Body shaming in Indian Schools: A can of worms that needs to be ripped open

In one of the scenes from the exceedingly successful 2019 film, Kabir Singh, the titular character says to his love interest, “You know these healthy chicks, they’re like teddy bears. Warm, loyal. Good looking chick and healthy chick – trust me it’s a great combination. This friendship will work”. He body shames the girl and reduces her existence to her physical appearance. This is one of the numerous examples of legitimization of body-shaming in popular media, especially films, within the context of an educational institute. Over the last few years, mediatized representations of bodies, and especially female bodies, has come under scrutiny for promoting a specific type of body as beautiful, desirable and lovable. But is it only the media we need to blame for propagating and sustaining these standards?

There is a depressing dearth of research available on the culture that exists within schools in India. Like most formal institutions, the school’s aura, status and image precede it’s reality. It exists within a bubble. What happens at school, stays at school. I grew up hearing things like, “school time is the best time”, “school friends are for life” and “school memories never fade”. Never did I come across a critical anecdote, leave alone a critical discourse. Not surprisingly, as an adolescent struggling to cope with body dysmorphia during a time when it was changing rapidly, I found myself extremely conflicted between what I was supposed to feel and what I was actually feeling. I remember being overweight for most of my years at school because I was never allowed to forget this fact. “Gendi”, “Moti”, “Saand” were just some of the words used to address me. In a study published in 2020, author Rahul Gam and others found that a total of 44.9% of participants (students between the ages 14-18 at a school in Lucknow) admitted to having experienced body shaming at least once in the past year. 

For a lot of school-going adolescents, the environment of school can be toxic. Not only are they expected to perform well academically, but also look physically appealing and ‘presentable’ while doing it. While body shaming is largely perpetrated by fellow students and peers, participants also include teachers who protect, promote and validate it publicly. While I was researching for this article, I found no recorded evidence of teacher-to-student harassment in India, which for a moment made me feel like my lived experience wasn’t real. Not just mine, but of many others who were told to just ‘suck it up’ and move on. Teachers would openly comment about students’ physical appearance. It wasn’t just limited to comments about general appearance either, the scrutiny was specific and directed. Girls would get remarks about their thighs, breasts, arms, waists, faces, necks and even fingers. Boys, too, were targets of this form of bullying by teachers. The comments were snarky in nature, which granted permission to fellow onlookers to laugh and pass more comments. 

Nothing was off-limits. Somehow, the body became the representative of the person. The body shaming became conversational, so normal that one might mistake the bullying for being a general discussion about the weather. The teachers were cruel with impunity. Highlighting the physical attributes of a student that didn’t fit into the acceptable prototype seemed to be a little less than a recreational activity for them. In a video released by Brut India on 17th February 2021, Mansi Poddar, a psychotherapist, shared her experiences of bullying by teachers that led to a nervous breakdown and suicide ideation. Many comments below the video resonated with her and corroborated that this was the prevalent culture in most school environments. 

The one friend I had in school faced body shaming by teachers too, and it led her to crash diet throughout her first year of college. It only stopped when she fainted at a metro station and realized how dangerous that could have been. She often shared with me how she remembered every single taunt she had to endure at the hands of teachers and students. I’m sure there were many others; a few months ago I wrote a facebook post about a teacher who was particularly brutal and someone from the same school reached out to me saying that she too had been body shamed by this teacher. 

The body shaming itself wasn’t just limited to fat, thin, tall and short, it included skin color, body hair and facial symmetry too. India’s obsession with fair skin (Mishra, 2015; Thappa & Malathi, 2014) doesn’t park itself outside the doors of schools. In fact, schools breed and harbor different forms of discrimination with much lesser scrutiny. Afterall, the people populating its space are products of the same social constructs that exist outside its boundaries. The purpose of education should be to empower young minds to question and eventually break the shackles of regressive social structures and practices, including discriminatory thought-processes. But what happens when the teachers responsible for being the catalysts of change collectively become the force holding it back?

After a decade of leaving school, I’ve finally gathered the courage to question its culture. Why do teachers bully their students? Why is cruelty, anger, criticism and judgement the norm rather than compassion and empathy? Why does school as an institution place so much importance on physical appearance? Why is harassment in all its different forms so normalized? 

