Two years ago, an article from The Guardian, stated that a ‘lack of confidence holds women back in their careers’ with a whopping 92% of the 2000 women surveyed saying that they had body hang ups. This statistic, as shocking as it may be to read, is something that I’m not really surprised by. In fact, I believe it’s a figure that many of us aren’t surprised to hear, because to find a woman with good self-esteem is like finding a black rose. I could sit here and blog about how the media, celebrity culture, cosmetic giants and advertising all play an equally huge part in making women feel inadequate about themselves. Equally, I could also discuss how this distortion is now affecting the way that men feel about their bodies. But I’m not going to talk about that.
It’s a given that advertising, fashion and beauty companies play an overwhelming role in determining how women regard their bodies. We know how influential it is and how deeply it penetrates every area of our lives, but despite having that knowledge, none of us have been fully relieved of the social pressures that we feel as women.
92% of the women surveyed said that they had body hang ups
At the end of last week I was featured in this interview series from Asian Women Mean Business, which was really humbling and made me think about things. For the vast majority of my life, I’ve observed the way that women generally regard themselves, their bodies and the impact it has upon them in a variety of spaces – particularly South Asian women. And to be honest, this will probably be an ongoing observation, as I go through my life.
The first thing which springs to mind is skin-lightening cosmetic giant, Fair and Lovely, which millions of Asians around the world have quite rightly slammed. Yet at the same time, millions of Asians still use their products. For generations, many Asian women have grown up associating dark skin with ugliness, poverty, illiteracy and as a sign of demonic behaviour (ever wondered why demons in religious programmes have dark skin?). There are so many drives and initiatives – such as Dark is Divine and Stuart Gatt’s film My Beautiful White Skin – to help Asians accept and love their skin tones. What I haven’t been made aware of, are similar campaigns to help Asian women feel more at ease about their bodies and have a frank discussion about it.
With regards to how attitudes, lifestyles and how Asian women express their grievances has changed, the furthest I can go is as far as the early 20th century to first and second generations. The main trait that I would associate with these generations is passive due to social constraints that they were bound by. This passive nature was largely influenced by the attitudes upheld by their families and communities; it’s no wonder that so many women of this generation suffered with depression and loneliness. I did some research into my father’s side of the family to find out how depression managed to seep through four generations of my family; I was emotionally shaken to find that it had started with my great-great-great grandmother and continued unquestioned since. You don’t have to go that far back to realise how constrained they were; a conversation with a great-aunt or elderly female relative will usually suffice.
The third/fourth generation is where things started to bubble and boil; they were restless and understandably kept pushing for change by beginning to have conversations about subjects which were considered to be taboo. This restlessness gave way to women’s groups and forums, such as Southall Black Sisters, being created which has filtered into this generation of Asian women. It has given Asian women today (some fourth and fifth) a half decent platform to continue those conversations and open up new ones – and why shouldn’t we? We have one of the biggest advantages that previous generations didn’t have; education, technology and access to the world.
The female Asian body is something which we know exists but don’t really speak about. We know it’s there, because Bollywood has no qualms with scantily-clad women in its films. Whenever an attempt is made to talk about Asian women’s bodies and welfare, it’s usually met with the embarrassed mutter and downcast look of: ‘it’s a private thing.’ This is all very well and good, except that such conversations don’t happen enough in private – so where do we go to have an honest discussion about the way that Asian cultures view women’s bodies?
For a long time, I’ve often felt that aspects of womanhood are seen as a source of shame, For example, we know of certain beauty ideals that many Asians uphold and strive for: fair skin, long thick hair, big brown eyes, slim noses and full eyebrows. Much emphasis has been placed on how Asian women’s faces should look, with their bodies being determined by whatever the West deems as ‘sexy.’ Naturally, ideas of beauty, what is considered to be beauty and who gets to be beautiful, fluctuates over time. The biggest example is the body types that Bollywood actresses in the 1950s and 60s had; by today’s standards they’d be classed as ‘fat and ugly.’
Where do we go to have an honest discussion about the way that Asian cultures view women’s bodies?
Which brings me back to the core of today’s post: despite a current generation of Asian women being more liberated than previous generations (in theory) why do we still feel almost ashamed about our bodies? Things such as wearing tops that show your bra straps, menstruation (Canadian poet Rupi Kaur encapsulated this perfectly), menopause, a sense of shame towards Asian women who have large breasts, big lips, are sexually active and/or when puberty begins. At this point, we could become complacent and say: ‘Well these are problems that women all over the world face, regardless of colour, it’s not unique to Asians’ to which I would agree with because some standards of beauty are universal. But the point I’m making is that we do not acknowledge Asian women’s bodies yet we will either hyper-sexualise, dismiss or hide it away.
Much of the narrative that Asian women have grown up hearing, with regards to their bodies, is mainly negative. I find that it largely centres around the whole idea of modesty, covering up and being pure; if you don’t adhere to these principles you are declared ‘one of those women.’ These concepts derive from our mothers, aunts, grandmothers etc, who we can’t really get angry at because they are merely reiterating what they were told about their bodies by their own mothers. In this sense, it becomes a vicious cycle of feeling detached and uncomfortable about your body, which has a knock on effect with things such as emotional health, self-esteem, self confidence and sexuality.
The first step we can take in changing this conversation is by being more open about it all. Not every interaction or conversation has to be hostile, violent or exclude men; I believe that they are a vital part of finding solutions. Utilise those forums, connect with each other and start talking about why there is still so much shame surrounding Asian women and our bodies so that we can find some viable solutions. The human body is simply incredible; why should we continue to shame it? Some useful literature that I’ve found (and would recommend) are the following:
- ‘Indian Women across Generations’ – Uma Narula
- ‘Perspectives on Indian Women’ – R.S Tripathi and R.P Tiwari