When I was 16, after struggling with body dysmorphia for over half a decade, I remember thinking that I wanted to love my body, instead of constantly hating it and wishing for it to change. That was when the body positivity movement on social media really picked up. One piece of advice I saw repeated everywhere was asking you to look at yourself naked in a full-length mirror, an act that can encourage self-love.
So every time I would come back from a shower, I would just look at myself. My mother would scream outside my bedroom door, not understanding why I took so long while I would spend my time looking at every inch of my body. The way my stomach rolls would fall on my thighs, my thighs almost a flat surface to hold my body, my legs awkwardly being disproportionate and little like the legs of a chicken, my arms a little flabby, and I would quote several body positive activists and tell myself how much I loved every part of my body.
Initially, I used to flinch but then slowly, I started getting used to looking at my body. Eventually, I started falling in love. I would no longer resent it, even when someone criticised my body. This act truly became revolutionary for me with the mirror being key to the love I was giving myself. Cut to nine years later, after almost a decade of hailing body positivity, I moved to London as a student, where my economic situation changed. In a new economy, body positivity did not feel the same.
No longer working, I now had to save every penny. My heart broke when I realised my tiny room in a student accommodation didn't have a full-length mirror and I couldn't afford to buy one either. I was constantly worrying, thinking that if I couldn’t look at my body, how would I know I was treating it right? No longer presented with moments when I could practise self-love, a decade later the dislike for my plus-size body was back with a vengeance.
Suddenly, even though I had no clue how I looked, I was skipping my meals, walking thousands and thousands of steps every day, pushing my body to breaking points, refusing to eat food if it wasn't a home-cooked healthy meal, having breakdowns and panic attacks. Instagram and TikTok were flooded with how to improve your cortisol or your cycle or the pan I should be cooking my food in and I was obsessed with getting everything right. I was hurting myself in the pursuit of ‘health’, and a lot of it often felt like I was punishing myself. I had suddenly gone from being my biggest cheerleader to being my biggest critic.
Something else was also happening. My lack of a mirror meant I relied on the people I loved to tell me how I looked or make space for quick checks in random places. I made do with a palm-sized mirror, phone cameras, face timing my friends to ask how I looked, and checking myself out in elevator mirrors and glass buildings. I still hardly ever saw my naked body the way I used to but I started feeling the love with which people I loved looked at me again. And living in the United Kingdom I also had the opportunity to observe how people looked at thin white women differently from women of colour, plus-sized women, women who were disabled, or queer-presenting women. But the fact that I had internalised this from the get-go meant that there were elements of colonisation that still impacted the way I looked at myself, just like how it impacts India as a nation.
Growing up in India, various factors influence the way we view beauty. A lot of it is rooted in race and poverty. Fairer skin is a reflection of a higher class, and in India, a higher caste. The Indian body type, if we were to look at pictures and paintings from the past, is more curvy and what is now referred to as 'Plus size'. However, after the 200 years of colonisation, beauty standards were fixated on lean and fair women, rejecting many brown and curvy women. There exists an internal racist system within the brown community where women of darker shades are shamed. Similarly, women with more body fat are shamed, and lean women are appreciated. One of the major things that women are told growing up is that no man would ever want to marry her so the male gaze is internalised way before a girl has an understanding of her abcds. Growing up, I often felt like a failure and less of a woman because I failed to meet these standards. It is like your whole life you are being pushed to be as beautiful as someone else, yet you don't know who that someone else is. Except when you move to a place like London and you suddenly realise, oh, this is what they were trying to make me into.
The male gaze often rewards a conventionally beautiful body. And for some reason, panopticon or internalisation, their gaze often feels like a punishment to the other bodies that are unconventionally beautiful. Even if the punishment is meted out through indifference
I began with peace. The war on my body had to end for peace to ensue. I began cooking more and eating more. Balancing my workout and how much I pushed my body. I started listening to my body and I started resting whenever I needed to. I didn’t want to look in mirrors anymore, just understand what I needed. My sense of fashion improved because I could visualise better. I didn’t need to try on clothing in stores to see how it would look. I was becoming free of so much vanity and falling in love again! In the last week of my master’s degree, a flatmate left a full-length mirror for me. I remember looking at it and thinking I don’t think I really need this anymore. No external and visual validation was needed, I didn’t need to make a poem out of my body.
My simple existence and my ordinary body deserved love, in all its shape and form. Mirrors can often be a reflection of the external voices that surround your appearance. Very rarely do you see yourself for who you are. You see what your mother thinks you look like, or what your lover loves about you, or the parts the world has validated or invalidated. At least for me, that was the case. In breaking free of the hold the mirror had over me, I had broken my body free of the trap the beauty myth held. I had to decolonise the way I loved myself. I couldn't gaslight using consumerism or bathe in vanity. Instead, I had to love myself, the real thing beneath this skin. I had to love myself without any mirror, any validation, any fixing. And the most extraordinary thing happened, I came back home to myself.