As a child I wanted to occupy a different body. I remember feeling physically inadequate from the age of 10. My tummy was too round, my fingers were a little stubby, my hair was frizzy, my thick eyebrows were knotted in the middle, and I was too short.
I would glare green-eyed at the actresses on TV and wish for their flat stomachs, chiselled bone structures and sleeker locks. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time but I realise now that so many teen shows were broadcasting a monolithic version of Caucasian beauty to viewers. My body image issues were made worse at school; I quickly became accustomed to having my appearance audited by children and adults alike, an experience that meant I was incredibly self-aware of the way my body looked to others from a young age.
I was moulding myself into a silhouette of beauty that society told me was desirable, but I still didn’t fit in.
After a few years puberty happened. I started to get my upper lip and eyebrows threaded (a prescriptive rite of passage for many South Asian girls), my puppy fat started melting away and my curly hair became more manageable. Despite these superficial changes, deep down I still wore the same cloak of shame and embarrassment that I had grown into as a child. I was moulding myself into a silhouette of beauty that society told me was desirable, but I still didn’t fit in.
Years later, during the first few months of my undergrad degree I found the period of tumultuous change overwhelming. The combination of homesickness, loneliness, isolation from my childhood friends and moving to a completely different city meant that I was suddenly immersed in a state of flux. Even though I had landed my first degree choice and place of study, I felt incredibly out of control.
Severe undereating, calorie counting, and excessive runs up flights of stairs ensued.
I had geared up for two years only to realise that even in my ideal academic and social environment, my mental health struggles still cropped up and weren’t going anywhere. I lapsed into old habits, picking out old insecurities. I decided that the best way to try and recover a sense of control would be to work through my body image issues, which had been plaguing my self-confidence for as long as I could remember.
I started by revamping my exercise routine. I ended up spending two hours a day from Monday to Friday sprinting on the treadmill, lifting weights that were beyond my reach and leaving the gym feeling dizzy. Severe undereating, calorie counting, and excessive runs up flights of stairs ensued. As the weeks progressed I stopped menstruating, my hair was falling out and my eyes were ringed with grey bags that highlighted just how weak I was becoming.
The only thing distracting me from my disordered eating patterns and my tendency to over-exercise was my university work. I was reading through copious essays and journal articles about global migration and Partition of India as part of my degree. Since my paternal and maternal grandparents lived through that era of history, I started to draw lines between the accounts I was reading of Partition-induced migration and the experiences of my paternal and maternal grandparents; especially my Dadi and Nani.
As women like my grandmothers migrated from India and Pakistan to the UK, they left behind parents, siblings, friends, and fractured homelands.
Over the course of Partition, women’s bodies became sites of political violence. In her essay ‘Quarantined: women and the Partition’, Denali Mookerjea-Leonard writes that for some migrant women, the freedom of independence became synonymous with family and nation betrayal, the loss of bodily autonomy and the erosion of consent. About 75,000 women were abducted and raped on both sides of the border. During riots, their bodies were mutilated, disfigured and branded with nationalistic slogans. Migration was executed out of absolute necessity.
As women like my grandmothers migrated from India and Pakistan to the UK, they left behind parents, siblings, friends, and fractured homelands. They expended energy trying to make new homes in a foreign country, secreting an intergenerational residue of emotional and physical trauma.
Now, when I look in the mirror I see that my body represents something far greater than myself.
Now, when I look in the mirror I see that my body represents something far greater than myself. My grandparents’ actions are a reminder of the fortitude that runs through my family. My broad shoulders and wide hips are resonant of my Nani, and my rounded comma-shaped nose is an impression of my Dadi. My curly, streaky black hair is a nod to my Dada’s Yemeni heritage, and my bush baby-like eyes are a trait from my Nana.
I’ve tried to radically change my mindset. I intentionally remind myself to appreciate what my body can do, rather than how it looks doing it. I need to have faith in the body they have given me. With years of rehabilitative techniques, undoing harmful eating habits, exercising healthily and unlearning rigid societal beauty standards, I still have weeks where I feel insecure. But when I do have these moments of self-doubt, I try to root myself back in line with my ancestral heritage.
My body is a testament to the laboured migration my grandparents made from India and Pakistan to the UK, to families they nurtured here and the lives that they sowed. It gives me the ability to record and historicise my grandparents’ personal narratives. My body is a symbol of how far my grandparents came, and how far their journey has allowed me to go.
Sana is a journalist and pop culture fiend. Her first love is literature because she believes it can be an artistic form where stories from the fringes of society can be brought to the fore. @Sananoorhaq
Artwork: Superimposed Forms, 1938. Artist: Jessica Dismorr d. 1939. via Birmingham Museums Trust