If you’re a strong, independent woman the chances that someone has told you that your tough exterior is an act are high. In this piece I discuss how the need for people to have women conform to the idea of a delicate emotional inside is part of the agenda to keep women down.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
If I had put a Rupee in a collection tin every single time a man who was (trying to) date me told me that I was “tough on the outside and a fragile girl on the inside” then I would have about as much money as I make working as a journalist (which is not too much but certainly way too much to make off a collection tin).
My ex used to insist that my “hardcore tough girl” demeanor was an act and on the inside I was a sweet and sensitive girl. The men who used to chase me (or did I chase them?) before I was an adult used to say that I seem cold and harsh but on the inside I am soft-hearted. The man I date now thinks I am fragile on the inside despite my *made-of-steel* exterior. There were men in between who said that I was not who I “pretended” to be, i just kept my vulnerability hidden because I didn’t want anyone to get to my insides and hurt them.
I’ve never really thought about these statements because I’ve always assumed that they are the pick-up lines of the “intelligentsia”. There seems to be something about the sentiment of the person wooing me knowing me better than I know myself that I am supposed to find irresistible. I must we wired wrong because not only do I not find it irresistible, I actually find that it annoys the living hell out of me. For starters, it’s the entire idea that I have an inside and an outside. Sure, physically, I have an outer coating made of skin and on the inside I have organs. But emotionally? I can’t quite decipher what my outside emotions are meant to be and which ones are inside emotions. Is it like having an inside voice? I doubt it.
I don’t know if I am “hard on the outside and soft on the inside” but I do know that on the *inside* I’m that person who will attack a minor issue with a machete until I find what is a major feminist issue that is causing the minor issue. I’m not saying all the men who said these things to me were coming from the same place but on some level it seems like some men cannot handle the idea of a strong, tough woman so on the *inside* she has to be sensitive, emotional and fragile. The strength has to be a sham, an act put up by a woman who isn’t really tough but knows how to put on a good show. That’s probably not what those guys were saying but that’s exactly what I was hearing. Or maybe I’m just being generous when I say that is not what they were saying.
A lot of the men who have said to me that my insides are fragile are people who know me well; people who know my life story and have lived with me closely. I assumed, although I admit I have never checked, that they also know the meaning of the word fragile and don’t hail from the tradition of “everything means what you want it to mean”. Maybe I was taught English by an idiot (and every single dictionary in the world is wrong) because it seems to me that fragile means something that is easily broken or damaged and I’d like every single man who ever said that to me to justify his case because personally I feel like I’ve managed to escape damage in the worst circumstances. Moreover, I don’t even believe in breaking, I’m flexible and I bend to accommodate pressure. I’ve done that my whole life. It’s hard to break objects that have high elasticity and I’ve always considered myself fairly elastic.
But of course, the insinuations of the dissonance between my inside and outside are always accompanied by insistence that I don’t know myself as well as the men who have known me five minutes (or five years) know me. I’m unable to see my fragility and softness because I am biased and I don’t want to admit it because admitting it means I am inviting people in to break me. I’m not making this up (and I’m pretty sure a fair number of women can relate), men have actually said these things, but if I was making it up it would have travelled through my bowels and come out of anus because it is a giant load of crap.
Sometimes it feels like, as a woman, no matter what I do I cannot prove that I am truly tough. The question of my soft and fragile insides will always be raised as if I am a giant walking vagina. I travel the country alone and have done so for years, but my independence is an act. I cover truly traumatizing things in painful detail and I still sleep at night, but my perseverance is an act. I make my own decisions and i deal with my own mental health but my strength is an act because at the end of the day the men who want me still want to see me as a delicate, fragile flower *on the inside*.
I am not a fucking flower and I have no interest in being one. Nor will I agree with men when they try to make me believe I am something I am not.
Am I sensitive? Yes. I am sensitive to the slightest changes and that is why I am good at my job. I notice everything and i let everything affect me because that is the only honest way I know to live. Do I get upset and experience upheavals? Yes. Am I soft-hearted? Yeah, show me an injured puppy and i will bawl till the sun comes up. I cry when I want and I laugh when I want. Neither my laughs nor my cries are an act. Sensitivity and vulnerability are not the opposite of being tough and strong. They are not **virtues** that I hide on the inside and if you spent five minutes looking instead of trying to figure out what your next self-important proclamation should be, you’d see that in an instant.
