It's hard enough to be self-critical, but nearly impossible to face a culture that tells you they don't like what they see. Our body image is often a combination of unresolved childhood trauma and the reconditioning of how we see ourselves. Trying to fit ourselves into predetermined boxes of beauty is a challenge many of us face our whole lives!
South Asian cultures adapt to and comprehend certain western norms differently than the rest of the world. While the culture in western society has become more accepting and open to destigmatizing issues like depression and eating disorders, many South Asian communities have yet to recognize those issues as valid. The Journal of Pakistan Medical Association highlighted that until recently, there were no studies on eating disorders in Pakistani adolescent girls. The absence of these conversations are telling of a deeply fixated culture. It’s clear that mental health is not deemed as important as physical health; however, mental health and its symptoms pertain to all of us — the same way physical health does.
While younger generations of South Asians understand the risk and reality of eating disorders, their narratives are often controlled by their parents' opinions on such topics. Adults who've silenced their pain and taught their children the same tools create an ongoing 'silencing culture' that is toxic and extremely unsafe. When a culture silences its people about real-life issues, we create an environment that invokes shame and fear. We create an environment that ultimately snatches away community resources and familial support.
It doesn't help that Bollywood influences much of South Asian society globally. The content girls and boys view on their television screens is what they begin to want and dream of subconsciously. Kids and young adults create unrealistic expectations of how they should look to be classified as beautiful and attractive. These expectations and sociocultural pressures are deeply embedded in the structure of South Asian communities. They control human relations, where certain people are treated differently in social spaces than others. If you're 'fat', you get treated like a second-class citizen at family gatherings, weddings, and other functions.
Canadian and American societies are beginning to understand how essential it is to unveil the complex relations between culture and eating disorders in South Asian communities. Research by Western University professor Nazia Bhatti found that South Asian women report greater dissatisfaction with their bodies and more instances of eating disturbances. Bhatti further explains, "Research specifically examining eating disorders in South Asian women have examined the extent to which body image issues and eating disturbances relate to cultural ideologies of body image, internalization of body ideals, eating attitudes, acculturation, cultural conflict, familial conflict, and perceived lack of control."
South Asian culture feels to sum up a woman on her body rather than her ability. It feels like no matter how successful, caring, loved I become, it is always outweighed by being overweight. All my achievements mean nothing whilst I defy the ideal body image.
Due to intense fat-shaming, South Asian girls and boys will go to extra lengths to achieve goals that are imposed on them. This added cultural pressure can lead to hours of self-loathing or hiding from themselves. One of my cousins stopped showing up to family gatherings and parties because she was afraid that someone would point out her weight gain. This pressure embeds fear that is beyond describable and ultimately begins to control a person's life.
This 'silence culture' goes back to our ancestors but needs to be left in the past. South Asian communities are primarily guarded and silenced by deeply rooted issues stemming from the colonial era. For centuries they've been taught that their narratives are irrelevant to the broader scope of the world. South Asian voices and opinions matter; healthy minds and healthy spirits are occupied by various shades and sizes of beauty. It is crucial that we continue to have healthy dialogue around difficult issues that society often overlooks. The whole "log kya kahain gai?" (what will people say?) mantra that controls so many of our households is outdated and dictates too much of our identities. We are all worthy of a healthy life that is liberated by our ancestors, not shamed by them.
Arsheen Siddiqi (@arsheenss ) is a poet, writer, and journalist. She is passionate about social justice and creating positive change in the community. Focusing on African and global Asian studies in university, Arsheen is able to contextualize the current climate of society through a historical lens. She uses her experiences and life lessons to narrate untold stories that are usually masked under taboos.
The #BlindianProject is a globally crowdsourced, art-based documentary project. Our aim is to normalize Black x South Asian relationships and dismantle AntiBlackness within our communities. Like what you've just read? Stay connected with our mailing list.