Ridhi’s earliest memory of her mother’s rage-filled face peering down at her was when she was around the age of nine. For every mistake made, the punishment was simple: three hard beatings with a steel ruler on the knuckles.
When it came to putting on “so much weight,” however, the punishment was different. “It would take the form of anything from casual taunts to telling me that I wasn’t her daughter on account of my weight,” said the 23-year-old athlete who, like most of those featured in this story, preferred not to share her real name for fear of embarrassing her parents.
The taunts continued for the next five years, during which time Ridhi starved herself, cut down on sugar, and gave up junk food. But the “so much weight” persisted. Except for a few preliminary observations regarding the accumulation of water and salt in her body, doctors found nothing alarming in her blood reports.
“That’s when I realised that I was never overweight or obese for my age and height. The doctors would even say this to my mother in so many words. Unfortunately, my mother’s benchmark for an ideal body was that of a gazelle’s,” she told VICE. “At 20, when I began therapy, I [learnt] how far removed from reality my growing up years were.”
Ridhi was essentially being body-shamed by her mother. While “body shaming” and “fat shaming” are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, it bears mentioning that body shaming includes being critical of the shape and size of a person’s body, as well as targeting any of their physical attributes including hair, facial features, scars, and marks. Fat shaming, on the other hand, is typically restricted to poking fun or criticising the weight, body, and eating habits of someone, who might already be judged as being overweight. According to studies, fat shaming is linked to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and exercise avoidance.
The discussion around body shaming by parents, specifically moms, was recently reinvigorated after the relatively new term “almond mom” began being used. The term is said to have originated thanks to a video compilation from RHOBH (The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) that began doing the rounds on TikTok around last year. The compilation includes an exchange between former model and TV personality Yolanda Hadid and her then-teenage, now-supermodel daughter, Gigi Hadid. In it, Gigi is seen telling her mother that she feels weak because she’s eaten only half an almond. Yolanda suggests that she has a couple of almonds and that she chews them really well. The likely conclusion? The pursuit of thinness must be prioritised over well-being and health.
Shame informs body shaming
“If the parents and children are in an enmeshed relationship, the parents will end up believing that everything that the child does is a direct reflection of who they are,” explained counselling psychologist Utkarsha Jagga. “So, if the child looks ‘perfect,’ it’s a compliment to the parent. If not, they will take it as [their being] shamed. And to combat this very shame, they will resort to body shaming their children for not looking perfect.”
In Asian societies, Jagga added, shame is viewed as being a major motivator — the idea that you’re actually helping people by shaming them. But the ramifications of body shaming by one’s parents, particularly in one’s formative years, can have long-lasting negative consequences on a person’s sense of identity and well-being.
“My parents have always been conscious of how they look, as reflected in the fact that my father had a hair transplant surgery done because he was going bald,” said Pranav, a 25-year-old client manager at a fashion house based in Delhi. “My father would nitpick how I looked as a child whenever I put on weight. Eventually, I started losing so much weight that I was considered way too skinny.”
But the taunts continued. Pranav could never reach the perfect body standard set by his father. Only now, in hindsight, can Pranav trace exactly how those years impacted him. The excessive grooming, the meticulous picking of an outfit before stepping out for even an ordinary event, and even choosing to make a career in the fashion world.
“When I started out in fashion, where you have to look your best in the most superficial sense of the word, it was the ultimate clap back to my father,” he said. “I didn’t have to ask these questions, but they floated in the air: Are you happy? Am I good enough for you now?”
According to Jagga, when such shaming happens on a regular basis, it can leave one feeling isolated. Growing up as an only child meant Pranav didn’t have siblings who might have helped with blunting his father’s verbal blows. He was introverted and made no friends in school, either. The isolation was multifold and he had to make sense of it all on his own.
“Such isolation and shaming by parents can also lead to eating disorders and an altogether unhealthy relationship with food,” said Jagga. “People start overeating or eating too little as a rebellion against their parents’ body shaming. They might adopt a harsh dietary regime that radically cuts down on nutrition.”
26-year-old Karishma, a marketing manager, discovered that her habit of frequently covering her mouth when eating in public had more to do with being body-shamed by her parents and less to do with etiquette. “I’ve seen this with many of my women friends, too. They will cover their mouths when they are eating or talking when eating. Let’s not fool ourselves, it’s not table manners. It’s almost as if we have been conditioned to believe that eating is a shameful act.”
Navigating body shaming
But to what extent can we blame parents for body shaming us, for not understanding the meaning and import of these “modern” terms that have helped us make sense of our past? If they are products of their time, when and where does accountability begin and end?
“We must remember that our parents are also human beings and thus flawed. Being a parent doesn’t automatically [provide them with] a guiding compass on what to say and what not to,” said psychiatrist Era Dutta. “Often, body shaming is a projection of their own insecurities and wanting to protect [their] child from bullies through this process. They might have been bullied in their childhood for their weight and don’t want their children to go through the same.”
For those still being body-shamed or fat-shamed by their parents, Dutta said it’s crucial to make parents aware of the deep impact their statements are having on their offspring. Often, she said, parents will get defensive and tell you that it’s for your own good and might resume shaming their children.
“Some parents simply don’t understand the concept of boundaries, so it’s advisable to involve a third party,” she said. “Maybe bring them to your therapist who can explain it better? Or that neutral aunt or uncle? If they persist, shut down and don’t react to them whenever they bring up the topic. [You] don’t [need to] block them out completely, just stonewall that particular part of the conversation.”
In the case of Meher Saluja, a 22-year-old media student, her curly hair would often be the topic of almost every family gathering. “I was the exception in my family. They would all wonder where I got that curly hair from – almost hinting in as many words that I was perhaps a bastard child.”
Saluja would spend hours straightening her hair, using her friend’s hair straightener when she couldn’t afford one. She even ended up burning some of her hair on occasion. “Loving my curly hair was a long process. My partner helped [by telling] me how people like Oprah Winfrey rocked curly hair, so what was stopping me from doing the same?”
For Rehal, a 25-year-old PR manager, the constant reminder of her weight gain by nearly everyone in the family both harmed and benefited her in what she described as a “twisted way.” Early on, she was nicknamed “matko” by her grandmother, referring to a “round earthen pot.” Soon, “matko” became synonymous with her name and, with it, the realisation that she was never going to be considered “pretty” by conventional beauty standards.
“I told myself that good looks weren’t going to cut it for me, so I’d have to work on my academics. I topped my school in the tenth grade, to everyone’s surprise, and was content that my family would now praise and validate me for my grades, even as I made peace [with the idea] that I was never going to be beautiful enough.”
Unlearning would take time as would learning to love herself. Rehal read books on the ambiguous nature of beauty and watched videos on how beauty has been historically weaponised against women who were either “too beautiful” or “too ugly” for their time. “I could not be a prisoner to beauty because it all started with my family calling me ‘matko.’ And I’m so glad that I’m not.”
At the end of the day, Dutta suggested, it’s also incumbent upon us not to get on the shame train on a daily basis. If you’re meeting a friend or a relative after a substantial period of time, maybe don’t talk about how slim or fat they look.
“I’m actually attending a wedding right now and it’s absurd how many people think talking about someone’s weight, in a positive or negative light, is a neutral topic that breaks the ice. It’s not,” Dutta said. “As a society, we all need to pick better topics of conversation.”
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