick moustache and beard.
Directly or not, parents use or encourage their kids to use ‘natural remedies’ and ‘ayurvedic oils’ to lighten their skin tone or to achieve the perfect body size.
Body insecurities affect both sexes, but according to research conducted by the Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, Indian women were found to be more conscious and dissatisfied in their body.
From our ancient paintings and temple art that depict women as curvaceous with an hour-glass figure and slender limbs, and the media advertisements that claim beauty is linked with success, to marriage bureaus that demand ridiculous standards to be considered as a bride.
All that we see and hear is reinforced when our parents remind us of our ‘flaws’.
At my grandfather’s funeral, a middle-aged woman hugged me and chuckled, “Oh growing tyres around your waist?”. She proceeded to ask her husband if I had put on weight, and he inspected me and concluded that I was okay. It made me wonder when I had lost ownership of my body.
How does this affect our sexuality?
Because of the beauty culture, we effectively place our body image in the hands of society. We do not view our bodies as our own but from an outsider perspective. We compare how it fits the societal standards or how well it can satisfy our partners. Unknowingly, we lose our body autonomy and start to self-objectify.
In my previous relationships, my extreme body-consciousness drove me to achieve a size and shape that I thought my partners desired. In that process, I was so distracted away from my pleasure and excitement. There were days when the slightest inconvenience would cause me to avoid any sexual activity or would force me to complete isolation.
That disconnection from our bodies can make us feel like we do not belong in ourselves, leading to negative impacts on our mental health.
So… We Should Just Love Ourselves, Right? Wrong.
It is incredibly exhausting to always ‘love our body’. There will be days when we will not look our best, especially if we are going through major changes in our body. In those times, it is okay to not feel our best.
Body neutrality, as opposed to body-positivity, shifts the perspective from ‘loving our body’ to accepting the way it is. It focuses on defining what our body does for us while rejecting all labels and definitions of beauty.
“Imagine just not thinking about your body. You’re not hating it. You’re not loving it. You’re just a floating head. I’m a floating head wandering through the world.” — Jameela Jamil.
Tacking Back Our Body and Sexuality
The more positive an individual’s body image, the higher is their body esteem. Thus, making them more likely to express their sexuality and experience sexual satisfaction. Yet, Woertman & Brink have found that female sexuality does not depend on a woman’s body responses alone. It is more governed and influenced by cultural and social norms than a man’s sexuality.
So, I will not lie.
It is not easy to dismantle years of stringent beauty standards with one article. It is not easy to break down all the insecurities in one day. While I believe there are not any one-size-fits-all tips to become more body confident, I can tell you what I tried.
Nudge yourself out of your comfort.
I knew only I, and no one else could change the way I saw myself. I tried everything from wearing clothing that showed off parts of me that I did not like, to posting unedited pictures of myself on social media. I learned to face any judgements that came along with it (trust me, people can be mean).
But over the years, I became less conscious of how others perceived me. Find out what works for you and push yourself, on your own time and terms, to get there.
If your negative body image is consuming your behaviour and eating habits, and is affecting your relationship with yourself and your partner, seek professional help. Ultimately, no number of articles can offer the same support and personal attention as a therapist.
Your body does not define you as much your personality, your experiences, and your stories do. But it is still a fundamental part of you. No matter what you feel about it, whether you choose to do or not do something about it, it exists.
The best thing I learned to do, and what I can tell you is to accept and grow with it.