body image

Self and Social Image Battle

I woke up this morning feeling quite anxious. I had to go for a blood test in a few hours, and I am extremely scared of the blood flow not stopping after the tests. To add to the misery, my period was late. And then in those anxious early hours between half asleep and half awake, I just tumbled into several thoughts involving blood (the blood I wanted to come, the blood I didn’t want to be drawn out, pregnancy, health, vaginas, body image, what is acceptable and such other stuff. A complete chaos of related, loosely related, and completely unrelated topics. When I was growing up, I would be constantly worried that what if my vagina was abnormally shaped. All the worry was unfounded, but in retrospect, we all constantly keep reevaluating ourselves against some ideal image that we may have been brainwashed into on some subconscious level. Where otherwise did the unfounded worry come from? I have always been very very conscious of even the slightest change in my body. So one fine day, when I looked at my vagina, I was in for a bit of a shock…because it looked nothing like my frame of reference: my own naked baby pictures. I had sort of assumed it would look the same forever. And whom do you ask this to? I was afraid I would hear some unwanted truth that my vagina indeed was strange, so I never asked. And watching porn is no help either, what with everything being photoshopped to look all tucked in and neat. Basically body of a woman with private parts of a little girl! It was much much much later that I got over this after I read a couple of academic articles about vaginas, and vaginal image anxiety. That did not happen with breasts though. Culturally, we seem more open to talking about breast growth. In fact, we are also brainwashed into believing that bigger the better. But better in what way? Does bigger mean fitter? Of course not. And if it doesn’t then better for whom? We clearly subconsciously think about it in terms of sexual appeal to the opposite sex even from an age when no man is even in sight.  Why? Because that has become the norm. Body image is such a tricky business, that you don’t see yourself for what you actually are (even physically), but how others see you. And that’s what causes that weird anxiety. This was what struck me (this and most other things in the video) as ridiculous in that stupid Vogue Empower (or shall we say “Vague” Empower) video. The script talks about choosing to be or not to be size zero. How did size zero even come into picture? It’s not our choice…it is the choice that is made for us by the beauty industry, and then we are brainwashed into believing that’s what we need to be to be beautiful and accepted. It’s sad that you have to even discuss about not wanting to be size zero like you’re making some important point. I noticed that I am even prone to feeling anxious about other physical health parameters in general. And again, that’s because on a sub-conscious level I am constantly reevaluating my general state of being with some ideals that I may not even be aware of. Like I mentioned, I am constantly worried that my blood takes longer to clot. I blame the one horrific incident I underwent a few years back. I donated blood in a blood camp at work, and then my blood just wouldn’t stop. Everybody panicked, I was taken to the hospital where I underwent a couple of tests, all of which came out normal. Apparently, the guy who inserted the needle in my arm didn’t do it right and punctured an artery or something he wasn’t supposed to while drawing blood. So there was internal tear. But from that point on, I am a mess every time I have a blood test. I keep observing other people and mentally calculating how many seconds it took for their blood to stop and then worrying myself crazy if I took a few seconds more. So technically, I wouldn’t be worried if others took longer too (even though not ideal), because then what’s defined as normal itself changes. I have realized that I am quite sensitive to that constant conflict between what you naturally are, and what you try to be in the society to reach that stage which is deemed as generally acceptable. Then be it in terms of how you look, how you talk, and more still how you think. I find it sad, that while I myself appreciate misfits everywhere, being a misfit in most situations myself isn’t always such a reassuring thought.

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The period of lull

In my earlier post on how I actually started working towards weight-loss, I concluded with a couple of lessons I learnt and how I lost some weight in the process anyway.

I was already down to about 46 kilos, which was not skinny but nothing to complain about either. My main goal in even trying to change my weight is: not feeling my tummy wobble when I am jumping down the stairs. I have a habit of suddenly breaking into a jump when I am walking and have almost reached my destination and also sort of jogging on the stairs. Because plain walking is just boring. And finding my tummy wobbling, or feeling a tickling sensation in my arms due to excess fat makes me feel uncomfortable and heavy.

So 46 kilos was just right to do all the things I was accustomed to. I call the next 2-3 years a period of lull because my body didn’t change too much during this period. In fact I gained a kilo or two and was still fine with 48 kilos as I felt fit. Which is what matters the most anyway. I could comfortably run about 4-5 kilometers. While I did have the occasional frustrations on finding my tummy bulging over the jeans’ waistline, or being able to grab my love handles…a week or two of consciously eating right, doing regular exercise and drinking loads of water would get me into my desired shape again. Another thing that usually gets me back on track and preps me to start regular workout again after long periods of laziness, junk food and general inactivity is,  when I start feeling fullness in my face. I have a thing for flat cheeks (not sunken or drawn in. just flat and smooth). It gives your face cut a sharper feel and makes you feel slimmer even if your lower body is plumper. So when I feel fat accumulating in my chin, and my collar bones slowly disappearing under a lazy layer of fat, I spring back in action.

