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.

Chapter: New

Adjusting in Singapore hasn’t been as much of a hassle as adjusting in Europe was. Indians do occupy 9.2% of the population after all.  We have an entire community called “Little India” dedicated to us. If being in a foreign land ever bugged us we could just catch a bus and go there to be […]

Do dino ka tamasha yaaron

Because that’s the shelf life of any issue in our country. Actually, I’m still wondering about how the Anti-corruption movement lasted so long. 😐 But I know that rape cases don’t really last for long, because at least 50% of the population is not vulnerable to them(atleast not in our country) and the other half is usually the ones at fault themselves ❗ So really, it’s not such a serious matter after all. I mean if the girls can kaaboo karo their extremely strong and violent urge to indulge in besharam behavior, then surely rapes would go down. Why’re you staring at me? This is Sheila Dixit’s official statement.

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But I know that this hullabaloo will go on for another 3 days, a week at most, and then people will simply forget about it. I feel India as a nation has become immune to violence. We don’t react to terrorism, molestation, domestic violence, child abuse and now rapes. We simply do not react. We have accepted this violence as an ugly reality of our country and seem to be happy as long as it doesn’t affect us personally. I have no idea why those cheesy Bollywood movies depict India as the epitome of love and respect and Indians as the most caring people in the world.

Our government and police are going to continue to do what they do best – slack their asses off and still get their monthly salary. Trust me the last thing they’re going to do before the world ends is take the maximum amount of bribe they possibly can. That’s going to be their achievement. Or maybe they’ll just prefer to die on their precious kursis, because the kursi is the source of their pride, honor and everything else they hold close. They’ll stick their asses to that damn chair and stay there until the Earth explodes or gets struck by a large meteorite. Sometimes I view India as a toilet drain that is clogged with shit to it’s brim. Whoever tries to flush gets some of that shit on his face too. In other words, it’s impossible to clear out all that shit without having it hit the fan and the ceiling first. We’re going to rot like this until the end of time.

The question is, why do men think women are public property? Who gives them the liberty to go out and flash their dicks wherever they want? What kind of sick, twisted and deranged culture are we if we promote superiority of men only because they have their egos between their legs?

When will an Indian mother stop treating her son as her ‘laal’ or ‘kaleje ka tukda’ no matter what he does and start bringing him up to respect women, their body and integrity? When will she stop making him believe that it’s okay to go out and paint the town red by exhibiting his manhood everywhere? When will she stop protecting him while he harasses half the women of the city? When will she start throwing him out of her house if he screws up, instead of handing him her the duppatta to wipe off his nose?

When will Indian men stop being Mama’s boys and actually become men? Right now, they’re all a bunch of desperate losers who bask in the glory of simply being born as men, and that makes them think that they don’t really need to do anything else at all. Paida ho gaye, bahut bada ehsaan kar diya dharti par. This mindset snowballs into something much bigger and culminates in rape at the slightest of rejection. You see, they’re not adept to deal with rejection and especially by a woman. Us kamini ne mujhe mana kiya! Main mard hoon! Kudrat ka chamatkar, bhagwan ka vardaan aur duniya ka sabse shaktishaali insaan! Abhi ise iski aukaat dikhata hoon. And there you have it.

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I am not going to stop stepping out of my house after 8:30. I am not going to cover my ass up with a sack if I don’t want to. I am not going to walk in packs if I want to walk alone. I am not going to take a male friend along just so he can be my bodyguard. I am not going to change so that I can prevent myself from getting raped. If a bunch of barbaric assholes can’t keep their dicks to themselves, and if our government or police cannot do anything about it, then it’s not my fault. Go shove your moral parameters up your ass.

For every innocent girl who is raped, there should be one innocent boy who is publicly castrated with a pair of shears. I suggest that all girls should start carrying a pair with them. Whenever they feel like having a little fun or just letting their hair down they should whip their shears out and chop off some guy’s penis right there. So much fun! Oh god I can only imagine. What an ego boost and power high that would be. Have a few drinks, get into a van full of adventurous girls, pull up next to a random boy, drag him inside and chop his manhood off! FUN!

Why am I saying this? Because the feeling is the same. End of story.

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