Be Body Positive in Pakistan, but only if…

A person who advocates body positivity ideally would never walk through that door. She would say, “I am perfect the way the way I am and wouldn’t change a thing about myself”. Or should she?
The body positivity movement is an ideology women are embracing worldwide. Because it challenges the preexisting concept of an ‘ideal’ body by stating that all body types are beautiful, that women do not come in a single mold that is considered ‘ideal’ by society and the media. And it demands for the world to open their eyes and realize that not all women can look the same. It allows women to be confident in their own skin, and dare I say, gives them permission to be themselves without feeling guilty about looking a certain way.
However, I also believe that the body positivity movement can be extremely controversial, because to me, the sincerity of the movement often gets lost in throes of political correctness, amongst other things and this is why women have been conditioned for generations to aspire to attain a certain kind of look that society considers ‘beautiful’. Years of conditioning and overbearing scrutiny has wreaked havoc on an average woman’s self-esteem. It is the year 2016, and people still gasp in awe, if a woman who is not evidently, physically flawless, steps up and declares that she feels there is nothing wrong with her and that even if she had the option, she wouldn’t change a thing about herself.

I would love to accept her claim at face-value. I would love to march alongside her reveling in her body positive pride, her degree of confidence and self-love. But there would be a nagging voice inside my own mind that would say “Yeah, it’s alright for her, you should drop the donut and get on the treadmill ASAP. You’d rather die than be fat and you know it”. Because I would never be able to resist the opportunity to walk through a magic door that would remove all my physical flaws, and because many other women like me, I too have grown up with an idealized version of beauty in my head, which I aspire to be.
Body positive advocates have worked hard to see plus sized women are represented, on social media and in the mainstream media. In the western world at least, calling somebody else words like “fat” or “anorexic” is the equivalent of uttering a racial slur.
Pakistani women have joyfully embraced body positivity as well. After all, the average Pakistani body type hardly ever matches up to the idealized standard concept of ‘perfection’ in the west. We are built differently, our skin is different, and we have different hair. And for the first time in our lives, we were presented with the notion that well, you are as god made you and there is nothing wrong with that. Stop trying to chase unrealistic beauty goals and be happy with yourself.
But ideologies followed on social media are easier adapted online than in real life. Because one can’t help but wonder, is body positivity just a front that women put up because they are tired of being berated for their looks and can’t take it anymore? If I am having these doubts, and I know my friends are too, is it possible that these body positive advocates also secretly have them? If the magic door was real, would they walk through it in a heartbeat, like me?

And if they do choose to walk through, what would that say about their whole body positive advocacy? Think about the scrutiny an unmarried woman in Pakistan has to go through, just to be considered “socially acceptable”. Certain beauty standards are considered prerequisites and if you don’t have those, you should prepare yourself for a sub-standard rishta.
Rarely ever does a rishta hunter first inquire about a girl’s talent, intelligence, mental prowess, career aspirations, education and goals. What they do ask, before anything else, is if the girl is slim, tall and fair. Three core ingredients to build the perfect bahu in Pakistan; with everything else being arbitrary.
Picture this, a twenty something unmarried girl goes to visit her relatives on a special occasion, dressed up nicely. She is an independent, outspoken and intelligent individual, who has worked very hard to get where she is in life, in terms of her career and education. For the occasion, she is actively participating in the conversation happening around the drawing room.
One of her aunts then ask her the fateful question, “So, when are you getting married?” This one question suddenly catches the attention of the rest of the room, who tune into the conversation, riveted. The girl shifts uncomfortably in her chair because her parents have been looking for prospects, but she isn’t too eager to be wed because most of them are not at all suitable for her. They haven’t been good matches intellectually nor have been up to her standards career wise. However, these relatives don’t know all of this.
Before she could decide on how to answer, another aunt chimes in “Well, how can she get married looking like that! All that sitting on an office desk has ruined your habits beta, you’ve gained a lot of weight”.
It then turns into a macabre scene, where she feels like she is a game turkey during open season in a field, where everyone is allowed to take shots at her.
“You know what might also help. Using this new fairness cream my daughter uses. Scrub that tan off your face to bring out your features more” adds another concerned relative.
“Oho, lay off her”, adds a well-meaning uncle, “everyone knows girls these days have so many demands, they’re ever so picky. Or you probably have someone in mind already don’t you?” He winks at her.
“Kids these days…” the aunty replies, “but see if you use the special oil I got for myself from this doctor, you can get rid of this nasty frizzy hair. Also colouring your hair before marriage is not a good idea either. I mean save something for after your wedding, no? So you can tell the difference!”
And it goes on and on. Why is it considered perfectly normal behaviour to body-shame women in social gatherings in Pakistan? Why is it so, that poking fun at someone’s appearance is considered perfectly acceptable dining table conversation, not considering how the other person might be feeling, or the damage that is being done to their self-esteem?

If a girl does object and defend herself, then she is accused of having an attitude problem and too high an opinion of herself, that she can’t take simple lighthearted jokes. But these taunts are seldom lighthearted, and often heavily loaded.
The whole rishta hunting process has become a distasteful display, in which girls are treated like objects, with their worth being placed on their looks, not their abilities. And the irony here is, people hardly ever question if the prospective groom is even worthy of making such demands from a girl to wed! The entire societal fabric of reality would fall apart if the girl in turn said, “Well is your boy athletic and tall with a full head of hair?”
Under such scrutiny, with such specific demands, can a Pakistani woman ever be body positive? When she has been raised in a situation where it has been drilled inside her head that only a fair, skinny and tall girl gets the prince, the rest of you get the leftovers, your punishment for being dark, fat or short.
Where a potential suitor’s family has the audacity to say, “We like your other daughter better, can we ask for her hand instead?” When they have come with a proposal for one sibling but then switch because she is darker than her sisters? Or shorter? Or heavier?
With these practices, I don’t blame the advocates of the body positivity movement for being ruthlessly aggressive. A massive paradigm shift needs to happen in Pakistani media as well. Our dramas and movies should show non-cookie cutter actresses that break the mold of what an ideal Pakistani woman should look like.

Instead of idolizing the Mahira Khans of Pakistan as the perfect vision of a Pakistani bahu, different faces should be depicted in the media as beautiful as well. Not just the skinny, tall, fair pretty girls. The darker ones, the shorter ones and the more voluptuous ones as well. We all exist, and we are all beautiful, and we all deserve equal representation.
We need to love ourselves first, in order to appear authentic and to truly stand for something. Your first big gesture starts with yourself. Start by loving yourself, and it would be the biggest contribution you can make towards creating body positivity as a realistic ideology in Pakistan.

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