I don’t have an inside or an outside.
I have emotions.
I have feelings.
I have capability.
I have strength and self-awareness.
Everything I have is real, you just can’t believe it because you can’t see what you know to be a woman in it. I’m not tough on the outside and tender on the inside.
I’m a real woman, and I know too many men who can’t handle that.
Kamala Das is known for being one of the earliest voices for Indian female sexuality as well as her honest, risqué confessional poetry. A lot her writing deals with her conflicts and dilemmas about love, but there was one love-affair in her life that never ended: Her affair with language.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
Kamala Das, popularly known by her one-time pen name Madhavikutty was an Indian poet in English as well as an author in Malayalam from Kerala, India. Her popularity in Kerala is based chiefly on her short stories and autobiography, while her oeuvre in English, written under the name Kamala Das, is noted for the poems and explicit autobiography. She was also a widely read columnist and wrote on diverse topics including women’s issues, child care, politics among others. Her open and honest writing about female sexuality gained her both popularity and criticism. She was considered iconoclastic not just for her time but even today she is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the Indian feminist movement and the godmother of liberated female sexuality in India.
Many young feminist writers of the modern age cite Kamala Das’s free-form, fearless confessional writing as inspiration for their own work. However, as open and transparent as she was in her writing, she was deeply conflicted about the concept of love, which to her was a struggle she was still wading through when she died in 2009. To understand this conflict we must first take a look at her life itself. She grew up between Calcutta and Kerala in a family littered with poets and writers. At the age of 15, she was married to Madhav Das with whom she had three children over the course of 43-years of marriage. While encouraging of her work, her work became a bone of contention between then when at the age of 42, Kamala wrote her autobiography titled “My Story” which included details of her sexual dalliances with other men. Though she later claimed many of the stories in her autobiography were fictionalized, it is believed she did so on the insistence of her husband. While they remained married, the changes in their relationship are evident in her poetry past this period. Of her autobiography, Kamala Das has said:
“Some people told me that writing an autobiography like this, with absolute honesty, keeping nothing to oneself, is like doing a striptease. True, maybe. I, will, firstly, strip myself of clothes and ornaments. Then I intend to peel off this light brown skin and shatter my bones”
The intensity with which Kamala writes about the act of writing itself, is an indication to the intensity of love she craves, and it can be argued that the only thing Kamala was ever able to truly love was writing. After the death of her husband in 1992, Kamala made the choice to convert to Islam in 1999 for her 38-year old lover and Muslim League MP, Sadiq Ali. Of late, propelled by the 2018 biopic of her life titled “aami” even this has become a source of conspiracy after members of a nationalist political outfit tried to have this film banned on the grounds that it depicted “love jihad”. While the supreme court ruled against the ban, her relationship with Sadiq is still rife with conspiracy in the minds of many Indians, a lot of whom you can find on Quora talking about her as if she is part of the history of love jihad (seriously, you guys). Though they never married, Kamala Das died behind a purdah in Pune. Of her conversion that occured in one minute in her living room, she is quoted as having said to an interviewer:
“Islam is the religion of love. Hindus have abused and hurt me. They have often tried to scandalize me. I want to love and be loved.”
Even her quest for religion was ultimately based in a deep desire for love, and her concept of love is best discussed through this lens even in her poems.
In her poem ‘An Introduction’, a few interesting points are raised about her idea of love. As a young girl she is conflicted not only about her identity and weighing it against a social-messaging system but also about her body. She says,
“When I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask for, he drew a child of sixteen into the bedroom and closed the door.”
The key element here is that she asked for love because she was unaware, as yet, of the various methods of expressing love. What she asked for was not an evidence of desire, however upon receiving that in response to a request for love, her life-long conflation of love and sex began. The poem also delineates the eventual loneliness that follows her despite being “loved” in a sexual manner. She does not display any confident possession of anyone she loves in her poetry, not in the way she does for language when she says,
“The language I speak becomes mine. Its distortion, its queernesses. All mine. Mine alone.”
