Updated: Aug 11, 2020
Have you recently scrolled through your Instagram and wondered why you don’t look a certain way? Have you had your relatives or the aunty in your locality tell you that you should lose weight? Or just reduce your thighs or arms? Have those comments left you feeling unsettled? Or, did it exacerbate your insecurities about yourself? As our physical body continues to be scrutinised by different people, it is morphed into various shapes and sizes. In an attempt to re-imagine the changing human body, we draw analogies with a construction site. As architects imagine the entire construction process, we explore the architects of the body image. We will use personal and sociological frameworks to help understand these influencers or architects and begin the first segment of 'The Body Image Project’.
Body image can be understood as the perception of our physical body which is shaped by our own, and others’ attitudes and beliefs. As a participant in our everyday life, it affects both our physical and mental health. Quite often, an interplay of various factors affects body image concerns to arise from a young age. These concerns can be associated with a desire for a certain type of body and feelings of distress due to an inability to achieve it. Here, we will examine where and why these desires and attitudes arise.
Following the liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s, one saw a dramatic increase in the availability of western clothes, cosmetics, and ideals. This led to the valuation of thin, tall, and fair body types that percolated throughout India through movies, magazines, advertisements, and products. A qualitative study in Delhi and Jaipur examined how perspectives and standards of beauty changed due to globalization. The study concluded that Indians feel western cultures are more empowering for women and, thus, women conform to international standards of beauty. Losing weight will lead to better job prospects, marriage proposals, and social upliftment are beliefs and norms colloquial in our society today. Additionally, conforming to the ideal body type perpetuated by the West has led to a loss of cultural variation across the globe. The narrative of success through the homogeneous ideal body type is so embedded in us that we never question it. Qualitative studies have reported that fear of not fitting into western clothing available at commercial malls causes anxiety among women. By not offering clothing in all sizes, these stores reinforce the trope of an ideal body type. This suggests that bodies that are different from the ones in catalogs are not normal and thus need to change themselves to conform to their standards.
As first impressions are often based on looks, our bodies are constantly under scrutiny by our society, friends, and community alike. Naturally, this surveillance affects the way we view our own bodies, what values we impose upon it, and how we feel about ourselves. In a collectivistic society like India, family plays a large role in influencing our habits, thought processes, and mood. The need for achievement--be it academic or social elevation, is always at the forefront. Parents attempt to instill in their children values or habits that they feel are respectable, including standards of beauty. As these standards change in response to the western culture, families and communities also socialize us to believe in the ideal body image. A qualitative study involving focus group discussions with women of Southeast Asian descent revealed that comparing oneself to family, peers, and actors in movies is a dominating factor in body dissatisfaction. The recent Netflix show, “Indian Matchmaking” also gives a contemporary example of the way in which ideal body types are perpetuated within the institution of marriage. It can be critiqued for normalizing the desire for a tall fair-skinned bride.
Humans, as social beings, often depend on others’ opinions to evaluate their own beliefs and attitudes. Consequently, comments on bodies and weight made in school or at home influence the way adolescents view their bodies. It even deters them from participating in activities they are fond of. For example, some girls report that they do not play sports such as swimming and basketball because they feel self-conscious due to comments their peers make regarding their appearances. In another study, researchers interviewed girls from Delhi about their experiences with weight and body dissatisfaction. They found subjects associate achieving cultural body standards with achievement, self-worth, and self-esteem. Even though women recognize their bias in striving for an ultra-thin body type, they rationalize their desire by citing economic and health concerns. Economic concerns usually entail pursuing high paying jobs at MNC's that assume candidates with an ideal body type are smarter. They also found that parents in India played a dual role in prodding their children towards the standard body image. On one hand, they nudge their children to work hard by buying products such as fairness creams or encouraging them to diet. On the other hand, they are the support system many rely on to prevent the development of eating disorders. Thus, family and peers are often a source of body dissatisfaction as they tie achieving the ideal body image to self-worth and self-esteem.
Movies, advertisements, and magazines that glamourize and sexualize certain bodies in the media have led to an increasing pressure to conform to an unrealistic beauty standard. Women in urban India observed that the media had started representing western ideals for body sizes and the ideal body size in Bollywood had become thinner over time. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and other such platforms give us access to people from around the world. This access, however, creates a barrier from understanding the true value and realities of everyday lives. Comparisons that were previously made with peers who we saw every day now encompass comparisons with adolescents and celebrities all across the globe. This leads to a further rise in body dissatisfaction. Social media anxiety that has become commonplace among adolescents and young people is responsible for a large amount of distress. Negative attitudes and beliefs about one’s own body type that are fostered through social media often go unchecked due to a lack of visible reality. Adolescents thus experience frustration, anxiety, and other negative emotions if they feel they do not have an ideal body.
Media in the form of Bollywood, social media, advertisements use fashion trends and actors to influence ideal body size and images. These ideas are reinforced by our families, parents, and peers that believe in the same ideas. Additionally, comparisons with others and a desire for achievement encourages us to strive for the ideal body images. These are some factors that influence the ideal body image each one of us compares ourselves to. As parts of our self-worth and esteem get tied to our body image, we feel pressured to present our best selves according to the standards set by society. While it is easy to spot why we feel dissatisfied with our bodies, it is harder to break the barriers and develop a healthy attitude towards it.
Dhillon, M. and Dhawan, P., 2011, November. “But I am fat”: The experiences of weight dissatisfaction in Indian adolescent girls and young women. In Women's Studies International Forum (Vol. 34, No. 6, pp. 539-549). Pergamon.
Kapadia, M. K. (2009). Body image in Indian women as influenced by the Indian media (Doctoral dissertation, Texas Woman’s University).
Mishra, S. K., & Mukhopadhyay, S. (2011). Eating and weight concerns among Sikkimese adolescent girls and their biocultural correlates: an exploratory study. Public health nutrition, 14(5), 853-859.
Talukdar, J., 2012. Thin but not skinny: Women negotiating the “never too thin” body ideal in urban India. Women's Studies International Forum, [online] 35(2), pp.109-118.
Radhika is a research consultant with Katharsis Counselling. She is also working with Centre for Appearance Research at the University of West England. As a research associate at the Centre, she is involved with the delivery of an intervention called 'Free Being Me (FBM)' for inculcating body positivity among school girls. Radhika completed her graduation in Psychology from Ashoka University. She aspires to pursue a Masters in Counselling in the near future and is passionate about mental health advocacy, literacy, and research.