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Body Shaming & Small Talk in Desi Culture

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

There are two unsaid rules in my family - you have to make small talk with elders and you can never answer back, never, even if you disagree with them. And for the longest time these unsaid rules defined my understanding of what is right or wrong.

When you live in India, your entire perception of other countries is based on your exposure to their movies and TV shows. I sincerely hope it is not true the other way around. It would be depressing to think that after watching a Bollywood movie, Americans believe that women in India fall in love by the end of a song. Or that toxic masculinity, where a hero convinces a woman to fall in love with him, through creepy stalking and untoward advances is acceptable.

Nevertheless, content does capture some truth about the culture and trends. When I would watch shows from the US, especially those with kids and teens, they would often depict bullying at school. I wondered if it is common in India too? I don’t remember being bullied or for that matter seeing other kids bullied. Maybe because I went to an all girls school, it was less common.

It struck me lately that I didn't see it, because I was the bully.

For instance, one of my cousins was on the heavier side growing up and we took every opportunity we got, to call her fat. In hindsight, I am not sure why the activity was enjoyable or what I gained from it. As a kid it seemed like an acceptable thing to do. One day, she broke down and cried in front of us.

Woman in swim suit, Immigration, South Asian, Old lady, body shaming, small talk
Unlike the West, most small talk is about body features

It was the first time I realized the power of my words, how I was hurting her. As a parent now, I wonder, why did no one sit me down and explain these things to me. Why was I not taught to be sensitive? To be accepting? One could argue it is a nature vs nurture thing, but I would vehemently disagree. Which begs the question, why did I think it was okay to call her fat? How come no adult, my parents, her parents, or any adult in close proximity explain how wrong I was?

It was because of those unsaid rules, most adults in my family lacked conversational skills. As a result, small talk usually involves pointing out something blatantly visible such as weight, color, height or any other physical attributes for that matter. The more "progressive" ones will ask you your grades in school (only to later reveal the grades of their kids).

A typical conversation began with , “You have gained weight” or “You look tanned”. And unlike the west, tanning is not a good thing in India, as evident from the success of fairness creams.

Having heard this all my life, I assumed these topics were normal. But imagine my surprise when I realized that there were other conversation starters like school activities, hobbies, interests, the list was endless. My entire family seemed to be suffering from some sort of extreme conversational laziness, since they would never broach any other topic.

This line of questioning carries the nostalgia of the good old days when people in chat rooms started a chat with ASL. As if age, sex and location captured everything relevant about me and could be used as an effective filter for further conversation.

With this conditioning, it is no surprise that most of us struggle with actual conversations. Why despite many of us suffering from childhood sexual abuse or mental health issues, we never talk about it. In fact talking about it inadvertently makes your parents feel like they failed you. And instead of getting your own load lightened, you are burdened with their guilt as well. I sometimes wonder, had I been taught to answer back or to question authority, would I have spoken up earlier? Would I have escaped sooner?

I knew I had to put a stop to this, and I got the opportunity on a recent trip. As soon as I met my aunt, she commented about my skin color. The moment was here, brimming with joy and complete disregard, I broke rule number 2 - never answer back. It didn't bode well for my relationship with my aunt, but the shock definitely nudged her in the right direction. No more comments about color and weight to anyone. Later I realized my family is way ahead of their time, they started conversations based on the way people looked even before Tinder.

Jokes aside, I do worry, when parents and guardians are wrong, won’t you end up going through your entire childhood and maybe even adulthood, being woefully wrong? I don't know what other skeletons are hidden in my closet, maybe I was a puppy kicker too? My only hope is that I am able to teach my child the ability to question and not take everything I say as diktat.

More from the same author - First Among Equals - Like a Girl?

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