This statement alone speaks to the kind of love in which she felt confident, the love of pure possession and intimate familiarity. Of which she could truly say, “This is mine.” Which is not to say that Kamala Das did not feel sexual desire, throughout her poetry, “Malabar” has been used as a symbol for ‘wildness’. In her poem, “A Hot Noon in Malabar” she talks about her affinity for the heat, dust and noise of the town others abhor but she loves. She longs for the hot noon in Malabar because she associates it with the wild men, wild thoughts and wild love. It is a torture for her to be away from Malabar. The quality with which she talks of love has the straightforwardness of Sylvia Plath coupled with the wild mysticism of Anais Nin. Kamala’s own conflict with choosing desire over love, perhaps even in a effort to gain love, distorts her concept of love even further. She might even trick readers, with her infinite skill, into thinking of her as an eternally confused wide-eyed innocent.
Her idea of love, or at least the love she craves is somewhat clarified in the poem “My Grandmother’s House.” A more mature, and maybe even a more bitter Kamala writes about her grandmother’s home where was taken care of and adored. This sentiment is at the heart of the love she craves, one that is not governed by the giving (or taking) of her body but dispensed onto her by someone for the sheer delight of loving her. She uses symbols of darkness like death, snakes and despair to describe the house almost as a representation for her own body and soul which were once hopeful and pure in some way, and is now infested with a distorted perversion of love. In the closing lines of the poem she says,
“Can you, that I lived in such a house and Was proud, and loved…. I who have lost My way and beg now at strangers’ doors to Receive love, at least in small change?”
She talks of herself as a beggar for love because while many men have made her feel sexually desired, none have yet made her feel cherished or loved. There is also in this poem a hint of self-loathing that Kamala carries through a lot of her later writing. She seems to have harboured at one time an idea that giving her body would get her love, and for that idea she grew to resent herself later. Although, even as we discuss the conflicts of Kamala Das we must remember that she is not a confused, helpless girl who is satisfied to be a victim of love, she may be conflicted but her primary purpose was always to turn her conflicts into art. While lacking in love, she was never lacking in self-awareness or skill which is why she managed to so effectively communicate her conflicts of love, many of which we feel even today, onto us through her writing and ensure we are still discussing them even long after her death.
Her self-awareness is most visible in her poem ‘The Sunshine Cat’ where she explores the concept of love by gender. She declares that the lack of reciprocation of love from her husband led her to find it elsewhere but even from there she returned empty-handed because where was willing to give the entirety of her love, men did only offer her kindness. She is trapped in a world where her measure for love is based on how useful she is to men. In this poem, Kamala is perhaps at her most resentful but also instead of taking it all upon herself she puts both men, and love itself on trial. She uses the phrase ‘they let her’ as opposed to the use of first person she usually employed in her poetry. She seems to conclude that it is not she who is unworthy of love but men who cannot love and while this final interpretation is personal, I’d like to believe that upon concluding she was never going to be of use to a man again, she was able to find it in her to finally love herself.
Ultimately Kamala Das’ understanding of love is a struggle between sexuality and purity, and does see the two coexisting in the ideal form of love but at some point she acknowledges this idea of love she has might be the unattainable Platonic form of love. In the politics of sexuality love is the victim not Kamala Das and she proves this by continuing to chase love to the very end of her life. However, the type of love she yearns for contains the sultry wildness of Malabar as well as the purity and unconditional nature of her grandmother’s love and I would argue that this love she might have only found in writing itself. Writing was clearly the greatest love-affair of Kamala Das’ life.
Pornography has existed for centuries, as has the censorship that tries to control it. Over the last few years the Government of India has instituted several bans on pornographic content claiming it causes rape and immorality. Have the bans made things better? I argue, they have made them worse.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
The first time I watched pornography it happened completely by accident. I went to get a DVD from what might have been the last one of those shops that existed in our town and as I was accustomed to doing, I asked the guy who ran the shop to make a suggestion.
“Do you want a movie to watch alone or with family?” He asked.
