Of late, I've discovered the joys of nudity. Don't get me wrong, I don't walk the streets in the buff or even roam around my home naked. Sorry to disappoint at least some of you, but it's only within the confines of my own bedroom.
After a long day at work, in this hot and humid climate, there's no greater pleasure than to kick off your shoes, undress and take a long, cold shower. Usually that's followed by getting dressed again, but, of late, I have begun to linger. I don't immediately put my clothes on.
I not only enjoy feeling cool this way, but, in this fourth decade of my life, I also feel comfortable in my skin. I am finally accepting of my body and my appearance. And this post is testimony- and millions of women will vouch for it - that it's a long, uphill battle getting here, if one does get here at all.
Time to rewind. I must've been 8 yrs old when I was first made acutely aware of how I looked. Over an argument with mom, I must've tried to give her a dirty look. With a half-indulgent, half-mocking smile which only a parent can perfect, she said, "If only you had larger eyes, you'd have killed me with that look."
I had the wind taken out of my sails. And the seed of a deep-seated awareness of my looks - or lack of them - was irreversibly implanted.
This lack of good looks was a constant refrain in my growing-up years. As I stepped into my awkward teens with the usual acute hyper-awareness of my body, some measure of faith in my looks was restored by compliments which started coming my way. In the first flush of youth everyone looks pretty, I imagine - yet this was not enough to wash away the deep-seated self-doubt.
And so it has been for me, as it is, I suppose, for most women. And it doesn't end with the natural- born physical features one is resigned to as one's fate. It extends to the overall appearance of a woman. For instance, picking what clothes to wear isn't always about being dressed appropriately for the occasion, or present a decent front, or even look well-groomed.
A woman must conform to the expectations of femininity from her. She must work it to advance in life. Even if she gets ahead by doing what men do, she's called a bitch. If she isn't pretty, it's assumed that she won't get too far in life. If she does, she's plain lucky.
Women are almost always performing femininity. Being feminine is a state that one is not born into, rather it is acquired over the years. And there is so much that goes into building that image. It doesn't end with the looks one is born with. It is in every gesture a girl makes growing up. And it is constantly reinforced by closely policing her posture as she sits, moves, walks, places her body not just in the public space but also in the private sphere.
Marriage, which is supposed to be the “ultimate goal” of a woman's life, is also highly dependent on looks. Not only will a better-looking girl fetch a better groom but the quality of her life post-marriage is also supposed to be better as a result.
A woman of better appearance has a head start in life. Cue the multi billion dollar industry that works to make us more presentable in every possible way, from shaping our bodies, to grooming us. And of course there are the dozens of medical interventions which have now evolved for the purpose.
Then, as if the traditional views of society which uphold these ideals of femininity were not bad enough to make us feel miserable, there's also the bane of modern advertising which perpetuates ideals of beauty impossible to attain.
The influence of advertising is pernicious, with its deep reach into our psyche. As if looking well turned out wasn't hard enough, we now have to contend with norms of the wafer-thin body type. As for the hyper-sexualised and the “come hither” images bombarding us every waking moment, it’s as if always being ready for sex is a natural state to be in. Not only are these images fixated in the minds of men, we women internalise them too.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which leads to, or is linked with, anorexia or bulimia and even cutting and other forms of self harm, is related to body image or how one perceives oneself, regardless of how one really looks, or appears to others. What many fail to grasp is that these disorders can be fatal. Of course men suffer from these disorders too, but the overwhelming majority are women.
Often men have told me : why bother about it, why care about what others think of you. Well, if it's the way you've been trained to think,internalizing it from the time you were a toddler, it's what you do.
Over the years, there have been battles about this in my head. And I've lost most of them. Only of late, with detailed and in-depth discussions, and some internal growth, have I come to the conclusion that what I look like doesn't determine who I am, the person. And yes I'm unique, and attractive in my own way. My nose may not be perfect, or my forehead too broad, but it's what makes me. The person I am is identified by these and so am I.
I'm still not perfectly happy with the way I look but I've made my peace with it. We are getting along alright now, my body and I.