It’s important to understand that school happens to be the place where different social, cultural, economic, religious and physical identities converge. India is a diverse country. There is diversity even within a city. Therefore, each individual comes with their own built-in configuration and way of understanding the world. Educators and practitioners of pedagogy need to be sensitive towards each individual and what they bring to the space. That of course, would require them to first educate themselves about issues that affect children and adolescents, mental health and physical wellness being some of the many. Unfortunately, teachers in India tend to become a part of the same cycle of abuse that we as a society need to be fighting against. They may not plant the seeds of intolerance and hate, but they do water them instead of trying to weed them out. They may not be the initiators of abuse and harassment in a child’s life, but they do participate in it rather than protect against it. Perhaps they don’t realize that these experiences shape children in semi-permanent ways. Some struggle to overcome the trauma they experienced in school for many years to come. (Arzt, 2019)

In an article in 2019, author Rohit Kumar wrote “In the case of the classroom, while it is imperative for the bullied to stand up to the bully and for the bystander to get involved – show solidarity with the victim and also stand up to the bully – the onus for dismantling the culture of bullying in the classroom and replacing it with a culture of care and empathy actually lies with the class teacher”

He asserts that it’s only when the teachers want it to stop, that the bullying actually stops. If they don’t, then they’re complicit in promoting this toxic culture. 

The first step to initiate any change is to engage in a dialogue. It’s time to smash the privilege and its benefits that schools at large enjoy in society, and critically question the culture they promote. They need to be held accountable for their treatment of children and adolescents far more than they are. Kids aren’t just future investments or possible toppers whose ultimate goal is to have their faces printed in newspapers for scoring well or getting a good job, they are complex, multi-layered and highly perceptive human beings who deserve respect, love and compassion, and do not deserve to feel threatened in the very environment they’re expected to excel in.

Dear Indian Parents, why so entitled?

Now this is something I feel I need to talk about, especially in the context of our society. I haven’t written in a while and my writing skill has become quite rusty, but I have been feeling extremely confused, hurt and misguided lately and I needed to vent. So, coming to the question I am trying to pose – Dear Indian parents, why are you so entitled? Why do you think that you are entitled to your kid’s love, respect, obedience, compliance and support? Why do you think that your kid, in some way, is obligated to make you happy?

Because you went through pain to have them? Because you invested time, money, emotions and energy into raising them? Because you made sacrifices and compromises? Because you fought with others to keep them happy and safe? Because you put their well-being above your own? So now that they’re a little grown up and have a mind of their own, you expect something in return for everything you did? Wait. Was this arrangement supposed to work in this investment-ROI like fashion? Why wasn’t I told?

Before addressing the core issue here (which is extremely unhealthy and screwed up) I would like to pose another question – Why do people decide to have kids? Is it because you are already in a happy place in life, and feel emotionally, mentally and financially secure and strong enough to be able to share love with another human being without expecting anything in return or is it because you’re extremely unhappy with your life and feel that a kid will make it better? or because you’re lonely? or because you’re too bored in life and want a ‘project’ to work on? or because you can’t stand your spouse and want a reason to stay in the marriage? or because you are concerned about your old-age? or because you want someone else to fulfill your incomplete dreams? or because you want to fill a void in your life?

What is it?

I truly feel that people don’t decide to become ‘parents’ for the right reasons, especially in our country. Even if we exclude the people who are pressurized into having a child, the remaining percentage don’t have very healthy reasons either. That is where the dysfunction begins and keeps spiraling out of control. If you decide to have kids for any reason other than unconditionally sharing love and raising a healthy human being who will be (and should be) independent enough to make his/her own choices, then you my friend, have a problem. You are invariably going to download all your problems, issues and sorrows onto your kid and expect him/her to somehow a) either give you a solution or b) be the solution.

There are so many parents who tell themselves – we will not end up being like our parents. Well, bullshit. You are your parents plus more issues. It is so difficult to dissociate ourselves from our parents’ identity and personality in our culture – it takes a lot of awareness and almost an entire lifetime’s work to achieve that. Why? Because most of us are brought up within enmeshed relationships. Boundaries? What are those? Our parents have a right to know and interfere in everything. Free will? What’s that? I can only go out with friends that my parents like and marry the love of my life as long as my parents approve. Questioning parents’ decisions, opinions and beliefs? Prepare for a crash landing, kids. That’s never going to fly.