That was a strange question that I had never been asked before and I really was a little unsure as to why the nature of the film should change based on that. I told him I would most likely watch alone and he gave me a case that didn’t have an illustrated cover but had the word “competitors” scribbled onto it. I took the movie and later at night I started to watch on my little portable DVD player. The first shot was a naked girl on a wooden table and a man pouring a literal vat of oil on her. I have no idea how she didn’t slide off that table. Within seconds of the oil bath, they started to slide all over each other. Pornography is not great at providing context. Anyway, that’s when I shut it off, not because I take moral issue with naked people but because I felt a little strange that the DVD-guy had chosen to give me that. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to watch it or he thought I wanted to watch it. In any case, I never did find out what the competition was.
Over the years though, I did find out, mostly from male friends and a few women, that the DVD-guy was once the human version of Pornhub and telling him that you wanted a movie to “watch alone” was code for “give me porn”. Other introductions to porn included magazines one kid stole from their parents and passed around to others or soft-core films mostly young boys gathered together to watch. Shortly after that the internet went mainstream and got cheaper and cheaper to use through the years and quietly, but surely, the porn industry exploded. In 2018, India became the third largest consumer of porn in the world, with 30% of those users being woman. 89% of smartphone users admit to watching porn on their phones and the bulk of these users are aged between 18 and 40. The majority of these users do not view Indian porn or as it is more commonly known on the internet “desi porn”. Which honestly, I kind of understand, because anytime I have viewed any Indian pornography I always felt like I was watching something non-consensual, not wilfully non-consensual for the hotness of it but like i was watching someone be coerced into making those videos, or I always felt like they were being distributed against the will of the participants, at least the female participant.
This is not entirely untrue. India has strict laws against publishing or distributing pornography and unlike other countries where this may be legal in some form, the minimum age for viewing pornography is 20, not 18. The fact that there is no governance or structure to protect anyone in the porn industry, means it is rife with exploitation. Not everyone in the porn industry has a Sunny Leone type story, I would venture no one else does. Even writers of erotic comics, erotica and phone sex operators (and these have existed for a lot longer in India than you would think) work mostly anonymously in India. Besides this, starting in the late 1990s, “hidden cameras” became quite popular in India. We all remember the DPS case, I am sure? When the rights of a young girl were grossly violated and we collectively conspired to drive her out of the country? Well, if you were a teenager in the aftermath of that, you will remember, that MMS videos of girls you knew became all the rage. All the boys claimed to have seen this or that girl naked. Then smartphones brought leaked nudes and revenge porn. The final nail in the coffin came, at least administratively, from in Dehradun, four boys raped a young woman they went to school with and claimed they did it after viewing porn, and as a response the Indian government began undertaking a series of bans on pornography. Do I believe that chronic porn watching could lend the ideation to believe they could just have sex with anyone? I think, yes. Do I believe banning porn was the answer? Well.
Here’s the thing that we don’t really want to admit. Porn existed long before the internet and people have always viewed it in some form. Personally, not a big fan of watching it, I’m a storyteller and I need rich characters and context so when I want to I read it instead. It also helps that when I read it, I know no real people were harmed in the making of it. Before there was visual porn, it was written. Whether that was the chapbooks of the 17th century or the letters to penthouse of the 20th century, porn has been around. Human beings have enjoyed pornography, sensuality and eroticism for many centuries. I think it’s probably because we are actually capable of having sex for fun. In a very weird civics lesson in school we were studying the “causes for the high population of India” and one of the causes was quite simply: Recreation. What they meant, somewhat horrifyingly, was that (and I kid you not) poor people couldn’t buy much recreation so they had sex as recreation and therefore more babies. Hence, population. Terrible textbook aside, they have a point, human beings do have sex for recreation. We all know that we all do it much more for that than baby-making. It’s like our country’s worst-kept secret. And because we have sex for recreation an industry develops around it, that is how marketing works in a somewhat capitalist but definitely consumerist world. There are industries that support all our pleasures. Pornography is part of that and that’s really not immoral, sex is only as dirty as you want it to be. We have become so embroiled in the conversation of morality, we have ignored a much more important thing. Managing the industry that already exists.
