Sriya was 16 when she had her first boyfriend. She met him at a boarding school in Mysore, in the 11th grade. Relationships were not allowed in their school, but they managed to meet secretly. “At first everything was fine, he was sweet to me. But slowly he started doing things to make me feel bad. He said he wanted a girlfriend who was better looking. He wanted me to lose weight, and even said my breasts were too small.” Sriya was scared of losing her boyfriend, so she tried to change her body. “I tried to lose some weight and it worked, I became smaller. But it wasn’t enough for him. He kept teasing me about my chubby arms and flat chest.”
Sriya’s story is not out of the ordinary. Many young girls start to experience body shaming as a teenager. These cruel remarks can come from friends and family, or even partners. Getting teased by peers and partners can be especially difficult, because young people are easily concerned about whether other people find them attractive or not. This becomes worse because of how the media promotes a certain body type. The ideal female body is often tall and slightly curvy, but without any belly fat. Most popular women in the movie industry are also light skinned with long, flowing hair.
A lot of what we see in the media is achieved through make-up, lighting and photoshop.
The vast majority of women cannot and do not look like this. The problem begins when women start to believe that not looking like this makes them inadequate for a relationship. In Sriya’s case, she began to believe that she was unattractive and that her boyfriend was right in insulting her. He would tell her that “no man wants a girlfriend who is chubby and doesn’t have curves in the right places.” And Sriya believed this, because she noticed how she did not like the women in advertisements or movies, who are considered attractive.
“I wanted to look like the models I saw. I would apologise to my boyfriend for being fat and promised I would change.” While she did lose some weight, she was pressured by her boyfriend to lose more. She started eating less and less, and even skipped meals entirely. “I thought that by losing weight, he would love me, but of course I was wrong. He became worse and worse, he would ask me why I looked so tired and pale. He would fight with me and say he can’t marry an ugly girl.”
Body image issues can become worse because of the belief that you can only be in a relationship if you are good looking. In the Indian context, our ideas about romance come from movies. And in most movies, the hero only falls in love with the woman who is tall, thin, fair and stunningly beautiful. Sometimes the heroine even goes through a makeover before the hero notices her. The pressure on women to look beautiful is extreme. And it’s not just in the movies- matchmaking websites, wedding portfolios and wedding advertisements also have high demand for women who are ‘slim, fair and beautiful.’
Finally, Sriya fell seriously ill from not eating and was hospitalized for a week. She was underweight, malnourished and her immunity was at an all time low. “I can’t believe I did that to myself just to become beautiful,” Sriya admits. She wishes she had known the importance of finding a partner who accepted her as she is. Eating disorders are an invisible disease in modern society, and it usually affects women. For many girls and women, the eating disorder starts because of pressure in a relationship, or a belief that they are not attractive enough for a partner.
The only way we can fight eating disorders and poor body image is by promoting self love, body positivity and accepting relationships. Sriya dropped out from school for a semester to get her health back on track. During this time, she found articles about body positivity online. “I realised that my health and happiness is the most important thing. I don’t have to look like a model, most people don’t look like models- that doesn’t mean they can’t be in a happy relationship. A relationship has to feel good, it shouldn’t break you apart.” Sriya broke up with her boyfriend soon after. Once she got her health back, she understood how important it was to accept her body. ‘Not eating food made me sick and tired. I needed to love myself and care for my body, not force it to become something it is not for another person.’
Sriya has now successfully finished school and is now enrolled in a BA program. She wants more girls to have good body image, and spread awareness about how dangerous beauty standards can be. “I don’t want any other girl to fall sick like I did. I don’t want any other girl to be in a relationship that makes them hate themselves. Before loving anyone else, it is important to love yourself and your body first.’ A good relationship should not make you insecure. Instead, it should help you see past your flaws and allow you to realize your beauty and accept yourself.