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.