Because, no one stopped watching porn because of the bans. We watched more porn than ever this year. Based on the numbers, most of our population is on the “immoral” side but no one wants to be the champion of porn. So many watch it, pretend to abhor it, watch it again but none of them really ever seem to think that the people of this industry deserve our support? Bans do not control the internet (unless you are China), and VPNs are too easy to get, and everyone continues to view whatever they want. However here at home, bans impact people who work in the industry, their job becomes more dangerous, they make less money, the have fewer or no legal recourses, they cannot quit under exploitation. The pornography that comes out of such an environment speaks to the environment itself. So much Indian porn features coercion, rape, hidden camera set-ups, “girlfriend” videos, spy videos or “caught” at a hotel videos, and what that tells me is that even in our pornography we want sex to be a forced, hidden thing. Bans only reinforce that idea. When people watch that porn that is the idea they may get about sex, and that kind of idea could absolutely cause four boys to rape a young woman. It’s not because of porn, it’s because of how Indian “culture” reflects off porn. It makes DVD guys give you porn when you wanted gore. It makes women scared to have sex because it may be filmed. It makes men who think it’s fun to record rape. It makes private school boys create WhatsApp groups to expose girls they know. You think banning porn will stop that? Nope, it’s going to make it worse.
What would make it better is having better porn. Porn where you know the characters are consenting, decently paid, safe, legally-prot nor being forced or trafficked, not underage. Porn where we know everyone is medically sound and protected. Porn that does not allow for exploitation. And I daresay, porn with better storylines and richer characters. But what we have down is instead of putting the porn industry on trial, we have decided to put the concept on trial and even as we watch it unceasingly, we look up at the news of the ban and nod our heads in agreement. Ultimately the question is a simple one :
What is it we want to protect — an idea of Indian culture or real Indian people?
I’ve always wished I had a goddess of Feminism who could answer all the questions I have accumulated over the years. It seems like I can’t but here are 10 of the questions anyway. Please help.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
I’ve said this for many years now, and I will continue to say it forever, I wish I had a goddess of feminism. Not an ideological or mythological goddess who sends cryptic messages through doves or falling pots, no thank you. I wish I had a genius, omnipotent, overly-specific, reliable, constantly fact-checking and always dressed in black (just for the aesthetic) goddess who had all the answers, you know? Because I know that I am supposed to always do what I want and that’s what feminism is really about and that sounds just lovely but it’s bullshit yeah? None of us really are sure how we feel about anything and none of us are really immune to social messaging. Even though I personally routinely pretend to be above all these things, I’m not even close. I never know if I have the right opinion or if my feelings are feminist enough. I never know what the fuck with my body, I mean, I can make a body positivity speech on the high-end of mediocre but when it comes to my body, I’m just not sure of anything. We can pretend that we understand everything and the whole world is open to subjective interpretation and anything can mean anything to anyone and that doesn’t make any of us anxious at all or we can admit an omniscient goddess who had definitive answers to everything would be awesome to have.
Of course I know I can’t but I do have questions I have been accumulating my whole life that I would definitely ask if I did have a goddess. Here are my top ten questions (please feel free to answer if you are feeling real goddess-ey today, subjective answers not accepted).
1) How excited am I allowed to be about marriage? See, fundamentally, I believe it is a sexist institution that aims at consolidating assets and asserting behavioural control but also there was a guy at my wedding (not the one I married) who was solely in charge of bringing me everything I wanted at all times. I said the words “water chestnut” and he brought me a whole plate! I turned to look for a table for my glass and HE WAS ALREADY THERE READY TO TAKE IT! Is that womanly wedding excitement or do I really just want an assistant? How much should I pay my assistant?
2) Why is the efficacy of all period products based on how well they prevent staining? I mean forget about the fact that all period blood is blue but I can watch a man’s head explode freely on national television, and let’s just focus on what a good menstrual solution is because so far THEY ALL SUCK. If you can keep a pad in place, you are operating at a level I will never get to. Tampons dry you the hell out. The menstrual cup is a literal torture device with 7000 instructions for care. The period panties thing seems kinda okay but really why are none of these products looking out for my comfort and just trying to keep me from staining? I have never had a cup of coffee without spilling, you think I care about a little blood? Pfft.
