It’s half-past-six on a damp March evening. I walk along Amarsons Garden, a sea-facing public park in South Bombay, and my eyes sting with salt. I’ve just returned home. I’m taking a semester off from college, and as I look out on the fishing boats and never-ending coastal construction, a woman in kurta and sweatpants huffs past. Kites circle overhead. A boy chases after a stray kitten in the sand.
Minutes later, the woman reappears. “Hi sweetie!” she huffs. Her gaze travels the length of my body. “How come you’re in town?”
I recognize her as a school friend’s mother.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in college right now?” she asks.
I mumble a response.
“You look… healthy. You were like a stick in school,” she laughs. We chat for a few minutes as the sun sets and shadows lengthen. She leaves.
This is usual. ‘Healthy’ is a euphemism for ‘fat’ in urban India, a guarded insult in a fatphobic society. Like other young women, I’ve grown used to near-strangers making comments about my body. Body shaming is pervasive here, where deep-cutting barbs are written off as “jokes” or as ways of “making conversation”—if you can’t handle it, you need thicker skin.
What are the hidden impacts of casual, seemingly harmless body commentary? A study from the University of Minnesota finds that “weight-based teasing by peers or family members was associated with low self-esteem, high depressive symptoms and thinking about or attempting suicide, as well as unhealthy weight control practices and binge eating.” And it has been shown that body surveillance – defined as the “habitual and constant monitoring of the body”—leads to self-objectification and body shame in women, underscoring how a heightened awareness of appearance can damage one’s self-esteem.
What can we glean from science and lived experience about the manifestations of these trends in South Asia? I interviewed young women from cities across India and Pakistan to learn the ground realities.
Ashira Shirali, 22, grew up in Gurgaon, a city near Delhi. I met Ashira for the first time four years ago at a Princeton send-off event in a ritzy Delhi hotel. The first thing I noticed about her were her eyes, big and sparkling like pools. Perhaps they explain the witty and perceptive friend I know her as now. “I think the casualness with which body shaming comments are made is uniquely South Asian,” Ashira reflects, “especially how blunt they are. For instance, once, my grandfather and dad were talking in front of me about how much weight I’d gained – just talking about me as if I wasn’t there. I think this would be considered rude in America, but these are the kinds of comments Indian families feel they can make.”
Then I speak with Stuti Bagri, 23, a classically trained Bharatnatyam dancer who grew up in Mumbai. Stuti is tall, fair, slender, and brilliant. I get all my punchlines from her, and she echoes Ashira’s experience. “Aunties and uncles constantly tell me how thin I’ve got,” she protests, “and how I’m all bones and how weak I look. Clearly, they haven’t seen me [dance] or eat chocolate cake.”
Aditi Gupta*, 22, is also a classically trained dancer but in Odissi, which originates in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. Aditi grew up in Delhi and is graceful like a woven shawl. She shares how her family encouraged her to lose weight when she went through weight cycles. “Comments from family members and exes led to disordered eating. I went through cycles of binging and extreme restriction. The waves of disordered eating come and go still.”
How does she feel about herself now? “I have fluctuating emotions about my body,” Aditi says. “Some days, I really do love it and I’m so grateful to it for keeping me alive. Other days, I want to change a million things. Sometimes I think of correcting it with surgeries, sometimes I think of starving it, and sometimes I spiral because I see no reasonable solution.”
Clearly, it is not only outright shaming that can cause harm. Even lighthearted slights and ‘well-meaning’ comments can lead to body dissatisfaction. Body dissatisfaction is defined as an emotional process when “a person has persistent negative thoughts and feelings about their body […] influenced by external factors such as pressures to meet a certain appearance ideal.” It carries serious implications for physical and emotional wellbeing. Studies show positive correlations between fat talk, body shame, and restrained eating, and a study from UNC Charlotte found that restrictive or judgmental comments made by caregivers around eating were linked to increased feelings of body shame and reduced self-compassion. For South Asian women living in the United Kingdom, appearance-related teasing was linked with body dissatisfaction and an increased desire to adopt mainstream appearance ideals. What beauty ideals are South Asian women held to today? And where do these ideals come from?
“The ideal Indian woman is fair or medium-complexioned,” writes Rebecca Gelles, a researcher from Carleton College, in a paper on beauty ideals in modern India. “[She] has a narrow waist but wider hips and breasts, and has large eyes, full red lips, and long black hair that is either straight or wavy.”
As a child, I was often scolded for playing for too long in the sun. I remember the “home remedies” of sandalwood or mashed papaya my grandmother used to prepare, and I remember the Fair and Lovely ads that ran on television in-between serials. Fair and Lovely is a popular skin-lightening cream in India. These ads portrayed dark-skinned women as failures and misfits, who, after applying Fair and Lovely, would miraculously secure marriage proposals and ace job interviews. “One of the most influential moments in the establishment of [fairness as a beauty standard],” writes Gelles, “was the introduction of Fair and Lovely […] in 1975. Suddenly, the perception was implanted in Indian women that you could make yourself fair, leading to the possibility that it might actually be your fault if you were not.”
