For her sister’s wedding in June this year, 19-year-old Aishwarya Das wore a dark maroon lehenga with golden embroidery. She had carefully chosen the outfit to flatter both her body type and skin color. On the day of the wedding, she felt beautiful and was confident she looked good. But as she walked into the wedding hall, a middle-aged woman approached her and flippantly told her to cover her stomach with the shawl. She was scolded for “overexposing” and “being mindless about what people might say”.
Apparently, draping the shawl as Aishwarya had done wasn’t “appropriate” for “such a body”. The woman, who Aishwarya claims to not even know, then took off the shawl for her and tucked it between her skirt and blouse.
“Later I saw the same lady laughing and talking with girls my age – girls thinner than me, with shawls draped around them the same way I had mine. She didn’t seem bothered by them one bit,” says Aishwarya. This isn’t just one rare instance for her, it happens every time she chooses to wear sundresses or form fitting clothes. Since she was in her teenage people have told that she is “bigger” than what is suitable for her age. “I have never been unhealthy and I’m nowhere near being obese,” explains Aishwarya.
But people constantly remind her that her body is less than flattering and tell her against wearing certain clothes. “‘This doesn’t suit you. That does not look right on you; you shouldn’t wear this, you shouldn’t wear that’. What they say affects me more than it should. Sometimes it ruins an outfit I love, other times it just ruins my day altogether,” she confesses.
Like Aishwarya, BMus student Smarika Phuyal too has heard many people comment on her body. She had never even considered that she was on the heavier side before some salespeople and unforgiving relatives suggested that she was. Buying clothes is always a hassle for her and a task she takes as a burden. Salespeople at clothing stores often tell her that they don’t stock clothes in her size and that she should try another store. “Just recently I went to buy a pair of pants. The salesperson kept insisting that I wouldn’t fit into a medium size and that I must try a larger pair,” says Smarika. Experiences like these keep her away from shopping for clothes, even in times of need.
Body shaming is one practice that is almost normalized in our culture. Each meeting with an acquaintance or a relative always begins with a greeting that is immediately followed by a remark on one’s appearance – even when the remarks are obviously less than welcome. Weight gain, weight loss, height, complexion change or just any visible physical changes are quickly noticed and commented upon. Not that it is necessarily wrong. When you meet someone after a long time, it’s his/her appearance you first take note of.
“But very often what you hear are backhanded insults and to make someone feel bad just to make small talk is wrong,” points out Chitwan resident Anish Magar, who finds himself at the other end of the spectrum. Magar has a slim build and his body type has been the butt of jokes among both friends and relatives for as long as he can remember. “Every time we meet I’m told to eat which is frustrating because I have a healthy appetite. I just don’t gain weight like most people do even when I gorge on junk food,” says Anish.
Explaining this to his relatives and friends is mostly a one sided conversation. Visits to their homes are something he dreads because he is over fed and it usually leads to an upset stomach. Then there are the skeleton jokes and bamboo jokes. There is no escaping these jokes. Family or friends, neither is better than the other. “It’s not as though I’m already not insecure about myself. To hear them talk about my ‘inadequacies’ is extremely unsettling,” he adds.
“Body shaming is a social crime,” asserts Dr Karuna Kunwar, psychologist at the Center for Mental Health and Counseling Nepal. An assessment of someone who has dealt with feeling of physical inadequacies all their lives shows that body shaming has both short- and long-term effects. Kunwar notes multiple cases of patients struggling with body images. One patient, she recalls, was struggling academically and socially because of what she was constantly being told at home. Her grandparents would criticize her appearance and list all her supposed “faults” to anyone who listened. Eventually the child lost the motivation to do better altogether.
“Extreme anxiety, isolating oneself and signs of depression are very common in people who are constantly criticized for the appearance,” adds Dr Kunwar. One of Dr Kunwar’s own cousins locked himself in his room every time there was a guest at home. He would refuse to come out and couldn’t be persuaded to do so at any cost. He was slightly overweight and concerned about the comments he was sure to receive if he went to talk to them. So he isolated himself entirely and developed social anxiety disorder.
“Children develop an inner voice and this voice reminds them of their own ‘failings’. This convinces them of their own inability to do well and they end up blaming their appearances anytime they fail. This is a dangerous mindset to live with,” she adds.
Remarks about one’s body type or even skin type, however, are perceived differently by different people. Ajar Basnet, 19 has been called out for his darker complexion all his life. But he takes it as a gesture of affection rather than a jab at him. “Colloquial Nepali more than supports this call out on physical features. Haven’t all of us been referred to as ‘fuchhe’ (shorty), ‘kaale’ (dark skinned) at some point in our lives?” he questions. He doesn’t think anyone has escaped such name calling.
“As long as it’s done in good humor I’m okay with that. But if it’s insulting or drags people down then that’s an issue,” he states. Ajar, however, understands why people might dislike remarks on their appearance even when it’s made without wrong intentions. “If someone is uncomfortable with the names we call them we must stop. Telling them to stop being sensitive and accept it isn’t right,” he says.
More often than not, body shaming is also self-inflicted. And Sulov Khadka, currently on his gap year, testifies to that. Sulov had to skip his CIE exams last year owing to a health condition. During this time, he gained a few pounds.
Even then, he couldn’t escape the criticisms from his family. So he went to the gym to shed the extra weight. But while there, he noticed that the gym didn’t solve any of his problems. Once he had lost his targeted weight, he wanted to work on his arms, then his back, and then his legs and so on. “The more I worked out there the more I noticed my physique. Most people who go to the gym are the same. You’re never happy with the way you look and that mindset is unhealthy,” he explains.
Dr Karuna comments that parents and teachers need to be mindful about how they treat children. Labeling, comparing, and publicly calling them out on their physique shouldn’t be done. “This not only confines their abilities but also harms their self-esteem and sense of self worth,” she elaborates.
Reecha Shrestha, a BBA student has always been the tall girl in the class measuring just over 175 cm. While her height was the subject of envy for most of her peers, she was also told that being that tall was unbecoming for a girl. As a result, she became very self-conscious. “I would go home and google exercises that stunted growth. They obviously did not work. Today, I love that I’m tall but it was difficult to come to terms with it,” she says.
Dr Karuna emphasizes the need to talk about body images. Growing up with insecurities keeps people from forming social relations and performing simple everyday activities. Some physical features are beyond one’s control, she says. Genetics, mental health, body types and various environmental factors contribute to a person’s physique and appearance. “It’s ridiculous to expect everyone to fit into a box of beauty standards,” she states stressing the need for healthy conversations, accepting differences, and the advocacy for body positivity.