3. Is it okay for me to still like Harry Potter after J.K. Rowling lost it at trans women? Because it’s really not just about her, art v/s artist is one of life’s great unanswerable questions. Whether that is Wagner’s anti-Semitism, Spenser’s insane vendetta against the Irish, Shakespeare’s faithless ways or John Ruskin’s love for 12-year old Effie, is it okay to like the creation of a person you couldn’t have at your dinner table?
4. Is biology..a misogynist? Really, is biology sexist? Because why does everything hurt or feel like shit? Growing boobs hurts, both naturally and surgically. Periods hurt. Sex kinda hurts. Childbirth, don’t even get me started. HRT even hurts! Aging hurts. Upper body workouts hurt (but that one I would like to keep). Menopause hurts. I am assuming death hurts but that one is pretty gender-neutral so okay.
5. Is it okay to ever stop fighting? I realise this one one may not apply to everyone as a quandary but it definitely does as an experience. The politics of womanhood are a minefield. Is it ever okay to get tired and not say anything when you see something or experience something? Feels like cowardice and even Gandhi said violence is better than cowardice! Gandhi found something he disliked more than violence! Who am I to argue with Gandhi? But sometimes, is it okay to get tired of arguing, working, battling for a single cause? Or is that what death is?
6. Seriously, just give me a straight answer on this, what birth control should I use? No issues with being childless forever but much issue with the birth control market as it stands now. Not a fan of what happens with Oestrogen/progesterone blockers/inhibitors (and if you don’t know the type of birth control you use or how it may be impacting your body, please look it up, the birth control industry be hella sexist). Period math depends on a reliable cycle, lol. Not on board with having things inserted into me at all. No surgical options, please, and while my partner and I are cool with a vasectomy, so few competent practitioners are willing to perform it. Should I use Saheli? Seems safer than other oral contraception but the Indian government (that thinks nuclear fission came from the Mahabharata) is involved. Seriously, just tell me, how do I keep myself from accidentally having babies (or abortions)? Celibacy is not an option, please.
7. Really… What are men? Let me just preface this by saying there are many nice men bla bla bla but seriously straight men, have you ever tried dating straight men? Just as a social experiment, #nohomo, try it. Just try it and then you will understand my question, and you might even ask it yourself.
(Pro tip: Don’t ask a girl you met on hinge and haven’t even seen in person yet if she is willing to relocate for the love of you. Seriously.)
8. Am I allowed to have emotions or not? May seem like one of those “you can do whatever you want” questions but it’s serious and I need a real answer. I thought I had it right at 21, I had no emotions at all at work and minimally expressed them personally, but apparently I was scaring people. Then I tried subverting emotions into humour and apparently I was also scaring people. Then I tried turning emotions on and apparently men at work will attack you for that and think you are too naive to be taken seriously. Now I pretty much don’t know how to emote without discomfort so I put them all into writing about other characters. If you could assist that would be real dandy. Please don’t suggest a therapist, they keep telling me to find god and seriously you think I wouldn’t if it were that fucking easy?
9. How do I explain to doctors that not every single ailment a woman has is caused by depression or anxiety? I once had dengue and the doctor said my fever was caused by anxiety. My mother will be writhing in pain and be given an antidepressant. My sister had a two month cough and was mostly prescribed xanax. Why do all doctors think all women are depressed (and simultaneously why don’t we take women’s depression seriously?)
10. This one is really important. How should I feel about shows like “The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives?” Like, on the one hand I think that if this is what sells and it makes some women money, why the fuck should I have a problem with that? Then there’s the fact that it actually makes a lot of male-dominated boardrooms a lot more money than the women. Then it’s just so problematic but also I watched it, even if only to write about it. Also it does accurately represent some things however tone-deaf they are but it fails to take the opportunity to discuss actually relevant things. Also the whole show felt like a trailer to a finale that never was. I don’t know, woman.
When a woman marries anyone in India she is compelled to change her identity in the name of tradition, but if a woman marries an army officer she may have to allow herself to be indoctrinated into a system that reduces her identity to a service she is never paid or thanked for. I refuse to let anyone call me an army wife, here is why.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
Back when we lived together in Jaipur, before we were married, I invited my partner’s colleagues home for dinner one night. While we all sat together having drinks, I noticed that all the women were on one end of the room while all the men congregated on the other. I asked the men first why they wouldn’t converse with the women as well.
