India Dissents: How People Challenged Restrictive Beauty Norms in 2020
“I was told that lifting weights is for men…. I can lift more than my bodyweight now.”
The Swaddle asked people across India how they spoke truth to power, found their voices, and stood up for themselves in 2020. In this installment, how four people decided to challenge beauty norms.
My mum and I had decided to get a tattoo together once I was old enough, even though we knew that my dad wouldn’t be okay with it. But that was the plan — among many others, but unfortunately, she passed away in October 2016. Ever since, I dreamed of getting one — even without her. Because every day, my battles were increasing, and I was losing control over my own actions and, in the process, somewhere I was losing myself.
Growing up, it was always me and mum versus the rest of my family. She was my rock through it all; she was my supporter, my best friend, and we were super close. And I like to think that I’m a spitting image of my mother. I don’t want to lose any part of that, which is why in October 2020, I decided to get a jasmine flower tattooed. That was her name. It’s a beautiful tattoo — it looks like it’s growing from its roots. Which is apt, because my mum was the roots and I am an offshoot of her. I grew from her; I am because of her. So, this is how I decided to dissent and regain control over my own life.
— R.J., 19
Growing up, I felt very alone because of the fact that I had so much hair on my face and body in general. In middle school, people used to make fun of me, which made me use my dad’s razor very frequently. There were also people within my family who would point out that I had hair, which made me “less than a woman” and “unworthy of getting married.” These statements really reduced my self-esteem and made me very insecure about my appearance.
Getting a degree in psychology really opened me up to the world. I then became really involved in the body inclusivity narrative, and I would advocate for people loving themselves. But at the same time, I felt like a hypocrite, because how could I tell people to love themselves when I was having a hard time accepting the way I looked and the way I was. So, in 2020, I decided that I was just going to let my body be the way it was. In the lockdown, I went without grooming for a good seven months. And my hair did grow a lot.
But you know what? My friends got used to it. The family, that was initially criticizing me, got used to it. And it wasn’t easy for me — there was a lot of self-criticism as well. There were times where I would feel really ugly. But after those seven months, I felt really empowered. And even though I know this is a small dissent — and I can’t change the way society looks at women through what I have done — I can’t deny that there was power in my choice. And I am happy that there are a lot of people out there who relate with my story.
— V., 22
I come from a very patriarchal background. I am the only girl in my family who graduated from college. I was always told not to wear makeup or wear tight clothes as it brings shame and unnecessary attention from men. I was told that lifting weights is for men and women are delicate so they shouldn’t lift. I was told to come home by a set time every evening but the boys in my family would be out for days. I was even told to not cycle as it might pop the … whatever. I rebelled against all of this. I started going to the gym and lifted weights. Weight training gave me a sense of power and a huge confidence boost, which I lacked throughout my childhood and teenage years.
I am at a point where I can lift more than my bodyweight now. I also became comfortable working out in a sports bra, which is apparently ‘too slutty’ to wear in front of everyone. I was the first female in my house to get my driver’s license and drive my own car. I was the first girl who started to work at the age of 15. I earned my own money and am the first one to buy my own house. I rebelled against everything I was told not to do. I refuse to marry someone just because I am in my 20’s. I refused it all regardless of how many times I come across as a b*tch to the people around.
— Benafsha, 23
I have stopped wearing a bra this year and even before the pandemic, the first thing I would do after a day’s work is to unhook my bra after coming home. While this has been a difficult year for many reasons, the one thing I don’t miss is not wearing a bra. With meetings mostly online, I really don’t wear a bra and it feels so free not to just wear one. While growing up, I had discomfort in making peace with the term “a bra-burning feminist,” but now I very happily identify as one and advocate that we should all free our breasts.
I didn’t know [my legs] had to be shaved until my third year of undergrad. I grew up in a small town so I didn’t know these things ‘had to be’ done. Although I really like my hairy legs now, I still feel like I am making a statement when I wear dresses without shaving my legs. But I am just lazy and can’t be bothered. I don’t know whether others notice; I think sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. I wish these simple pleasures didn’t feel like I am dissenting, but I know it is and I hope it becomes so trivial that such entries aren’t required.
— Vaishnavi, 28