By Malika Noor Mehta
Art by Diya Sengupta
For years, I would stare at my body in the mirror and grimace. My eyes unconsciously fell upon those “much-too-heavy” hips, that “annoyingly-stubborn” arm flab, the roundness of a face I wished was more angular. For years, this self-denigration occurred without a second’s thought. It was just something I did after a shower, or before getting dressed for a night out. Rinse, towel off, self-critique, and then lotion, right? My critical eye showed no mercy, and my astounding ability to engage in negative self-talk threw my confidence about my body into a tailspin for years.
Perhaps it was the unrealistic portrayals of paper-thin women on television or in magazines. Perhaps, it was my Bharatnatyam teacher who often commented on how my hips jiggled while I danced. Perhaps, it was the nickname “faddy” that the girls in school gave me (“We aren’t calling you ‘fatty!’ It’s faddy!”).
For years, I found it easy to blame the external world for my negative body image. Instead of rooting myself in myself, I rooted myself in the words and ideas of other human beings. I let others build my definition of self.
Over time, through a disjointed and often infuriating journey, I realised that the world would occasionally criticise unconstructively and comment unnecessarily. Ultimately, it was up to me to accept the voluptuousness of my hips, the curves of my arms, the roundness of my face. More importantly, it was up to me to analyze and combat the prejudices I foisted upon myself.
While this is a personal story of my struggle with self-acceptance, it is also a universal tale of how we engage with our perceived shortcomings, whether they are physical, social, or emotional.
How do we even begin to accept the flaws we perceive within ourselves? How do we grow accustomed to the unique imperfections that characterise our individuality? How do we shield ourselves from vitriol while remaining receptive to useful criticism?
As I began to tackle my body image issues – a task I took on with purposeful intent - I slowly developed a wellbeing guide for myself, something I would continually fall back on as my own “golden triangle of self-acceptance.”
Awareness – Acceptance – Action.
The intangible trio of self-fortification.
Don’t get me wrong – none of this was a linear process. Coming to terms with my body did not happen in a step-by-step fashion, clean and clear-cut, simple and easily dissectible. No. It was messy. It was painful. It involved many people, many months of reflection, many days of not wanting to get out of bed. Nothing was simple. And most importantly, as I write this article I recognize that hindsight is always 20-20.
Step One: Building Awareness
First, it is important to note that I call what I am about to describe a “triangle”, not a “line.” Each component of this triangle – awareness, acceptance, action – meld into one another. Sometimes developing one component of the triangle gives way to another one. Sometimes, individuals build all three components simultaneously. And other times, people are only able to cultivate a singular component, and the others just take time. There is no right way of caring for our mental wellbeing; it is all subjective, and specific to the issue we are tackling at the time. In my experience, I found that awareness came first.
Building awareness within myself about my negative body image took a long time. The process involved an enormous amount of self-reflection, as I suspect tackling any wellbeing issue might require. This reflection led to a deeper analysis of my unconscious behaviors. For instance, each time, I glanced at myself in the mirror, I took heed of the internal voice that so easily lambasted my body. Initially, I could not turn it off or tune it out, but I found comfort in my ability to be mindful of its very existence.
Over time, I also became more aware of the content I consumed. I began to analyze the media’s definition of what constitutes beauty, and its inevitable influence upon my psyche. Most importantly, I grew aware of the contradictions between the views I socially espoused – ones that embraced all body types and advised friends to love themselves wholeheartedly – and the prejudices I foisted upon myself.
Building awareness is an arduous process. For me, it occurred because I surrounded myself with wise, compassionate and empathetic human beings; a community of people who poked holes in the arguments I made against myself; people who never stroked my ego with false flattery yet made me feel innately beautiful any chance they got; a small group of trusted confidantes who helped me gently evaluate my preconceived notions about beauty. This group was an invaluable part of my awareness-building process, as they helped me reflect upon my current circumstances as well as the past experiences that have shaped me, and in turn, helped me listen more attentively to my internal voices – positive and negative.
Step Two: Translating Analysis into Acceptance
In an effort to further challenge those internal voices, I decided to begin Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In therapy, I slowly (and sometimes painfully) acquired the mental tools to convert awareness and rational analysis into emotional acceptance - a process I believe applies to any mental wellbeing issue. Instead of just being mentally aware of those inner voices, I began to verbally articulate them or scribble them into a journal. And in the safe space of the therapy room, in a didactic and coherent manner, my therapist helped me further analyze the roots of the biases I was now so acutely aware of. Slowly, I began to take these biases apart, and accept that I did, in fact, look a certain way – and that was ok.
Once again, this process took years, and I deviated many times. From abandoning therapy mid-way (I eventually returned to it), to ironically binge-eating because I disliked my body so much, to lashing out at my family for trying to steer me back on course, the process was never pretty.
Accepting oneself unequivocally is possibly the most difficult task to undertake. It is certainly not something I could have done alone.
Step Three: Healing through Action
In many ways, I credit my community for helping me take action to enact positive change. Action – the third component of my golden triangle – actually permeates through the healing journey.
Action not only comprises physical transformation, but also includes the process of listening to ourselves, dissecting our prejudices, and shifting our mindsets - actions I am trying to employ in all aspects of my life.
In hindsight, therapy certainly helped me engage in physical actions that moved me forward – acquiring a nutritionist, adopting a balanced diet, and revisiting my love for exercise. The key to action is not that it always responds directly to the issue or even fixes it - the key to action is that it moves you forward to a place where you are able to be at peace with the version of yourself and your world which exists, either by obtaining fresh perspective or building new parameters..
But it begins, first and foremost, with the decision to challenge those internal voices, that very first step forward, was the most important action of them all. For me, action, as a component of this golden triangle, is synonymous with positive intent.
About the Author:
Malika Noor Mehta is a mental health entrepreneur. Before the pandemic, she was engaged in creating a fellowship program that placed mental health counsellors in low-cost schools in Mumbai. Her interest in mental health stems from her teaching experience at Teach for India and her time in Jordan and Greece, creating trauma-sensitive education programs for Syrian refugees. She holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In her free time, she loves to write and take photographs.
Notes from the Author
I have used the first word in our Mental Wellbeing Dictionary – A for Acceptance – to delve into a personal story because I want the readers to know that I am writing about mental wellbeing as someone who has been through significant mental health upheavals herself. I have garnered a lot of hope through the therapeutic process (inside and outside formal therapy).
In this piece, I speak of awareness, acceptance and action as they apply to my process of overcoming body image issues, but I sincerely believe that the power of these three As could help an individual tackle any wellbeing issue one might face. While the issues will differ, the process of acquiring awareness, building acceptance and engaging in positive actions remains universally applicable. I hope my readers find power through this work.