Which is precisely what I did in this period of lull. It’s not that my weight didn’t fluctuate. It always did. But it was still within reason. I was also attending Bharatnatyam classes twice a week which toned my arms and thighs a little more. All in all this was a good time when I had least dissatisfaction and frustration with my weight fluctuation (because I had other things to be frustrated and depressed about: my relationship. But about that in another post). I mostly ate healthy and did some or the other form of physical exercise. I mainly walked everywhere which is quite helpful to maintain if not lose weight.

The highlight of this period was that I needed a size 26″ jeans for a while, which was very flattering for me then. Now I no longer care about the size as long as the jeans has enough room in it to let my tummy expand a little bit and lets me sit with my legs folded up without awkward pinching and squishing happening…you know where. 😉

The Battle of Hair

I’m currently reading Caitlin Moran’s How to be a woman. I’m only into the second chapter and she has made several interesting points in a straight forward no-fuss way and also raised questions that make me reflect on my life and how it revolves around things that I’d otherwise discard as unfair to womanhood. I have been a meek participant of the crusade of hair removal since as far back as I can remember. First it was only in my thoughts, later it seeped into my actions after I had enough resources to put myself through the numbing pain of removing every follicle with painful attention to detail.

I think modern women have been perpetually at war with their hair and pull their hair everyday over how it crops up everywhere it shouldn’t and how it’s sparse where it should be most dense…on the head obviously! I think this is the first aspect of womanhood that girls who hit their puberty encounter. You look all smooth and pretty till you’re there and then you suddenly have pubic hair, hair on your legs, a slight unsightly mustache if I may, eyebrows that look like wild untamed bushes. All this at a time when you’re just learning about sex and everything around seems to evoke sex for you. This is when you think you need to look pretty and moderately sexually attractive, but  when you have unwanted (?!, may be it’s there for a reason called protection) growth everywhere and no money to take care of it. Oh the miserable age of puberty! This is also the time when you become aware of your body and are likely to withdraw into your own shell. You don’t want to be noticed, and having facial or body hair makes you noticeable, at any age unfortunately.

It’s not even funny how much planning goes into managing hair.  I keep it till the last minute so that it is closer to the day I want to look smooth and hairless, but it has enough buffer period to let my rashes heal so that I look naturally beautiful. How awesomely natural is that! I can so relate to Moran’s piece about this planning. I prefer to get done with my hands and legs 2 days before the day I want to look fancy, eyebrows a day before so that they look sharp and carved and pubic hair 2-3 days before. Because after using the epilator, it gets sore and knobbly there, and there is an occasional drop of blood [when there is conflict between your sane side that keeps telling you that you’re subscribing to the popular belief that women should have luxuriant flowing tresses but absolutely no sign of body hair; and your superficial stupid side that tells you that you want to look like those models from the hair (or no hair) ads] when I’m trying to multitask to prove to myself that it doesn’t take time and try balancing my leg over the sink while reading a book and dexterously moving my hand over the most delicate part of my body without looking at it,  and my hand slips slightly to the right. What happens next? I don’t remember because I saw stars and almost fainted.

Once the days are sorted out, I go through meticulous planning about what methods I’d use to epilate which parts of my body. Threading for eyebrows, waxing for upper lips and arms, but not for legs shaving  as I get a lot of in-growth because of waxing. Pulling hair out with the epilator for underarms because it’s easy to manoeuvre, then waxing for the pubic mound and epilator for the rest…ouch it hurts even thinking about it; and then shaving for whatever remains. I feel ashamed of myself even as I write this. I mean I am an educated, modern woman who doesn’t need to do all this. Even my partner doesn’t care one bit about a little bit of hair here and there. But it’s all in my head. Probably because a million advertisement and videos that bombard us with unbelievably and effortlessly good looking ethereal women with a rich crown but no hair anywhere else that mere mortals like me are led to believe that we have major shortcomings that need to be taken care of on an urgent basis.

What they don’t show us is probably the very same women spending hours at the salon and even more hours locked in their bathrooms with a hand mirror or microscope imagining the existence of a wilful hair that needs to be uprooted; they don’t show a team of experts zooming into every single part of the clippings to remove even non-existent blemishes and create something that would put even wax and plastic to shame. And what they don’t see is how these ads and videos are the cause of disappointment, mortification, low self-esteem and in extreme case, depression for millions of teenager women world-wide. What they don’t see is how it’s a wrong, unhealthy expectation setting for teenage men worldwide who just grow up believing that women in their life should look a certain way, but fail to realize that all of that doesn’t come naturally. I remember an incident when a male colleague pointed out that  it was time for my monthly salon visit as my eyebrows looked like a jungle. I didn’t get angry, I just pitied how this extraordinarily intelligent man was but a victim of social conditioning. I told him of course that I don’t do things just because a random guy told me to. It’s pathetic how men who are so brilliant and can read data like stories fail to read beyond the adverts.

Anyhoo this is a debate which can conclude in establishing that we are victims of media’s bombardment but can’t translate into making us stop spending/ wasting time on the excruciating hair removal rituals.