We’re never taught to be individuals with our own separate set of beliefs, opinions and principles. We’re always an extension of our parents. Any form of disagreement is seen as disrespect. (Because ‘respect’ is gulping down your opinion and putting your parents’ happiness above your own) Respect is a concept that only works one way, because parents will never respect our choices and decisions. And if those choices fall way beyond their radar of “what’s ok” – then you’re officially a rotten kid and have given them so much pain you should die in a pool of guilt. In short, the term ‘Indian parents’ should officially be synonymous with ‘insecure’. They’re so insecure about themselves that they cannot stand their kid being too different, or else – a question is raised on everything they did based on their belief system so far in their life, and they cannot be in that uncomfortable position of accepting that they might have been wrong at some point. (The horror)

You see, part of being a secure and mature human being is the ability to empathize and accept your mistakes when you make them (everyone does). In my understanding, Indian parents are neither. But the blame isn’t just theirs, it’s a dysfunction that has been passed down generations.

Coming to the core issue – if you think your kids owe you anything in return for your love and care, then you have issues that need to be dealt with before assuming that you deserve to be parents. Love, respect and care are mutual emotions that should be given unconditionally without expecting anything in return. If you are going to guilt trip your kids about your sacrifices and financial investments – Don’t be a parent. If you’re going to use the victim card to get what you want – Don’t be a parent. If you’re going to expect your kid to support you emotionally – Don’t be a parent. If you’re going to shove your beliefs and opinions down his/her throat – Don’t be a parent. If you have a problem accepting your kid as a separate individual who will have different opinions – Don’t be a parent. If you cannot accept the fact that your kid will not always agree with you – Don’t be a parent. When you bring a child into this world, he/she needs you and depends on you for physical, mental and emotional well being and continues to need you until he/she becomes an adult. You do not, and should not, need or depend upon your kid for any of those.

You don’t have the emotional bandwidth or maturity to be a parent. Please deal with your issues first. Also, if you do your parenting right – your kid will shower you with unconditional love and support, without you having to ask for it. A child’s first impression of the world is his/her parents. If you have truly loved your child without emotionally fucking him/her up – he/she will always stand with you and before you. Try it.

A kid’s love is a precious gift. It’s not your right. You chose to have a child and bring another human being into this world. If you’re putting your best foot forward to take care of him/her, it’s not a favor or a debt the kid has to repay later. If you have problems, they’re your responsibility, not your kids’. In US, if you put undue pressure on your kids or raise them in unhealthy households, the social security services will come and take your kid away. They have an accountability system in place. Raise your kid in a healthy environment or lose your right to be parents. Unfortunately in India, just having given birth to a child is enough criteria to qualify to be a parent. You can do whatever the fuck you want with that child. Because maa ke charnon mein swarg hota hai.

If a kid is being abused emotionally and physically in a house, there is absolutely nowhere he/she can go to seek safety and protection. We just have to wing it. And the number of kids being raised in abusive and unhealthy homes in our country is shocking. What is even more shocking is that most of them don’t even know they’re being abused.

I may not be a human child’s parent, but I am a pet parent to a wonderful and amazing dog called Brownie, who I adopted out of my own free will. It is my responsibility to make sure that she receives care, love and a safe environment. I didn’t do it because I wanted a watch dog or because I was lonely. I did it because her being there truly made me happy. Sometimes I have to put up with messy situations, she poops and pees anywhere, she tears everything apart, she whines for no reason and doesn’t listen to a single command, she demands too much attention, interrupts work and hardly shows any affection in return – I get annoyed sometimes. But I have to remind myself that I signed up for this. If I wanted a picture perfect dog who would sit when I asked her to sit, stand when I asked her to stand, mingled only with the dogs I liked and showed affection to me all the time – I would just sit and watch Scooby Doo on TV.

Even after 4 or 5 years, if I give her too much stress or take away her sense of safety, she will either show me aggression (biting) or simply run away, and I wouldn’t be able to do a single thing. She felt threatened and left to preserve herself. Is she obligated to stick with me despite the stress and abuse, just because I took care of her for so long?

NO.

I am just glad that I have a dog who will bite me if I cross her boundaries, as compared to a human child who will continue to suffer in silence thinking it’s okay just because I’m a parent. Nothing scares me more.