Prescribed Reflections

Vaishnavi Sreenivas
17 Aug 2018

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Like any red-blooded teenager, I was very conscious of my body throughout high school, but despite hating myself in pictures I would still look at the mirror and see some level of beauty. Looking back now I wonder how that was even possible. I wasn’t overweight by the definition of the word but I was definitely not the societal definition of thin or ‘fit’ either. I had made peace with my skin color and always imagined myself to be average looking.

I would resign myself to wearing clothes that would be ‘appropriate’ for someone of my size despite wishing deep in my heart that I could squeeze myself into those crop tops and tiny shorts. I would keep my dark brown arms next to my ‘fair as a lily’ friend’s and feel a tiny burn in my heart. I would also stare longingly at the older, thinner girls with long silky hair and in my head, I would always imagine myself like that in fantasies.

In spite of all that, my real reflection in the mirror looked utterly different from the pictures that were supposed to be me. When I asked my mother if I was fat (fat being associated to ugly in my head) and if I was beautiful she had always retorted swiftly with a “Of course you’re not fat, you’re my beautiful girl.”

A few years after that, I left for college and within a year I shed a ton of weight. I was significantly thinner and my complexion had cleared out to a smooth milk chocolate color. This luckily coincided with the time that the beauty of darker skin was being celebrated in pop culture and fashion. Brown and dusky was no longer equated to ugly as much and more power was being preached for all the colors.

So now when I looked at the mirror I would see myself as above average. I could now wear whatever I wanted and I would not lose a single opportunity to show off my new and ‘improved’ body. People could not stop commenting on how good I looked and how much weight I had lost.

With the sea of appreciations, I began to realize how fat I actually was before. I began to wonder how I even felt pretty then. I looked at my older pictures and recoiled. People made jokes about my old appearance and I joined them in the mirth. But I couldn’t help but cringe at the question, was this how people viewed me before?

Since then I feared every little kilo that I put on and stressed over the little love handle that appeared at my waist now and then. My biggest fear became gaining back all that weight. While my younger self would never have felt as confident as I did in my newer body, she wouldn’t have been as negatively obsessed with its tiny changes as me either.

Our struggles with beauty and body image seem to be highly personal and universal at the same time. While most body positivity messages push for self-love and acceptance that comes from within, people do still rely heavily on what others say.

I never thought my body was that much of a problem when I was younger simply because that idea didn’t reflect as much from my surroundings. My family always made positive remarks and my friends never really cared much about what I looked like. So it seemed only natural that my reservations about my body were limited to what the media portrayed.

Shedding weight seemed to have become the turning point as my immediate surroundings began to dump their opinions about my ‘bigger’ body as being something to be ashamed of. Immediately I was more conscious and careful about my appearance. When a specific image that I was supposed to maintain was thrust at my face through many small actions and comments, I internalized a negative body image that never affected me when I never ascribed to it.

I realized that I could love my body because others said I could.

The inclusion of different body types, skin colors, etc., in popular cultures which shape the sense of beauty in society seems to be showing the inherent impossibility of self-love without social acceptance. I could see my dark skin as beautiful because parts of the changing society can now see dark skin as beautiful.

It is true what they say – beauty standards are just made-up repressive systems enforced by old and outdated societal structures. However, these are so deeply ingrained in us that dismissing them does not become an option at all. Changing these standards itself seems to be what can empower us. While this is a pleasant goal to strive towards, it nevertheless reveals the fragile human nature that makes it so that we can love ourselves only when someone else gives us the permission to do so.

Image credits: Tumblr

Vaishnavi Sreenivas

I love stories in all shapes and forms. I love telling them, writing them, listening to them, reading them and watching them. It's how I justify binge-watching shows without a sense of time. Youtube and Tumblr aesthetics: top guilty pleasures.

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