Being bullied for my weight is the earliest memory I have of school. Being told that “you’re a fat tub of lard…” is my strongest memory of an interaction with a trusted relative from my formative years. Throughout my school years I hid in classrooms and libraries so I could avoid the verbal, sometimes physical hostility, from some of my peers. I was weak for I had not known what strength was. I was not empowered for I could not find my voice. I was lost for solutions because I hid what hurt me day in and day out.
So – when a little while ago I made a Meer Monday promise of writing something about body image, I had naturally considered the trajectory of childhood obesity, associated playground bullying and the challenges of social exclusion and discrimination manifesting into low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
However, I am painfully reminded on a regular basis that the ridicule, bullying and victimisation has not ended on the concreted playgrounds of our educational institutions. It transgresses and follows us into our adult lives, work spaces, social spaces and worst of all, the havens that we call home and family.
So it stands to reason that we talk about all of that today. However, before we proceed, I would like to offer disclaimers. This extended monologue is NOT about the scientific reasons of obesity or indeed, any short-cut solutions. It is a narrative, which focuses on the effects of negative experiences pertaining to body image and societal reactions.
I have deviated from my usual clinical style of writing, which is succinct, factual and usually drawing upon statistics. Instead, there shall be an outpour of personal experience with the intentions of giving an insider’s view of what is wrong with and what needs to be focused upon in order to nurture a society, which can move beyond its stereotypes and prejudices.
I was at a wedding over the weekend and was reprimanded on an individual’s inability for “not recognising you…you have gained so much weight, how did you let yourself go?”, as well as being the comedic interval for some “Oh, so fat you have gotten, max lol” (then said individual proceeded to do a King Kong expression). The best ones are of course the aunties with the life changing advice of “Eat salads and go to the gym”. I could applaud such astute and gifted advice.
Some of them are even quite concerned about your life moving forward, “You know, if you don’t lose weight then you shall only get married to someone like you”. What? To a progressive liberal who has been emancipated through the culmination of his life experiences leading him to accept and love humanity based on the credentials of their personality, moral values and NOT their dress size? Thank you Aunty, I shall have one of them to go right now.
Not having a friend until college years challenged my concepts of healthy friendships and relationships. The longest running cognitive defect I have carried has been the lack of self-worth and believing that I do not deserve friends, do not deserve kindness and do not deserve love because of how I look. It was not until I was in Oxford that I found the most fundamental aspect of an individual’s social growth and progress – the facilitation of accepting of oneself wholly; recognition for the value of one’s existence and most importantly NOT being apologetic about it.
How did that come to be for me? I was lucky to find a group of friends who looked beyond physical appearances. They recognised me for what I had to offer regarding my values, ideologies and most importantly, the quality of friendship. They have fiercely challenged my biases against myself and reprimanded me against the unkindness I have shown myself.
The outcome of this is a thirty-one-year-old unmarried overweight brown female who values and believes in herself and her contribution to the lives of those individuals who are linked to her (oh, and she now has a tendency of owning the dance floor once she gets the moves going – thank you, Abhilasha).
The perceptive ones amongst you will have noted the references made to certain parameters of age, race and marital status. All of these are further examples of artefacts that have no real significance except being arbitrary descriptors, which are utilised to judge and draw an irrelevant correlation to the worth of an individual’s existence. Unfortunately, these artefacts will continue to plague individuals and their self-worth unless a conscious effort is made to alter this.
So where do we begin? Firstly, challenge yourself. Do you hold discriminatory values? Do you make jest of an individual’s personal features be it weight, appearance, mannerisms etc? Do you laugh at the fat jokes, black jokes, gay jokes, sexist jokes? Stop doing it and where appropriate (hint: appropriate at ALWAYS) make an apology for your decorum.
Secondly, identify bullying behaviour. Is this happening in your child’s school or playground? Is this happening in your home? Who is it happening to? How is this affecting them? Challenge such behaviour – do it with kindness but with assertiveness.
Thirdly, educate. I firmly believe that a moral education begins long before a child enters school, in the confines of their home and personal environment. Teach them about acceptance, kindness and eradicate archaic social concepts of what a right and wrong body should look like. Show them how to empower those who are broken and vulnerable. Enable them to create spaces of fairness and justice, where bullies are challenged.
Fourthly, challenge institutions. Schools, colleges and universities are sacred intellectual spaces. Their responsibility does not stop once the examination papers have been handed in. They are a key component in shaping the environment where individuals grow, develop their sense of personality and find their social standing. Arguably it therefore becomes our duty to ensure our intellectual spaces facilitate anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies. Expect these institutions, which have a moral and legal obligation to safeguard our children, to gather information of the social practices within their grounds and inform us about the experiences of our youth. Only then we can collectively attempt to make individual experiences better and not lead people down paths of doubt, low self esteem and broken morale.
-by Dr Huma R Khan