“All they talk about is sarees, kids and other women,” one of them said, “No need to get embroiled in that.”
“You know women are interested in a lot more things that sarees right?” I asked, “I have not once in my life had a discussion about a saree.”
“You will once you are an army wife,” he said, “That is the culture of army wives.”
Immediately, I asked him why they were comfortable referring to their wives under the title of their jobs. After all, once we married, my husband wasn’t going to become a “journalist husband” but the conversation devolved almost immediately as I stood in the middle of the room and both sides attacked me for criticising an institution that in India is completely beyond reproach. After all they are in the business of nationalism, and me with my anti-establishment feminism am in the business of sedition. Anything I say, no matter how much it deals with my own autonomy or agency, is met with aggressive resistance. Yet at the time, it didn’t matter so much because by their own admission unless we were married our relationship wasn’t real to the army or really, most people in the army. The few that did see our relationship as one day being real enough, told me almost threateningly that I would eventually change everything about myself because I would have to become “army wife” in support of my husband’s career. I was told tales of “independent” women who refused to conform and how that impacted the careers and postings of their husbands.
I was most concerned about getting married because of my partner’s job and not because he has to move frequently, honestly, I was already moving quite frequently anyway and I would say that the best thing about the army is that it allows you to live in so many parts of the country. The worst part is a book entitled “Wedded To The Olive Greens”. I first learnt of this book a month after I got married, while at one of those unnecessary (yeah, I said it) stiff upper-lip dos, unable to contain how appalled I was at the idea that there was an actual book that tells women how to behave within a marriage and an institution that they do not work for. I read the book and among other things it tells you to be cheerful, how to talk to the soldiers who may frequent your home, how to socialize and it was also entirely dedicated to women because Bipin Rawat said it himself there is no room for women in the army so why teach the “army husbands” who will never exist how to behave. For my outrage I was told I was misunderstanding the intention behind the book, it wasn’t sexism, it was elitism.
“You’re already well-spoken and polished, this book is not for you,” a well-meaning older woman told me, “There are all types of women who marry army officers and some of them are lacking the.. soft-skills.”
People never believe me when I tell I them I always remember exactly everything that is said to me but I do, and when it comes to women’s rights I will speak it all out someday. Satya, and all that. Which is why I must say very honestly, the idea of being viewed as an “army wife” feels like indoctrination and reduction of my identity and being forced to call myself that feels like non-consenual inculcation. Many have told me I am taking it too seriously and the actual intention is all about community, but let me tell you a story. A while ago we were having a little get-togther on the roof of our building and a man, who had met me several times before, called out to me by the last name of my husband.
“I’m sorry that is not my name,” I said turning to him, “My name is Aarushi Ahluwalia, could you be please address me as such?”
“Look ma’am,” he said clearly shocked by my request, “I’ve been in the army for 20 years, these are our traditions and I am too old to change now.”
“This is not about your traditions or the army,” I told him, “This is about my name.”
He disagreed and we came to the usual question: Why does it matter so much what someone calls me? Apparently if I am secure in myself matters of agency shouldn’t bother me. It’s all about inner-peace and acceptance.
It matters because I, and every fucking woman, has the right to her goddam legal identity. It matters because “tradition” is exactly what we have used for millennia to get women to behave. It matters because I financially contribute and always have to my household and myself and it is not okay with me that four out of the eleven-thousand army people I have met have asked me what I do, let alone my name. It matters because I have a name, and when you calling me ma’am is more about never learning it than showing me respect then you have forgotten what your traditions are about. It matters because I will not be typecast or allow a diverse, vibrant group of women to be painted as a saree-obssessed monolith especially when they are forced to be that way. Let me tell you another story.
