Living In And With The Body That I Have: Where Is The Body Positivity Movement Headed?

2017 also happens to be the year of my coming out, chancing upon Bill Hayes’ memoir Insomniac City, and making a career shift from engineering to writing. It was a rebirth of sorts. But more so, it’s important to register that it was also the year that I finally stopped being skinny-shamed.

Image Courtesy: elwynonline.tumblr.com

It seems like I’ve always wanted to write this piece but never got around to it until now. I didn’t know what ‘body positivity’ meant before joining Instagram in 2017. The sheer courage that people demonstrated by documenting the most personal and private on social media shook me. Over the years, body positivity has garnered an audience of its own and achieved the legitimacy of a significant cultural movement.

2017 also happens to be the year of my coming out, chancing upon Bill Hayes’ memoir Insomniac City, and making a career shift from engineering to writing. It was a rebirth of sorts. But more so, it’s important to register that it was also the year that I finally stopped being skinny-shamed.

I gained weight after having recovered from Dengue. My mother says that glucose drips do that thing. But I was glad that it happened, and finally, I had some flesh on my bones. After 2020, a year of working from home (a privilege, both ‘home’ and ‘work’) and eating without any physical activity I have gained weight considerably, and now am body-shamed from the other end of the skinny-fat-shaming binary.

Joel | Image Courtesy: Bill Hayes

Sorry, I can’t share my ‘body pics’

My mother says I was a plump kid till the age of three. But after downing a bottle of a solution, which my grandfather would drink daily to cure itching, everything changed.

I was hospitalized, gained consciousness after three days, but the doctor said ‘panpega nahi’ (He will remain skinny). Whenever my grandmother recalls that incident — my mother stayed indoors because of patriarchy and misogyny — she sighs, remembering how over the years they tried everything to cure me but to no avail. I would remain, as she says, a ‘skeleton’.

Jibes like:

“why you need an X-ray, just pull off your shirt”

“go inside else the storm outside will transport you to some other location”

“I can crack your wrists like I break a chocolate bar”

“he doesn’t have a personality of a ‘head boy,’ he’s weak,” etc. were commonplace for me. This continued till the age of 20 (when I contracted with Dengue).

It’s funny to note the pivotal role medicinal solutions have played in my life. The glucose drips helped me achieve an ‘average’ body. I stayed in this ‘acceptable’ state of body for about six years till various things happened in life which I wouldn’t want to touch upon even though it’s a personal essay. The arguments changed — why are you eating all day. The shaming changed, qualitatively — “ajeeb-o-gareeb’ hogaya hai tu” (you look like a weird thing); “you have got the thighs of a woman”. Shamers changed: my uncle, seeing stretch marks on my stomach, asked if I had recently given birth to a child; my date asked if I’ve contracted a disease.

The sites of discrimination changed too. When I joined dating apps, people would pester me to share my ‘body pics,’ which I would never do because of two reasons: (1) I never liked clicking pictures of myself and (2) I knew that wouldn’t be of any help as ‘things’ had changed and I could gauge from our conversations what sort of expectation from my body my potential dates had, so I would politely decline.

‘If that’s something that interests you …’

When Sakshi (from Gaysi Family) messaged me asking if I was interested in writing about body positivity, sharing this stunning project called Arrested Movement by photographer Anthony Patrick Manieri from Out.com, I wondered what I would end up writing about it. It’s a topic that I had not yet touched upon.

Image Courtesy: Anthony Patrick Manieri | Arrested Movement

I considered the myriad approaches I could take:

  • Define ‘body positivity’ and go on from there: start with the concept, then national and international media coverage, and pepper some personal experiences in between.
  • Garnish a theoretical piece with personal anecdotes.
  • Talk about how Patrick Manieri says that the “act of self-acceptance and self-love is something that I work on daily,” and cover larger themes of self-love and steer away from narcissism.

Then I went back to the ‘rulebook’ of writing: Who am I writing this for? If I need to remind myself that I am worthy of love, then I should be writing a letter to myself. I may or may not choose to share it publicly, but why waste a commissioned piece to talk about my ‘skinny’ to ‘fatty’ experience? Why point out how clothes that I loved don’t fit me anymore? And how past dates who wanted to meet me don’t find me ‘attractive’ anymore? Why rant? Why, why, why?

The game and the challenge of acceptance don’t end with your body, your righteous territory. Your body, which is a political tool, navigates this world and uses the privileges you’re born into to chart a journey on its own. It is informed by what it gets from society. And when you use your body to express that exchange, then that’s when things get interesting.

33% of LGBT+ respondents in a survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, U.K., said that “they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of their body image.” This figure drops to 11% in cis-hets. If we investigate why people are not in harmony with their body, then one of the possible responses could be the projection of a perfect body, queer or otherwise, that’s marketed well in advertisements, frequent calls for ‘weight loss,’ and social acceptance of certain body types in Indian ‘matchmaking’ — queers included, you’d be surprised to see some bios, messages, and content on dating apps. All influencers on Instagram who have a specific body type, barring a few, are acquainted with a certain excess in privilege, and have a particular skin color.

Alok Vaid-Menon | Image Courtesy: Advocate.com

But things are changing. For example, Alok Vaid-Menon’s constant reminders on Instagram to be unabashedly in love with being who you are, are in itself political statements. Neha Parulkar announcing herself ‘plus and proud,’ bagging modeling assignments, and declaring on social media about being “much more than my weight” are the signs of the body positivity movement’s impact. People are doing much more. To address body image issues in the LGBT+ community, Leon Silvers started a Facebook page: I Love My LGBT Body.

However, every movement seems to reach a stage when it hits a plateau. As eloquently articulated in Vogue, body positivity “seems to now be a ‘free-for-all’ movement monetized and politicized by brands and public figures, in ways that often results in individuals above a certain size and of a certain ethnicity being excluded from the conversation.” This is especially shocking given that its history can be traced back to the fat acceptance movement pioneered by black women.

Stephanie Yeboah warns us how this movement has created beauty standards of its own. And standardization in an outlier movement never works. Instead, it needs to reimagine its relevance and the positionality of those involved so as to remain significant, else it risks not only losing an important chance to change society in a radical way but also endangers the very function of its existence.

In any case though, there’s not a chance that my matches are ever getting my ‘body pics’ or my nudes.

About the author

Saurabh Sharma

Saurabh is working as a writer in a research and advisory IT consultancy firm. He frequently writes about gender and sexuality, and book reviews on an array of platforms.