The South Asian fairness ideal is rooted in colonialism, classism, colorism, and casteism. In June 2020, in the wake of a global racial reckoning, Fair and Lovely was renamed Glow and Lovely. “They’ve changed the name now,” remarks Riya Choudhury*, a twenty-one-year-old from Mumbai, “but it’s still a product that upholds fairness as a beauty ideal.” It remains the most popular cosmetic line in India.
Kashf Azam*, a twenty-two-year-old who grew up in Lahore and Islamabad, recalls an advert for Zubaida Apa’s Whitening Soap, the equivalent Pakistani product. “The tagline was “ab gora hoga Pakistan” [now Pakistan will be fair],” she laughs.
“I remember when I was younger,” Anya Singh*, a nineteen-year-old from Delhi, reflects, “I did want fairer skin, and I think that’s interesting. This was pre-social media, so I only had the Indian beauty ideals imposed on me. I kept getting called dusky, which I feel is a very Indian word. But when I got older, and my media exposure evolved, I completely forgot about it. It shows how arbitrary the beauty standard was.”
As Anya’s experience reveals, beauty ideals aren’t static. In her paper, Gelles notes how “cultural standards of beauty in India are narrowing and conforming to more international standards.” Scholar Susan Runkle describes how, in post-liberalization Bombay, actresses “[metamorphosed] into thinner, more model-like versions of their former selves” following perceived cosmopolitan trends.
I ask interviewees to describe the ideal female body. “Lean and strong,” declares Stuti. “Very thin and yet curvy,” Aditi says. Where do these ideals come from? “Models and conventionally attractive people in movies,” Stuti tells me. Aditi agrees. “Bollywood and Hollywood” she says, “and I’m sure social media plays a role.” A 2011 study conducted in Uttar Pradesh found body dissatisfaction and dietary behaviors to be higher among young women who live in urban areas as compared to rural areas, which could be attributed to increased media exposure in urban areas.
Since Pakistan and India are “pretty homogenous in terms of race and population,” Kashf says, beauty ideals are similar, emphasizing fairness and thinness. “If you’re not really thin,” she jokes, “then no one will marry you… I think most of these things, end with, like, no one will marry you.”
While there is an appalling dearth of research into body image and eating disorders in South Asia, a study assessing the internalization of cultural appearance ideals among urban adolescents found that young people tend to compare themselves with movie stars. This was strongly associated with body dissatisfaction, since “actors and actresses typically represent narrow appearance ideals (e.g., youthfulness, thick hair, fair skin).”
Moreover, Bollywood is now trending towards “increased thinness and muscularity.” “I have put on weight recently,” Riya tells me, “and that does show on my face, so when I come across someone with a more chiselled face, I get sad. I think that’s very culturally driven, especially with Instagram filters that change the shape of your face.”
Anya recalls a strange childhood experience. “I have this vivid memory of all my friends holding their arms out and comparing them,” she says, “which in retrospect was, like, very odd.” On the criticism she has received about her body, Anya says, “I definitely got a lot of crap from boyfriends growing up being like, oh, you’re not curvy enough, or you’re so flat chested.” Isn’t it weird that women are expected to have double-D’s and thicc booties without a trace of fat anywhere else, and sculpted abs and thigh gaps to boot?
“The idea of body shapes as trends is ridiculous to me,” says Riya. Ashira reflects on socialization. “I think it comes from culture and media,” she says. “Like, on Instagram it’s become such a trend to have a big butt now where it wasn’t before. With influencers like Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj getting butt implants you feel like, woah, this is attractive.”
As the thinness ideal proliferates, discrimination against fat bodies does the same. Ameya Nagarajan, an Indian fat acceptance advocate and podcaster, writes on fat acceptance: “It is the idea that all bodies are good bodies, that fat bodies can perform headstands and run races and dance swing, just like anyone else. It is the radical thought that we can all be just the way we are, and our bodies don’t determine our virtue.”
“I wish I was taller,” Kashf says. “My sister is slightly taller than me and it drives me insane.” Tallness is, apparently, yet another ideal South Asian women are held to. However, “there is a certain point at which height ceases to be a positive and becomes a disadvantage,” Gelles notes. “Men often refuse to marry women who are taller than them […] so tall women are only considered potential marriage partners by even taller men.”
Then there is hairlessness, which, according to Gelles, “is considered almost a baseline for beauty despite the fact that it is one of the most unnatural aspects of appearance.” “I remember in the sixth grade [an older boy] made a comment about my mustache,” says Meera Patel*, a twenty-one-year-old from Mumbai. “It made me feel horrible about my body hair. I’ve occasionally been made fun of for having bushy eyebrows and for having acne, but I think that’s all part of growing up.”
Similarly, Riya shares how, when she was a teenager and experiencing hormonal acne, people would make hurtful remarks and offer unsolicited treatments. “Even if they were coming from a good place, it still hurts, right?” she says. “Besides, it’s a normal part of growing up.”