Sarah Haskins, a woman I absolutely worship has a hilarious video called “Your Garden” which I’m unable to find anywhere now. 😦 Please watch it if you do find it and also send me the link. Extraordinarily articulate and funny that she is, she makes the very same point in 1000 % better way and in just under 2 minutes. Here’s one of her other videos, just as hilarious and thought provoking.

How it all began…

I have never really been thin, nor have I ever been what might be considered fat. But I have had a struggle with weight since as far back as I was 16. It’s after my school that I started becoming heavier. I always had a near flat belly and slender waist but the rest of me was increasingly becoming voluptuous to the point that I’d feel that my boobs always went ahead of me to announce my arrival. And I have no idea why I had issues staying slim like my friends and classmates who ate  crappy food and hardly worked out. I on the other hand would go for walks with dad everyday, do at least 2oo jumps and our household never really needed a doctor’s intervention to train us on eating healthy. My mum, extremely nutrition conscious that she is, made it a point to not use even an extra drop of oil than is the recommended daily intake for adults. We’d eat a lot of salads, buttermilk, pulses, everything which is good for your health…but I was still unable to reach my dream of being a slender and irresistibly lithe young woman.

It was after I moved to Pune and met EM that I started becoming desperate to look thinner. It was not about being healthy; all I cared about was having a 24 inch waist. EM has always been markedly skinny, in fact I would totally make him participate in the Indian version of Super-size vs. Super-skinny if there was any. I realized that I had started thinking of him as more than just friends when my mind would constantly try to picture us together and I’d feel that we wouldn’t suit each other physically. I know, I know…love should be blind and how you look physically is the least of concerns, especially if you are literally a perfect fit in every other way. But I was only 17 and what wisdom do you expect from a teenager anyway! Plus I have always been obsessed with things like harmony and fitting together. 9 years down the line I realize that this was nothing but an inexperienced mind’s randomness.

The more I started thinking of the probability or rather inevitability of a romantic liaison with EM, the more convinced I became that I needed to lose a few pounds. I thought I owed it to myself. Thus began my first official weight-loss journey. I don’t remember being so determined about anything else, perhaps not even about being with EM.

I would wake up at 6 every morning, diligently go for jogs and do a couple of sprints if possible. I’d come back and do some stretches, several exercise to cinch my waist in, drink water constantly. I’d down litres and litres of water. Making sure that every time I peed, it was as clear as water had become sort of an obsession. I’d have only salads for breakfast. After that I wouldn’t snack and only have lunch and dinner. Nothing I did was even remotely advisable or recommended for a healthy weight loss apart from probably cutting down junk food completely. I’d get up every few minutes from where I was and do a couple more jumps, then again after an hour I’d get up and do a few more crunches, then an hour later side twists. I had become very imaginative and had even invented exercises. The results soon started showing and from a healthy but slightly plump 52 kilos, I went down to 47. This should have satisfied me, but no! The results made me feel powerful and I wanted to explore my power a little further. I kept at my rather insignificant diet and increased the exercise. When what could have been a minor stomach upset due to a spicy chutney I had one day manifested itself as a major bout of vomiting and food poisoning, I realized that my body had reached  its limit. No no, I was not smart enough to realize it then. I was rather happy about the timeliness of the food poisoning that helped me slim down further. It was around this time that along with food poisoning and the general feeling of restless which had become a constant for me during my first 4 years with EM, that I reached my all time low of 41 kilos. I was happy but it had started worrying mum and dad. More than weight loss, it was their daughter’s obsession with a sickly skinny body and increasing emotional dependence on a guy (“sheer insult to her upbringing”..courtesy the mother) which was worrying my parents.

Finally, my love for good food took over and I started eating well again. Point to note, I have never been into deep fried oily stuff anyway, although I cannot resist things like panipuri and chaat. But I eat healthy most of the time. anyway, I gained some weight post the all time low and maintained a recommended 45-46 kilos for the next 2-3 years. That’s the ideal weight recommended for me as I’m only 5 ft tall.

I tortured and tested my body during this time, cursing it for not letting go of its fat stores, for not making me happy and such other insensitive thoughts. I broke it down and made it lose the excess weight. When I look back at that period, I wouldn’t completely discard myself. I know now that it was important though not advisable for me to do what I did. It is an important phase in my teenage years. It was probably my way of dealing with the insecurities of suddenly coming to a new city, suddenly falling in love when till that point I was sure that I was above love and didn’t want to tie myself to anyone (aaahh…the immature thoughts of a baby mind that thought it was so mature! ), suddenly realizing that I was hating what I had gone to Pune to do and wanted to study something else instead, suddenly feeling emotionally exposed and vulnerable and still having to pretend to be strong because EM was 5-6 months younger and there was no way he’d get what I felt then with his mind flooded with equally turbulent emotions. In all the turmoil that defines teenage years, even though unhealthy and wrong, I know I wouldn’t have evolved if I hadn’t been a crazy, idiotic, superficial and impulsive little woman who just did what she thought was good for her then.