My body confidence issues didn’t come from magazines, TV, Instagram or the girls at my school. It came from my family – my extended family that is. My mother never gave much credence to the self-doubt that is ingrained in most women. As far as she is concerned she is a beautiful woman and confidence radiates from her (trust me, few women are as confident as my mother). She never put pressure on me to eat less, watch my weight or diet. As long as I was healthy, she was content. I have always been overweight – a soft child who never shed the puppy fat.
But even though my mother and sisters didn’t ridicule or even mention my weight, this domain was reserved for the aunties. From about the age of nine I was always greeted with phrases such as “you’ve gotten nice and fat”. At the time, it struck me as a strange thing to say. I hardly saw my desi side of the family as they lived in another city, so seeing them once or twice a year gave them the license to comment on my physical appearance. And these phrases were repeated over and over until the age of about 15, when it no longer became socially acceptable to do so. Those opening lines were, instead, replaced by things like “You’ll look taller if you lost weight”, “so and so has lost so much of weight because they are on this diet”, “boys like thin girls” and my personal favorite “you are so lucky you are fair, but you’re just a bit plump”. It was humiliating to have to say I was only 13 when the more distant relatives asked if I had already completed high school due to my appearance.
The mean girls in the American movies had nothing on the mean aunties. These women will tell you shit with a smile on their face. And there is nothing you can do about it. At the time it seemed so trivial that I didn’t even tell my mother – I see now that this was a mistake. She would have reassured me and told me to just ignore them, or would have given me tools to deal with the situation – be that advice or increasing my self-worth, or a gym membership if I so wished. I also couldn’t complain to my friends – they were white, they wouldn’t understand.
The drama of wearing adult sized clothes before being an adult and the fact that glitzy ethnic clothes made me chafe in uncomfortable areas rendered every wedding an absolute ordeal. Even in make up and with a hairsprayed up-do I felt ugly. It was strange, even amongst my most attractive friends in the uneasy depths of adolescence, I never felt like that.
To this day I find myself having little to say to my relatives, even though I am usually erudite, interesting and funny (or so my friends and colleagues tell me). I tell myself that it has to do with personality and a different worldview. While this is no doubt true, I must admit that my silence, awkward posturing and one-word answers have something to do with the fact that as a child I felt belittled and like a freak – their constant undermining of me made me hesitant to speak up or say anything, lest I appear even more weird. Being only partly desi was already an issue and it was unfair that I was an outcast without even having said anything. My weight was the biggest thing counting against me. This was inferred even as they forced me to take a biscuit or drink juice at yet another relative’s house on Eid, as to have nothing would be insulting to the host.
I’ll be the first to agree with those who say that teenage years are inevitably awkward unless you’re a Jenner or a Hadid, and yes, some of our self-esteem issues do pass. But some do not, and when the root of them lie not in unknown celebrities or frenemies long forgotten, the doubt and loathing can persist. Brown people are indoctrinated with ideas of how important family is – how they are the only ones you can count on, how they only ever want the best for you and how they are the only ones that matter. Yet these people were the ones that made me ashamed of how I looked. From. The. Age. Of. Nine.
It is ironic that the same aunties had genuine fears that we would pander to Western standards of beauty and feel inadequate, yet, it was their influences that were far more damaging.
We need to do better. We need to stop calling girls “big’, “dark”, “plump” and we need to stop commenting on their skin, birthmarks or condition of their hair. These are kids. They have feelings and what we say matters.
And while I have learnt that these opinions are exactly that – just opinions, I know they think that my weight is the primary reason for my lack of a husband. It grates on me, it still makes me feel shitty, and I still feel unattractive whenever I am with them, but then I just have to remind myself that while I may be their niece or cousin, I am also my mother’s daughter. And you know what? Like her – I am beautiful.