I remember seeing her give a talk a few years ago. She was a confident, passionate, beautiful South Asian woman on her way to becoming a physician. Her talk was part of a panel discussion on gender violence and she was the youngest to be presenting. I introduced myself after the session, and during our conversation an older South Asian woman from the panel came over to speak to her as well. To my surprise it wasn’t about the skill she had demonstrated speaking in front of a large audience.
It was about her supposed weight problem.
The healthy looking young woman had done an exceptional job speaking about a very complex topic. Yet the auntie only found critical words to share. “What has happened to your weight!?” she exclaimed.
I couldn’t believe it.
Or could I?
As a young girl I remember being barraged with the same question by aunties in the community, and my own amma. Over the years I’ve come to wonder how South Asian women seem to only have two things on their mind. First, your marriage. Second, how you look. “You’ve become too fat!” or “You’ve become too thin!” they inevitably exclaim. On the rare occasion your weight cannot be reduced to a problem, you’re forewarned your body size and shape will only worsen. “Don’t expect to look like a Bollywood heroine when you’re older!” Not surprisingly, the boys were rarely subjected to the same level of criticism.
At the age of 30 I still find myself navigating this negative interplay between South Asian women. I’ve asked my amma several times why she concerns herself so much with my weight. As a health professional, I know my weight is fine. But when she inquires so dramatically why my size is no longer a Y and is now a Z or why it dropped to an X, I often get upset. Her words reduce me to insecure and unhealthy.
In retaliation, she scolds me and tells me I shouldn’t be so negatively affected by what she says. “I’m your mother! I only love you and think good thoughts about you!” She uses her words deliberately. Her love has no boundaries and her words must be accepted. I believe my mother doesn’t mean to be critical of how I look. Yet her words crawl under my skin. And though they try to find a way out, a shadow has remained.
Days after the panel, I met the young woman for dinner. After a nice meal and heartfelt conversation, I drove her home. Upon reaching her apartment, we started talking about the panel. The young woman’s voice became soft. She wondered aloud why the auntie had been so critical of her weight. I tried to laugh it off, saying the auntie was ridiculous. “You know how aunties are. Just ignore her. If anything you are the complete opposite.”
I immediately realized my mistake. The young woman began sobbing uncontrollably. She begged for words of comfort as if I were only the most recent of many provocateurs to trigger her struggle. “Am I really too fat? Or wait…too thin? Do I look okay? Do you think I look healthy?” She couldn’t stop crying and the right words to console her wouldn’t be found.
I’ll never forget that evening. Having heard the critiques of my own weight as a girl of 9, a teenager of 17 and now a woman of 30, I feel lucky. I don’t have the same visceral reaction the young woman had that night with a complete stranger, nor do I struggle with unhealthy behaviors like overeating or anorexia. But the inability to ‘be just fine’ in the eyes of South Asian women in my own community affects me. I think about how I look more than I’d like and I often wonder if I’ve a problem with how I relate to food.
I’m certain that I’m not alone in this. I’m also certain, as women, we’ve the power to find words of encouragement instead of criticism for our daughters.
The panel on gender violence discussed the contribution which women make in propagating violence. Presenters noted the irony of women being common culprits of violence against other women in South Asian communities across the globe. I believe the ritual of criticism about our bodies is a form of violence within our community and it needs to end. As women we should be protecting each other by honoring our daughters and their bodies. If we do not, we do more than breed insecurity and low self-esteem. We perpetuate unhealthy fixation about the body, debilitating depression, life-threatening eating disorders and even suicide.
*Akka is a first-generation Indian American woman in a clinical doctorate program for nurse-midwifery. She is a licensed RN, certified family planning and HIV counselor, and has an MPH in International & Maternal-Child Health.