- “Your hair is so straight.”
- “Have you been working out? You seem to have lost a lot of weight.”
- “You have sharp features.”
- “You look so pretty!”
Does a simple compliment always make someone’s day? For all I know, compliments have been making me feel anxious for quite some time. People feel the need to acknowledge another person’s presence by telling them how their physical appearance makes a difference in the room but what about the nature of compliments? How many times have we given it any thought before blurting out a blatantly appearance-based remark on something none of us has any control over?
My disappointment may be a bit misdirected here but believe me, it is all connected in my wish to throw some light upon how body shaming works in layers and works deeply enough to affect us.
Where Does It All Begin?
I am a 25-year old woman in India working in the IT industry. I have been an above-average student all my life. Not to mention the scores of certificates I have collected from sports competitions, Olympiads, talent hunts, and whatnot. To top it all, I consider myself to be an independent woman in the present climate. All of these sound like positive signs in the name of women empowerment, don’t they? Yet, let me tell you why and how compliments (or comments) make me anxious.
India can be one of many things, but two things it chooses to be quite good at are misogyny and body-shaming. Now, of course, body-shaming issues exist throughout all spheres, but if you are a woman in India, I think you have already faced the brunt of inspection and analysis directly or indirectly. Working in the IT sector or any industry for that matter makes no part of this nightmare stress-free. But how do we blame these people when the culture of body-shaming blooms as the most innocent, unassuming part of our lives since childhood.
Growing up in an extended family, I have been asked questions about my appearance even before I could speaking full words. With time, I was made to believe that my skin was too dark or that I looked too skinny to belong to my family. I barely looked like a girl, or so my aunts said. My uncles went the extra mile to change my name to that of a boy. None of this affected me in its truest sense until we have years of repeated behavior targeted at appearance directed towards me form a pattern and added to this.
Cut to the present day; I am easily one of the most well-spoken, bright employees in my company. To be clear, my idea of office space was limited to American movies and pop culture. Little did I know that workspaces are the nesting grounds of bullies whom society has acclimatized over the years to be who they are today; their insecurities so apparent that all these people needed was a good laugh to deflect their examinations of self on others.
The Game of Shame
Allow me to break down the functioning of workspaces for you (as described by workaholics in the office) – I promise you, this is not a tried and tested theory as intimidators (read: colleagues) in your office may come from a different school of thought. Not all birds of the same feather flock together. So here it goes – “We as young professionals have a lot on our plate, and so, it feels good to take our mind off to something other than work.” Yes, by something they mean the colleague who walks with a limp or the boy who has an effeminate voice. Before converting to this job, I had no idea that sexism, fatphobia, homophobia, and an inflated sense of superiority were four in-demand qualities for working professionals in the industries.
I have friends in my workplace and not-so-friendly colleagues, which divides my workplace into two seemingly healthy groups. However, the topics of discussion in both groups barely ever see a change of heart. Sharing a cup of chai with my colleagues, I had often been the butt of their jokes. Some days my acne seemed to catch their attention. On other days, it could be my work-time special slouch. I reserved my hearty laughs at home somewhat subconsciously because it all came up during ‘friendly’ imitations of people in the office.
One good thing about going to the office was that I did not have to depend on my weight machine every time I gain or lose weight. Someone or the other was kind enough to notice the tiny changes in my body mass. My stretch marks, thigh gap, baby fat, love handles, and my cheek fat were heavily monitored by my kind colleagues. Their reports helped me keep myself in check, even if that meant skipping a meal or two in a day.
Highs and Lows of My Career So Far
As a woman and a working professional, I had almost stopped performing as an employee. I was unknowingly trying to fit into the norms set by my unkind colleagues and supervisor. None of my achievements mattered when it was my skin color that deserved deliberation. For the longest time, I had spent a good amount of my monthly salary on beauty products and gym memberships. The taunts and casual comments poured in even when I was trying hard – shifting all focus from work, losing sleep at night, and calorie counting with expensive face packs to cover my imperfections. What started as an excellent opportunity for me to grow in the corporate world soon became a reason for me to detest the morning rays of the sun when I opened my eyes.
Of course, this friendly leg-pulling was not just restricted to me. Bitterness started brewing in the atmosphere during work. I could sense my supervisor preferring to spend his lunch breaks with other colleagues who indulged in the behavior – in short, enabled each other to massage their egos. The reason behind my poor appraisals was evident by now. I did not know whom to blame.
“Quite unlike that tube of fairness cream the sales associates try selling at discount prices at your doorstep.“
Self-Appraisals before Work Appraisals
At present, I struggle with body acceptance. Even though my parents and some of my friends wish the best for me, I still do not consider their support to be in the right direction at all times – such is how the act of body shaming has been ingrained in us. It is ridiculous how sexual harassment and client confidentiality can be severe as issues of misconduct ,while discrimination is not.
I had reached a point where I had nothing to lose any longer. My contributions to the work or the lack thereof could already get me fired and my appraisals were mostly negative as the days passed. It took a moment for me to let the pent-up anger loose and speak up in front of the HR in the meeting room – a moment of delusion, you could say. Looking back, that could have easily been the reason for my redundancy yet it was that one step that got people to notice the real culprit in this situation in some miraculous manner. It was at that moment that I saw more of me in that room – people spoke up one by one and soon it became grounds enough for the administration to take notice.
Our society has played an active role in perpetuating seemingly harmless ways of public scrutiny, which thankfully seems to be gaining some attention in recent years. With our media at large, it can be challenging to bring any significant change any time soon. However, I feel detection of the problem by either party is a solid step towards the correct course. These days I think less about eating that extra slice of cake or wearing that sleeveless top. The Indian society likes to believe how social media is the root of all evil, yet it is the same medium that has facilitated my unlearning toxic beliefs and years of conditioning through useful channels.
My Way and Not the Highway
Body shaming issues in workplaces might have a long way to go to be recognized by the office policies. That does not stop me from taking baby steps. I exercise when I wish to, my skin breaks out when it wants to, and my inner self can talk myself out of the compulsion to appease the problematic entities in my life. I have quit working in the previous workplace despite a handsome promotion and an illustrious career. I have managed to keep good ties with the organization while having had converted to my dream job – none of which was possible for my dark skin or extra layers of fat on my body. It was one fine day that I chose to speak up and ask difficult questions which have eventually become the reason for me to live each day on my own terms presently.
If only people appeared to be half as educated and confident as they seem to be in the meeting rooms, the world would have been a different place today.