Gelles explains how narrowing ideals and body policing, like the kind Meera and Riya experienced, disempower women: “Women have fewer choices, and experience greater pressure to fit into an increasingly tight mold of conventional beauty ideals. If all women are expected to lack body hair, for example, women who choose to retain theirs have to give up on being considered attractive, whereas if this expectation did not exist, women who wanted to remove their body hair could choose to do so with no consequences.”
Those women who are unable to, or choose not to, conform to society’s ideals experience humiliation and helplessness due to body shaming. Devanshi Kanoi, 27, grew up in Kolkata. She shares her experience with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), a hormonal disorder that can cause menstrual irregularity, weight gain, acne, and excess body hair. “When I was twenty-three and suffering from PCOS,” she says, “I experienced weight gain, acne, and increased body hair. Back then, I was studying in Singapore and eating salad and working out every day, but I couldn’t lose the weight. When I returned to India, people made remarks like, “look at how much body hair you have,” or “look how fat you’ve got,” or “how will you get married if you don’t take care of your skin?” I would just be like, okay, you’re coming from a mean place. You don’t understand what I’m going through. It’s not that I’m not taking care of my body; this is an illness. Suffering from PCOS is difficult because it has no cure, and yet girls are shamed for it. This is something I’ve experienced.”
I wonder about women who like their appearances. “I don’t have a lot of body image issues because people always compliment my thinness,” says Devangi Maheshwari, a twenty-one-year-old from Mumbai. Stuti says, “I think I meet conventional ideals, which is why I’m satisfied with the way I look. Not the best thing to admit but it’s true.” And Aditi says that she doesn’t aspire to be fair or tall. “I’ll admit that this is because I’m fair and tall by Indian standards, so I’ve never felt targeted by these ideals.” This small set of responses links body satisfaction with conformity to conventional ideals.
In Ashira’s case, changing her appearance to meet ever-shifting standards improved her overall body image. “I struggled with body image a lot while I was growing up because I was overweight until the twelfth grade,” she says. “I think my body image is better now, but that can be attributed to me losing weight and changing my appearance drastically. But I also think I have a healthier view of body image now and am more at peace with my appearance”
How can we make peace with our bodies while living within systems that inspire self-loathing?
“I think things that have helped me are being surrounded by beautiful women who look like me,” says Anya. “At home, my doctor is seventy-two and she models. A lot of the women in my family are very beautiful and interesting.”
“I do think as you get older you tend to worry about it less,” Kashf reflects. “I’ve definitely felt that way.”
“I know that it’s all a façade,” Stuti tells me. “No one naturally looks gorgeous, and it takes a whole team of people to produce gorgeousness. That’s not authentic beauty and it has taken a lot of cultivation and effort and treatment. So, while I know where my ideals come from, I know they aren’t realistic.”
Personally, I have found body neutrality to be a useful concept. Body neutrality means placing less emphasis on appearance and merely accepting our bodies for what they do for us. Cultivating gratitude for my body and for the experiences it allows me to have, rather than forcing myself to love it in a way that feels disingenuous, has helped. I struggle with chronic depression and some days I can’t find it in me to tame the nest frizzing atop my head or to dab on life-giving color and three coats of mascara. Sometimes it’s hard to get myself to shower or even just get out of bed. I try to remind myself that my body is sticking with me through these slumps, that I won’t always feel pretty and that’s fine because prettiness is constructed, always shifting, always impossible. But my body is here today and it’ll be here tomorrow, when I’m feeling a bit better and can walk myself off Nassau to try the new Bent Spoon flavor. Isn’t that something to be grateful for?
It also helps to turn self-loathing outward by raging against systems of body shame that reduce us to our appearances. Philosopher Susan Sontag writes, “To be called beautiful is thought to name something essential to women’s character and concerns. (In contrast to men—whose essence is to be strong, or effective, or competent) […] The way women are taught to be involved with beauty encourages narcissism, reinforces dependence and immaturity.” We continue to be conditioned to prioritize beauty above other aspects of our identities. When I’m feeling fragile, my divergence from conventional ideals makes me feel like I’m worth a lot less than I truly am. Can we imagine a world in which a woman’s whole and nuanced being isn’t reduced to “something essential” based in beauty?
I was struck by the gentle wisdom of Bangalore-based essayist Soumya John, who has struggled with anorexia and crippling body shame. Writing on fatphobia, she urges: “Remember that people’s bodies change over time […] While considering health, know that weight stigma has proven to cause more harm than weight itself and as fat activist Aubrey Gordon often says, health is personal, complex, incidental, and transient. So, tell yourself that all bodies are good bodies, and a fat body is not a work in progress. Most of all, think of the human beings these bodies wrap themselves around. Find a way to see them, to stand up for them, and to choose kindness. You could be the difference they need.”
*Names have been changed where requested to maintain anonymity.