Who gets hurt when we fight misogyny with fatphobia?
Addressing misogyny & fatphobia in the South Asian community online.
By Renuka, Contributor
There’s been a recent trend of videos on Tiktok that go through the following scenario: an aunty notices a weight change in a younger girl (it doesn’t matter in which direction) and makes a comment about how her weight should ‘get better.’ This is a familiar conversation to a lot of young Desi women (but also Desi men and Women of Color everywhere), as our bodies seem to be under the dominion of the elders and men in our lives. As a self-proclaimed fat Desi woman trying to drive representation in fashion and beauty spaces online, I have firsthand experience with every random person on the internet trying to shame me for my existence.
People try to identify the ways in which I can change my lifestyle to make myself fit their mold, rather than challenging their idea of why there’s a mold at all.
In order to combat this actively harmful environment, it is important to understand why aunties consistently push this messaging in the first place. Throughout history in many South Asian countries, the value of a young woman was primarily determined by her ‘marriageability.’ While this messaging is not as extreme as it once was, this misogynistic mindset still lingers in the way our communities (especially older South Asian women) treat our girls and young women. In a convoluted way, the commentary on young girls’ bodies stems from a concern for their wellbeing and long-term happiness.
Let me be loud and clear:
No one has the right to make you feel bad for the way you look.
I know how it feels to have everyone else feel entitled to speak about you “for your own good” and lose a sense of agency over your own body. It’s a toxic environment and aunties are wrong for making comments that young Desis will likely internalize for years to come.
Now, we could respond to this misogynistic and fatphobic messaging by calling it in and trying to dismantle its origins. But many South Asian girls and young women on social media have instead decided to retaliate against the commentary by making fatphobic and equally misogynistic comments back to the aunties.
Obviously, this strategy is problematic in many ways. While it might be cathartic to fight fire with fire, it doesn’t address the root of the problem. It perpetuates the same misogynistic standards that young women are frustrated by. By responding with a “right back at ‘cha” attitude, the same restrictive beauty standards and ideals are used to retaliate to these aunties. This response assumes that aunties are just uneducated and backwards, so there’s no point in trying to defend ourselves against their body shaming tendencies.
The truth is, this pushback only leads to us turning into the aunties we seem to despise so much. We become so comfortable with trash-talking other women that it becomes a second nature and we feel entitled to discuss others’ bodies.
The vicious cycle of misogyny continues and the women in our communities never get to heal.
On top of that, this message pushes an additional level of discrimination with fatphobic language, especially when the pushback comes from thin people (which is almost always the case). By telling aunties to “worry about themselves first” when they comment on other bodies, the message becomes that aunties (who are assumed to be fat) are inherently bad because of their bodies. What they say is bad because it’s hypocritical, since aunties clearly aren’t taking care of their own bodies so they should have no right to comment on anyone else’s.
Knowing the expectation from Desi men that their wives should take care of the entire house and that both adults usually have to work in order to financially support the household, many Desi mothers run out of time to tend to their own needs. Our community expects women to be self-sacrificial and fill everyone else’s cup before their own, so the additional expectation that they maintain some arbitrary beauty standard (which is nearly impossible for postpartum women, anyway) is ridiculous. This ‘comeback’ plays into systemic prejudices that pervade our society and reinforces the notion that fat bodies are useless and undeserving of respect.
And the major problem with the way this response is posted on social media is the real people who internalize this messaging: young fat girls and women. These video responses are not likely seen by the aunties they are directed to—they’re seen by young Desi girls and women on social media who are inundated with diet culture and fat-shaming messages from every aspect of life.
Girls like me who grew up bigger have heard from every other person in their life that they need to lose weight.
It just hurts a little more that other young women who grew up knowing how harmful this language can be would choose to adopt it. While we hope to see some solidarity with our fellow Desi girls, we see this messaging and only feel ostracized by yet another group in our community.
Knowing how truly harmful this rhetoric can be, what is the right solution?
As we’ve discussed, the “fighting fire with fire” option has multiple issues. The passive solution, ignoring the commentary on our bodies, feels disrespectful to ourselves.
We must first reflect on our own personal experiences in order to understand where we currently stand in our understanding of body image and Desi culture. Some questions you can start asking yourself are:
- What factors and experiences have shaped your perspective of body image?
- Can you identify any instances where you have been affected by fatphobia in your life?
- Does the media you consume reflect a variety of body types and sizes?
- Have you consciously or unconsciously perpetuated fatphobia before?
Then, we can choose the active route where we verbally identify this behavior as misogynistic and talk it out. Explain how the commentary on our bodies makes us feel uncomfortable and that our wellness cannot be identified solely by our weight. If aunties want to worry about us, they should worry about our happiness, not our physical attributes. We have to be willing to engage in these dialogues if we really want to feel comfortable in our bodies and create a safer space for women of all ages, now and for the future.
About — Renuka recently graduated from UC Berkeley and now works at a consulting firm in San Francisco. She loves to explore the intersections between beauty, fashion, and identity, promoting a message of feminine power and body neutrality as a Desi-American. Find her on Instagram and TikTok at @looks.by.ren.
Cover photo credit: Renuka, @looks.by.ren