Five lessons from five cities around the world

Five lessons from five cities around the world

A journey to embracing myself for who I am

Sukriti Taneja

Between fairness creams and how to get toned in seven days YouTube tutorials, we all have seen the sheer innocence of our childhood fade away. Growing up, the notion that “everyone is fundamentally flawed” is somehow imbibed within us. Maybe that’s why we are all familiar with emotions of jealousy and self-doubt.

While the taboo around body positivity slowly dissolves and conversations around it become more public, our work as a society seems far from over. It is when we teach all young children to love their bodies as they are and work on themselves for themselves that we as a society would have won.

Like any other young adult, I, too, have gone through my own phases of understanding the concept of body positivity. Ironically, we live in an imperfect society that demands perfection.

My parents have always been stern advocates of travel being more than pure leisure. It has always been seen as a means to holistically grow as an individual and look beyond perceived barriers of your own cultural beliefs, and look beyond I did.

Travelling to different parts of the world paved the way for my perceptions to be questioned for the better. So here are five ruthless and hard-hitting lessons we all need to learn.

#Lesson Number 1

Since the beginning of middle school, I was constantly bullied for having more body hair compared to my friends. “You’re using the women’s loo; you should go to the one for boys”, “The bear is back”, and “Can you teach me how to grow a moustache too?” These were all dialogues my 12-year-old self heard each day.

What may have been a mere joke to my counterparts was the beginning of my never-ending war with my body. With no strong sense of my identity, or the ability to stand up for myself, I always hid behind my parents for comfort.

Deriving my confidence from the presence of my parents became a natural phenomenon. Soon enough, my parents and I decided to go on our first-ever international vacation as a family. The feeling of relief I felt knowing that I did not have to see my bullies for a week is one that still feels so fresh in my head.

We landed in Singapore after a lot of excitement and a six-hour flight. This trip was my first experience with the concept of culture shock. The body hair I had felt so ashamed of was celebrated in this foreign land. From billboards to commercials to women flaunting their skin in its natural state on beaches, I was in awe and shock.

Unaware of how to tackle the utter confusion in my head about body hair being ‘ugly or acceptable’, I approached my mom and asked for assistance shaving my arms before swimming with my older sister at the hotel pool.

Shocked by my apprehension to go swimming, my mother realised that I, too, had fallen prey to the social pressures of ‘silky smooth skin’. She shrugged her shoulders, smiled at me, and said the most potent message a mom could tell her daughter. “Don’t let stupid people and commercials convince you that natural is not pretty. You go out there and be yourself, whoever that may be.”

#Lesson Number 2

Oh, to be in New York, young and free, was nothing short of a dream. Before the messy wave hair era hit the streets of Manhattan in 2015, I and my unruly curls found ourselves feeling out of place and obnoxious amidst all the beautiful women with long straight hair.

Don’t get me wrong, feeling like Simba, the protagonist from Lion King, was not something I hated in particular. The idea of having straight hair just always felt tempting. The trend back home was evident and apparent. Long and straight hair was the new ‘It’ thing.

I am sure we have all wasted our time and money getting one hair treatment after the next to feel ‘pretty’ and ‘socially acceptable’. I, much like any other teenager desperate to get rid of her curls, tried every DIY on Google, before I made a hair straightener my best friend. While shopping at Walmart, I encountered a woman in the hair product aisle.

She had the most beautiful curly hair I had ever seen. Call me impressionable, but I was inspired. I instantly went up to her and complimented her, alongside bombarding her with 10 questions about how she managed her hair and why she never straightened them. She giggled and replied, “Perfect is not for me; wild and free is.” At that moment, I knew that my definition of pretty was mine to define.

#Lesson Number 3

In the 10th grade, I was selected to go on a German exchange for two weeks. My 16-year-old self jumped at the opportunity to make long-lasting bonds with people across the border.

So I set out on an adventure with high expectations, lots of Indian goodies as presents and substantially low self-esteem from all the Melanin-related jokes that had ever been cracked on me.

This trip broke my ideology that the grass is greener on the other side in every sense of the way. While we as Indians are obsessed with the idea of lighter skin tones and spend countless hours trying home remedies and fairness creams, I realised that other teenagers, even though ‘privileged’ with the white skin that felt so appealing, spend just as many hours buying the perfect bronzer and getting an Instagram worthy tan.

Hence, it became clear to me that irrespective of where you come from, we all desire what we believe we lack. Who has the most to gain here, you may think? Capitalist beauty product companies. Sadly, no matter what products you use, we only glow on the outside when we are happy on the inside.

Hence, the grass will always be greener where you water it, so as long you appreciate what you have instead of fretting about what you don’t, you will make a happier individual.

#Lesson Number 4

The stress of my 12th-grade board examinations and an overdue family vacation led me to Bali on a quick getaway trip. Completely drowning in the beauty surrounding me, I was at ease.

A feeling that felt like a far-fetched reality. On one sunny day, my family and I set out in our beach outfits to go scuba diving, an experience resting on the top 10 of my bucket list for as long as I could remember.

I was overjoyed and excited until the camera was popped out to take pictures on the beach. Like the sand beneath my feet, my momentary happiness felt like it was slipping away. I looked nothing like the models in the commercials of swimsuits we have grown up idolising as the ‘perfect hourglass figure’.

Lost in my love-hate relationship with my body, looking perfect seemed more important than making memories with my family. After many attempts to escape the camera lenses, my aunt realised what was truly wrong.

The echoes of her words still inspire me. She said, “Don’t be so lost in the idea of what makes you seem perfect to the world. The only person who needs to view you as perfect is you.”

#Lesson Number 5

Starting my masters in Leeds, United Kingdom, away from the comfort of familiarity, I was determined to work on myself. This motivation came from a place of self-acknowledgement. Seeking professional help over the years and looking inwards has genuinely helped me address my shortcomings while celebrating my wins, no matter how big or small they may be.

The easiest place to start for me was my physical strength, and so I joined a gym. To be fair, I have always enjoyed lifting weights more than cardio. Sadly this went against societal gender norms. When we hear an individual talk about hitting the gym, we automatically associate a man with wanting to get bigger muscles and a woman with a thinner waist and bigger glutes. The apprehension around the thought of me becoming ‘muscular’ is one that people in my social circle also made me familiar with.

These fixed ideologies of why an individual works out are a triggering point for many people but also the easiest way for body image issues to creep in. Working on your body, no matter what shape or size it may be, is nothing short of therapeutic. Recognition must be given to the fact that your goals for your body are only yours to dictate. Muscular is pretty. Strong is feminine. Wanting to be lean is just as masculine as wishing to be bulked up. When we give into societal pressures of a gender-specific way of looking, we give up a certain amount of autonomy over our lives. Hence, irrespective of societal views, your body goals are just as important and relevant.

To what extent does self-love get sacrificed amidst the societal pressure of fitting the shoe is a question we all must ask. Living in a society where bodies are seen as public property, open to criticism and unasked for feedback, feeds into the toxic cycle of self-doubt. Body positivity requires you to be vulnerable and honest with yourself. Being so used to constantly criticising ourselves, we forget how to treat ourselves with the same kindness and love we offer those around us. When we uplift and appreciate others, rather than tearing their confidence down, we preach kindness and body positivity. When we love and accept ourselves, not just our body, we break the cycle and take one step towards a more accepting and healed generation.