I was in the seventh standard. Scrawny, timid and shy. My cheeks were sunken and my already big and protruded front teeth were more visible than ever. You don’t want to have a scrawny face when you already have a pair of buck teeth. It’s like setting up a pedestal for a statue that is already exposed and evident. A statue that doesn’t fare well in aesthetics. And did I tell you about the gap between my front teeth? According to many, a freight train could pass through the gap. And again according to them, I could take up a job of a farmer in the future because you know I was already equipped with a pair of sturdy and elevated incisors that could also serve the function of a spade.

So yeah, I was in the seventh standard and not in a good shape. I donned shirts that always puffed from here and there, mostly at waist and arms. Getting a fitting one meant that the contours of my thin body would be revealed, which I didn’t want either. And like I said the teeth made everything worse. But in the very same year, I think I had the first glance of my creative power.  I don’t remember why and how, but somehow I devised a new type of board game. It included the English alphabets sprawled on a paper, inside small squares and two players fought with each other to reach the largest square which was in the middle. I won’t go in length about the details because frankly I don’t remember but what I clearly remember is that it gave me a real kick, a kick of self confidence. I gave the game a very fancy name too: ACHIEVER AND DESTROYER.

Bijay Upadhyaya

I took no time in telling my friends about my invention and it stirred a few of them. In no time some of my friends ventured to devise their own board games and the classroom was bursting with activity and energy. I was happy that I had some role in infusing the class with excitement. Only that this newfound confidence and happiness was soon to be met with loathsomeness, self-deprecation and self pity.

The next day, sure enough, the class was buzzing with chatter from pioneering inventors. Few showed their original games to me and asked for feedback. But their discoveries were not original. They were, at best, lame versions of my game. Some extra squares here and there lodged with especial powers and incentives (like the power to take two steps a time instead of one) and bingo, it suddenly became a new game and my friends became original pioneers. But it didn’t stop there. One friend managed to fetch all the attention and adulation from the class after showcasing his *game* in front of the entire class and soon I was forgotten. Needless to say, I felt horrible.

But did I intervene? Did I snap at my friend when he was describing his (mine actually) game? Did I say, “Hey dick, that’s my game and all you have done is roll some fancy squares here and there?” No. No, I didn’t. And funny as it may sound, over the next few days I somehow ended up feeling I deserved all this. That I deserved being stolen from. That though it was my game, the adulation and attention that came with it wasn’t mine. That it was the unwritten rule.

But why did I come to that shitty conclusion?

How does this train of thoughts sound to you? The same train of thoughts that had brewed inside my seventh-standard, self-pity-struck, early adolescent mind. The same train of thought which convicted me for the ordeal and acquitted my friends.

“Okay, I invented the game. Fair enough. But how on earth can a clumsy boy with buck teeth and thin body ever be hailed as the class hero? It was a stroke of luck that led me to the creation of the game. Anybody could’ve done that. I should forget the whole thing and maybe start pressing my teeth every morning as thulobuwaa has suggested.”

Sad, right?

I guess that’s the thing with body shaming. Nobody actually says you mean things. Nobody says you directly that a lot of how you are going to be treated is going to depend on how you look. Any mockery or teasing comes with a caveat that it was made in good faith and you need to take it lightly. “Oh, we were just kidding. We love you.” or “Come on, learn to take a joke”. You know the platitudes. You also know how taking it lightly isn’t an option because you have just been reminded that there is something wrong with your body; the same body which you wear 24/7. You have just been reminded that the default response to something so tenacious and so personal to you is mockery, or to be exact, a tacit appraisal of ‘we-don’t-approve-of-how-you-look’ veiled as a joke and as they like to reiterate often, a light-hearted one.  And you slowly learn to laugh it off because that’s what any good sport would do. Because that’s exactly what taking-it-lightly is supposed to mean. In a truer sense however, you don’t actually learn to disregard these episodes of taunts and mockery. You learn to pretend that they don’t matter to you.

(Well in my case. I couldn’t laugh them off either. Imagine someone saying to you that you have buck teeth and you smile to brush it off but your smiling reveals that you indeed have buck teeth and then the person will do another round of jokes about your teeth because well you have just reminded them of the buck-iness of your teeth. Sometimes the cycle can go on for a long time, I am telling you.)

