To my Body
I would have addressed you as ‘Dear’ but perhaps we both know how complicated that would be.
I always believed that you were wrong with me, I needed a different body – more feminine, ‘womanly’, ‘approved body’ but all you looked like was a hung up YouTube video frame.
My breasts have this immense capability to withstand pain. When I feel like my emotional intelligence can’t endure this pain, I beat my breasts. Like a cloth-washing bat.
You say, that my size is XS for every brand and how hypocritical of me, a feminist, to base my standards on Vogue. That train of thought is just the corner of my intellectual brain where gender studies is stored. My hatred is from the more primal, the more desperate need to be loved.
I have accepted these bits of me because Madonna says ‘poor is the man (woman), whose pleasure depends on the permission of another’ and I see her point now. I don’t need any stamps of my gender conformity.
Over the years I’ve heard about 10 million ways of losing weight. From teachers, colleagues, friends, parents to uncles and aunties I hadn’t met in a decade, to auto wallahs who drop me to college. Some of them would say ‘Madam daud lagaya karo warna shaadi nahi hogi’. (‘Madam, you need to run a lot or you can’t get married.’)
Till I remove all this invasive hair, I could never be loved or so I believed at 15 – with thick glasses, hips the size of a South American country, a belly pouch, thick thighs, a gentle moustache.
After all, I couldn’t see anything without glasses. My lover could. And since then, I’ve had many.
They’ve cupped parts of you in their hands and sipped, sucked, stroked, entered. They’ve written poems to your smell, and popped up as g-chat window fantasies of seeing you undressed. I never believe a word. When I have my own fantasies, I superimpose on you a 15 year old Thai porn star with soap on her body.
Yesterday, I masturbated you for the first time in your 34 years on earth. I felt awfully guilty.
When Bhamati and I received the first letters for the Love Letter to the Body Campaign, many of them were from our closest friends. We had known them for years, and yet suddenly, we felt like we violently entered a deep, secret wounded place we had never seen or imagined before. This experience is not uniquely ours. Many women, we quickly realised, have extremely complex and difficult relationships with their bodies. And many of us believe deep inside that it is objectively true that we are objectively flawed.
We are women who seemingly asked all the right questions at the right ages. At 18, I stood on the streets of Bangalore in hot pants with a group of other women determined to ‘reverse the male gaze’. I pretended to have finished The Second Sex. We are gender trainers. We’ve wondered how our mothers managed. (They never wax.) And what it’s like for straight men.
And yet, when it comes to our bodies, vaginas, breasts, we have a disconcerting sense.
Bhamati still doesn’t like being photographed. She doesn’t like to ‘be herself’ and is not comfortable with posing. She has internalised the idea that one has to ‘pose’ for a photograph for it to turn right.
Is it shame? Self-hatred, love-hatred, guilt, denial, longing? Some of all this, I think.
For me, it has been ten years of peeling open the layers of inherited shame and the involuntary adoption of photo-shopped standards. A mild embracing of the audacity of self-esteem that has become increasingly daring but remains fragile, subject to doubt and insecurities that keep creeping in from some dark and unknown abyss of my psyche.
As the letters kept piling up, we noticed that the relationship our friends have with their bodies has little to do with their looks, their fierce independence, liberal politics, education, whether they are virgins or not, how many lovers they have had. The cause of our troubles is deeper.
So-called ‘Body Image Issues’ are also not restricted only to elite women who read fashion magazines in beauty salons. ‘Body Image Issues’ are all pervasive across class, caste, culture, age, gender identity and constitute various shades of self-hatred that at its worst can result in anorexia, bulimia or even suicide. At its most benign and familiar, it’s the nagging low drone of internal voices telling you every day, how to be. Be fair. Be tan. Be hairless. Be skinny. Be voluptuous. Be busty. Be less busty. Be smooth skinned. Be young. Be sexy. Keep your virginity. Lose your virginity. Be pure. Be Perfect.
While women in India and around the world are certainly faced with more severe and overt violence like sexual harassment and rape, the impact of body insecurity is deeper than just being a little self-conscious about the way one looks.
Often, it leads us to become disembodied. It creates a disconnection from the body. Shame about our body causes us to walk, think, and be apologetic. Fear about weight gives us a distorted relationship with the food we eat. It takes up psychological space. It inhibits our sexuality. And with cellulite on your mind, you can hardly trigger a revolution. Eve Ensler, says ‘there’s this tyranny that’s not accidental or incidental’, to make women aspire to look like someone they are not to take our time and attention from important political issues.
The feminine form, in women and in men has been feared, loathed and obsessed about since the beginning of memory, controlled through countless methods and traditions such as cutting the clitoris, covering up or uncovering the body for religion, caste or culture, through rape as a weapon of war or to enforce social dominance. While these are very overt examples of the ways in which the female body is dominated, it could be argued that this constant distortion of our natural relationship with our bodies by popular culture images is a very advanced and contemporary weapon in the age old war on the female body. A weapon that is – precisely because of its subtlelty – most effective and destructive.
Virginia Woolf believed that no woman had succeeded in writing the truth of the experience of her own body – and that women and language had to change considerably before that could happen. That may not be true anymore for any gender even as our internal voice renders us objectively flawed. You, reading this, may be someone who has a great relationship with your body. Or not. Imagine, anyway, for a moment that you don’t judge yourself because of the way your body naturally is. Discard your intellect momentarily. Discard political correctness. Imagine embracing yourself -‘flaws’ and all. Our love letter is an initiation to healing and a reclaiming of our strength. To me, writing about my body was un-photoshopping parts I simply denied, it was a loving verbal photographing of her curves, bruises and beauty. It was an initiation to healing and acceptance.
Let us write a letter and set ourselves free on paper. A love letter to make peace with our body and embrace our many ways of being beautiful.
The letters are exhibited as Love Letter to the Body installations. We are also seeking to compile diverse voices on our relationship to our bodies into a book.
About the Campaign:
The Love Letter to the Body campaign is an independent initiative by Bhamati Sivapalan and Yamini Deenadayalan. Bhamati and Yamini have been part of Blank Noise for several years and lead experiential gender workshops in schools, colleges and organizations. To get in touch or volunteer, please email at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
*There are no rules. Write in whatever language that you want. Express yourself freely. Be personal, irreverent, angsty, angry, sad, happy, explicit, accepting – whatever you are feeling at the moment and send your letters to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Although this project has been conceived from our personal experiences as urban Indian women, The Letter to the Body Project welcomes voices from all genders, nationalities and languages. Your letters will be displayed in Love Letter to the Body Installations, and may be published.
PS: You can leave your letters anonymous or choose to write your name. Once you have submitted it to us, we reserve the right to use them in our exhibitions, blog or publications.
Image courtesy Yamini Deenadayalan