CW: Body Shaming
“Oh, are you wearing a sleeveless top? Have you looked at your size?”It began when I was around 10 years old, in class 4, and wearing a sleeveless top. This is when I learnt that my weight is something I should feel ashamed of, that my body should be hidden.In our society, no one thinks twice before fat shaming. If you’re not a certain size, then it’s an unsaid and unspoken social contract that you will be called “Motu”, be made the butt of jokes about eating and be given unsolicited advice on losing weight. This was my childhood. It did not help that I grew up in a small town where readymade clothes of my size were not easily available. The refrain was, “Sorry! Hum 2XXL, 3XXXL size nahi rakhte!” (It remains a challenge to find my size in off-the-rack clothing.) When I was an NCC cadet in school, the shirt and pants of the uniform were not available in my size. To my utter humiliation, my uniform had to be ordered from the men’s section. I was jealous of girls who could choose from a range of clothes that the shopkeeper laid out before them. For me, it was whatever fits, whether I liked it or not. The most important consideration was that it should cover and hide my body.After that incident with the sleeveless top, I began wearing loose salwar kameez and dupatta (stitched by local tailors) so that my stomach, my thighs, were not visible. My ‘extra’ weight was kept under wraps. It would be 10 years before I’d wear a pair of jeans.I didn’t realise it then, but the shame I was taught to feel about my body impacted my self-esteem and my adolescent discovery of sexual desire. With the onset of puberty, my body started to change, but I turned a blind eye to it because I had a deep-seated belief that my body was ugly. The only change I wanted in my body was for it to not be fat.Other girls my age would talk to boys and have boyfriends. I would pretend to be above all this. “I am not like the girls who make boyfriends,” I told myself even though I longed to have a boyfriend. The truth was that I didn’t believe a fat girl like me could feel sexual desire or inspire it in someone else. Seeing other girls and the secret dates they went on, I also wanted someone with whom I could go up to Fort Road; someone who would wait for me outside school with his cycle; someone who would smuggle chits with messages to me in my all-girls’ school. But I couldn’t admit this to myself. I pretended the girls who behaved like this were not ‘good’, adding a burden of guilt to my shame.When I was in class 11, someone made vulgar gestures at me. It was an act of sexual harassment and I was disgusted — but there was a part of me that also felt relief because someone had seen me as an object of desire. That my body was “worthy” of being harassed. (It took years for me to realise how damaging this way of thinking was.) As I grew older, my sense of shame and the negative narrative surrounding my body led me to high-risk behavior — sometimes physical and sometimes digital — that on occasion risked my safety.I left the small town I’d grown up in when I went to college in a slightly-bigger city. For the first time, I was away from family and there were more avenues and freedom to do things like talk with boys and roam around the new city. My insecurity and self-loathing kept me from exploring those opportunities in my first year. For example, I skipped the freshers’ party because I didn’t think anyone would want to go to a party with a fat girl like me. I didn’t wear dresses because I didn’t think I was thin enough to carry them off.But things changed as I made friends who encouraged me to explore college life with them. With supportive friends around me, I found the confidence to wear jeans. My friends didn’t know how I struggled with my body or how much I hated it. They had no idea how much strength I drew from the casual words of encouragement that they said to me while convincing me to join them for events and happenings in college. Things had not changed completely. Well-wishers were still giving me tips on how to hide my body. “Don’t wear colours. Wear black. That will hide your body type.” “Do not wear cut sleeves, wear ¾ length kurtas. That will hide your arms.” I was still subject of body-shaming jokes and mean comments.In my second year of college, I wore a dress for the first time and it got me a compliment from a guy who was my secret crush. It was the first time that my body and my looks had been genuinely appreciated by someone I was attracted to. Until then, all I had got were mean comments. Like when a boy I liked in class 10 had snidely told me to look at myself in the mirror when he found out I had a crush on him. But now here I was, a second-year student, receiving a compliment from my college crush. For the first time, I saw myself through the eyes of a man who thought I was pretty and hot. The fear of being judged and rejected remained, but it felt a little less overwhelming than before.A boy I knew in college once told me, “You would look beautiful, if you lost some weight.” I didn’t tell him he was being rude or insensitive because I thought being fat meant people were justified in doling out rude comments to me. I used to think a man was doing me a favour if he was with me. In my head, that he had chosen to be with me despite my weight gave him the allowance to mistreat me.One of my earliest romantic involvements was around the time I entered the third year of college. My partner cheated on me, lied to me and manipulated me for sexting. I defended his behavior and continued to remain with him because I was so relieved that he was attracted to me. He was one of the many men with whom I’d hook up only because I could turn them on and make them come. I wasn’t attracted to them at all and I got neither sexual pleasure nor emotional comfort from these encounters. I was not even thinking about myself or my pleasure. But the fact that they were attracted to me numbed by self-loathing and gave me a certain kind of assurance — assurance that my body was worthy, that it could turn a man on, that I could be a sexual being. I behaved rashly in many of these hook-ups just because being seen as desirable by a man made me feel worthy.“I am not saying about your weight, but you should take care of your health.”My last partner said these words to me. Even though my relationship with my body isn’t as negative as it was when I was an adolescent, there are traces of the old shame that linger. I still tolerate body shaming in the name of health advisory, like in that statement by my ex-partner. I still fear wearing colours that might show off my body instead of hiding it.I’m a lot more confident about my body today, but there hasn’t been a single “eureka!” moment. It has been a long and persistent process of breaking old patterns and not looking for affirmation from men. Until two years ago, I thought it was normal for non-‘regular’ bodies to be shamed and mocked. It took another woman being subjected to similar judgement for me to understand how wrong the norm was. A friend of mine, who happens to be straight-out-of-stories beautiful, shared with me how she’s been shamed and it made me realise my experience was part of a patriarchal pattern. I wouldn’t say I’m completely comfortable with myself and that I never feel insecure, but the risks I take with my body are no longer the unhealthy kind. Now, I take the good kind of risk, like when I decided to be a nude model for a photographer who was doing a series on change and bodies. I wanted to see how the parts that I’d been taught to hate — like my back, with its “extra fat” — looked. I wanted to see my boobs on camera. It was a revelation how spontaneous the shoot felt and I loved every moment of it. I felt part of the process as we kept clicking pictures and checking how they looked before taking more shots. The shoot gave me a sense of control over how I was seen by the camera and inspired a certain confidence in me. If it wasn’t for the fear of family and being judged by my professional peers, I would do a lot more shoots like that one.I am still scared of sexual positions that involve me being on top because I fear being judged by my partner. But I have enjoyed the most earth-shattering sex as well as had the most boring-barely-turned-on sex — which is why I now know that neither had anything to with my size. The things we are taught and told as adolescents cast a long shadow and it’s taken years for me to truly accept that sexual attraction and pleasure are not decided by body type or shape. Love, lust, sex — they come in all sizes.My body is one of many things about me. It is neither the whole of me nor something to be ashamed of. I’m still learning different things about it. During lockdown, I experimented with photographing myself in the nude, in the privacy of my tiny room. I’ve discovered that I love my boobs (with and without bra), that my tattoos are hot and my earrings are pretty sexy. It has been a long journey for the child who was convinced her body needed to be hid and the teenager who confused affirmation with harassment, and I am proud of it. Today, if I could tell one thing to my adolescent self, it would be this: “You are sexy and you should know it!”S is a researcher but her alternate career choice is becoming a model and doing naked photoshoots. While not researching or writing, she spends her time decorating imaginary houses in her head and putting musical Instagram stories.