You learn other things though.  For starters, you learn to create a negative self-image. You learn to blend your bodily features with your cerebral attributes and mix the two. You come up with self-labels like ‘A FUNNY GUY WITH CROOKED TEETH’ (if you discover you have got some sense of humor) or, ‘AN INTELLIGENT GUY WITH A SCRAWNY BODY’ or, ‘A POETIC PERSON WHO ALSO LOOKS LIKE A RABBIT’.  The bits of crooked teeth, scrawny body and rabbit always find a way to attach themselves with your self-image. For instance, I carried a reputation for having an uncanny ability to crack jokes. But inside my head pulsated a self-image not that of a GUY-WITH-AN-INCREDIBLE SENSE-OF-HUMOR but that of a ‘A-FUNNY-GUY-WITH-A-FUNNY-PAIR-OF-TEETH-AND-A-SCRAWNY-BODY-WHOM-PEOPLE-WANTED-AS-A-COMICAL-RELIEF-BUT-NOT-TO-ESTABLISH-ANY-MEANINGFUL-RELATIONSHIP-WITH. Yeah, that’s what I thought of myself for a long time. And sometimes you feel that the talents, aptitudes and skills you possess have landed on the wrong body. That they were supposed to belong to some-BODY else. That there has been a mismatch.

To be honest I don’t think I have completely deconstructed this self-image. Once in a while the remnants surface out. They push the buck-teeth part towards the poet part and try to blend the two. They suddenly make the prospect of meeting a new friend look like a big ordeal because you know, ‘BUT-BIJAY-WHAT’S-THE-PERSON-GOING-TO-THINK-ABOUT-YOUR-TEETH?’.

There are other repercussions too.  More profound ones. One that is interesting is how you feel the constant pressure to act funny or intelligent or literary (or whatever your forte is) because you feel that if you don’t you are just a guy with a deformed dentition or a guy with just skin and bones. You feel that you don’t have the secure base of having a nice and acceptable body. And this dynamic plays out not only for romance but for every other relationship.

In hindsight, whenever I revisit my memories and experiences with body-shaming, I have come to realize that this pressure to constantly exhibit something impressive was guided by a very unhealthy internalization. That left with only your bodily features alone, you are incapable of being loved and accepted. This internalization takes other shapes too. It affects your ability to trust someone. It affects your attachment styles. It forces you to perceive relationships as some kind of hierarchical structures of power where by the virtue of your physical traits you are bound to belong to the lower berths.  It makes you wary about not missing a chance to get love. It makes you rush to the first offering of love, even if  that love comes from toxic people, from unkind people, from chauvinists and racists and misogynists because you know you don’t have any other options. Your need to cling to dear love cannot accommodate any space for objectivity and agency. You expose yourself to manipulation and exploitation because somewhere your negative self-image says you that it is the price you need to pay.  You force yourself to nip your feelings for someone you adore at the very bud because you don’t see yourself in their league. And this, I think, is the most unfortunate one. That there are some people you shouldn’t love because they are not going to love you back.

Before this prose starts looking like a never ending tale of self-victimization, I think I should also talk about how I treated others in the past. I made fun of my friends based on their body size and complexion. I replicated the exact way with which people treated me in treating others. Isn’t that we all do? Aren’t we all mirrors reflecting back what was hurled to us? A guy who was often flashed lame imitations of bunny face to ridicule him for his deformed teeth somehow found it perfectly okay to name-call his friends who had put on some weight. I remember, I once told sorry to a friend I’d made fun of in the past out of the blue and asked for her forgiveness. She told me that it was okay but I for one know that it wasn’t. It could never be. Things we say to people can never be undone completely. Things like self-image and body-image take no time to form but to deconstruct them, hell, it is going to take ages.  And a simple ‘sorry’ won’t just do. How could it?

I watched a video on YouTube just the other day. Four teen-influencers were answering questions that their followers had asked them. One of them had asked, “Does look matter?” All four readily agreed that it actually does. “At least in the beginning”, one added, “later personality matters”.  It seemed to me that in the QnA session, it at least remained undisputed that though personality is the touchstone, the harbinger of a relationship is the look. The key that opens the league is the look.

‘Yes, yes our hearts are big enough to not mind how you look, our rooms can accommodate you regardless of your body but you know what, the pathway towards our empathetic hearts and our spacious rooms can only be unlocked by, well, looks.’ Oxymoronic, right? Because when you say things like ‘personality matters’, you should also understand that personality stems from self-image. And self-image sometimes derives its content from how others treat you. And more often than not, people have the tendency to treat you based on how you look.

How do we go about this? How do we fix it? Can I really ask my friends and acquaintances to un-see my big teeth? Is that the solution? I don’t know. I really don’t. But from what I have experienced, a lot of the hang-ups and insecurities that we carry about how we look don’t materialize at all. During my freshman year, a senior once told me that provided how I looked, it was very unlikely that I could find a girlfriend. I tried to brush off the whole incident but I couldn’t. Somehow not finding a girlfriend meant to me that I couldn’t find love and it scared the shit out of me.

But I found love. Love where my lineaments, dentition and muscularity didn’t matter. Love whose fulfilment didn’t require me to put up any pretence. Does this mean that the problem was with me? That the onus should always lay down on the individual to not create a self-deprecatory self image? Important still, does finding love solve the problem of body shaming? And can its effects be narrowed down to just gratification of romance and love? Doesn’t body shaming penetrate other realms too?

A couple of months back I was having a conversation with a female member of my work force. She told me how objectification and body shaming had affected her morale to become competent in her work. I remember confiding to a friend years ago about how I sometimes feel that I don’t get to enjoy the same access and influence as my good looking friends do while pitching an idea. I have seen countless times how ideas that come from *good-looking-people* are given more priority and importance than others. You can dismiss these occasional benefits as small perks, but sometimes they become the very elements that lay down the course of your success, satisfaction and fulfillment.

The question still remains, ‘How do we go about it?’

I think a lot of the going-about will depend on how we set our social and cultural milieu and the environment at our homes, workplaces and academia. It will depend on the kind of values we celebrate and teach our children to celebrate. It will depend on how widened is the scope of our perception when we form opinion or impression about others. It will depend on acknowledging the privileges we enjoy because of our looks and scrutinizing whether or not those privileges come at the cost of others. It will depend on what we say to others- what parents say to their children, what friends say to each other and what teachers say to their students. It will depend on how popular media and pop culture engage with the masses and what traits they celebrate and endorse. Though I am a big admirer of the Harry Potter franchise, I remember being appalled by how the physical appearance of a negative character who was mean, unkind, ungrateful and a betrayer was portrayed in the films – a man with a rotund torso and big and elevated front teeth. It made me feel that the face I possessed was a perfect vessel for those vices. I know it sounds absurd but that’s what I felt.

I have often struggled to articulate the actual feeling I had when somebody made fun of my teeth or my scrawny body. Angry, Sad, Dejected, Hurt, Insecure. But when I think about it now, I think the word that best describes my feeling is ‘Minimized’. Yes, that would be the word. I felt minimized, shrunk, small and unimportant. I felt that someone had cropped a tiny figment from my larger essence and decided that the tiny figment was all that I was. I felt misunderstood, misconstrued and misjudged. I no longer feel the same. Things have changed and so have people. It warms my heart when people I meet show more interest in knowing what I am writing, or reading or studying instead of my thinning (or thickening) body or my widening (or narrowing) teeth. It warms my heart when I see people of all sorts of body and complexion falling in love with each other and sharing their journeys. So many things warm my heart these days.

I spent two years of my life working with children with disabilities. Once a resource person who was training us about sexuality and sexual abuse in PWDs asked us, “Can you see the human being inside a disabled body?” That question has stayed with me till now. That question also meant, “Can you see the human behind and apart from the immediate physical manifestation?” It is a hard question but it is a valid one. It is a question to which we all need to answer a resounding, confident, truthful and empathetic ‘yes’.

“Yes I can see.”

“Yes I am ready to love the human lurking behind the appearance.”

“Yes, yes, the love will not be charity. But love. Pure and genuine.”

Because we, who have been body shamed, have heard ‘No’ our entire lives. ‘No’ that others tell to us. ‘No’ that we tell to ourselves. ‘No’ that we don’t deserve. ‘No’ that should have been a ‘Yes’. ‘No’ that may have not been told but we heard.

(It was very difficult for me to write this article. I have opened up about my tribulations with body shaming with a very few friends. Though it is not a competency of tragedy and trauma, I completely understand that a lot of my friends (females particularly) have suffered more than I have. And their stories need to be told and heard. This write-up is dedicated to them.)