Very shortly after we were married, I was to attend a women-only event that the army hosts routinely in every station. The goal is to impart skill and knowledge, which I am completely on board with, and to that end I was going to make a presentation on how to raise children who are aware of their rights and the women’s movement. (Yes, I really only have one talking point, would add a second if I ever ran out of subjects on this one). I was coming straight from a meeting I had for a project I was working on so I was wearing trousers, a shirt and a coat. I didn’t think anything of it since I was in formals and the “dress code” on the invite also said “formals”. At the event it didn’t seem like anything was wrong, I made my presentation and afterwards we had tea and samosas which is like compulsory no matter what if you are at an indian anything. The next day however all the men were called in for a meeting about army wives deviating from dress-codes. Apparently I was to wear a saree and all the women’s rights presentations in the world couldn’t rescue me from the rules of the role I was cast in without my permission. The irony was lost on everyone but I still tell the story in my circle to a successful eruption of laughter.
But that is wrong, no?
I shouldn’t laugh about the forceful traditions of an organisation that gives me so much respect? Because one thing is for sure, whenever there is an eruption of anger from the forces after they are accused of sexist behaviour or harassment, their indignation is real and I can see why because they do truly believe they respect the rights of women by calling us ma’am and holding doors open for us. They truly believe that by letting us eat first at parties and standing up when we enter rooms they are giving us our rights, just not the ones we want. To me that doesn’t sound like you are upholding the rights of women. It sounds like telling them to carve their rights within your tradition. The same people who take dire offense at criticism of any behaviour of a uniformed person have told me to my face that being a journalist meant I had sold my soul. Probably the same people who got real worried about press freedom when Arnab was arrested. When it comes to them everything is about tradition, and if you call the tradition out for being oppressive that is your problem as an individual.
Here is the fact, though, I never joined the army. If I wasn’t forced to by virtue of the location of my partner’s current station, I wouldn’t even live in an army house. I don’t want the nation to spend resources on me when I don’t work for them and more importantly when I do not need them, I pay taxes that contribute to the salaries of the army, and I do everything in my power to redistribute any resources that I am compelled to take. I will not relinquish any rights because I married a man who wears a very hot uniform. You have principles? Well, so do I. I will not be an “army wife” and I have it in me to make my case each time I am expected to be that or forcefully made to adorn that role. Let’s see who gets tired first.
Identity matters to women as well.
My identity is my right and I’ll be damned if i let pressure to put on a saree in the name of a tradition that means nothing to me take that away from me.
Very rarely in the course of human events there comes a time when we consider our mortality as a species instead of as individuals. While most of us study history, this year all of us have lived it. While our lives will eventually end, these are our stories and some of them might be remembered.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
In the last week of February, I was sanitizing my compartment of what I didn’t know would be the last bus I would take this year when it first occurred to me that the world may be changing forever. While Covid19 had already begun to ravage many parts of the world, it was still most rampant in Wuhan at the time, it was that period when journalists all over the world were signing up for Tinder international so we could talk to somone in Wuhan to get more information. Here in India we were still practising a panicked form of denial, I had brought my own blanket for the bus even as I told my partner there was no chance anything was really ever going to happen to me, or anyone. I don’t trust our people, our public health services, our transportation services or our government, but I was willing to believe everything would be okay.
Less than a month after I returned from that trip, everything was shut down. All work trips were cancelled, all offices were shut down, all schools were closed, my college was closed, all markets were closed, all gyms were closed and all of a sudden we were forced to accept that everything would not be okay. We watched, horrified, as the news in Italy reported ons gruesome natural atrocity after another. We rattled utensils on our balconies like idiots willing to believe the sound of copper can do more than epidemiologists and deadly viruses. We watched as Americans refused to wear masks and other Americans refused to let that happen. We read wild conspiracy theories about 5G and bioterrorism. Slowly we started to hear of people we know contracting the disease and we hoped that somehow we had gotten it asymptomatically as well. We figured out new and different methods of learning, working and socializing. Almost all of us lost someone we knew or loved, we learnt the pain of not being able to be there when we did. We ate too much and all gained weight, we made bread, we started abandoned projects. We all taught at least one disgruntled parent how to use zoom or teams. We suddenly stopped hearing from anti-vaxxers (and then they came back) and we all became experts on the plague, SARS, 1918 and Shakespeare writing King Lear (which is nowhere near his best work, just sayin).
It has been a strange year, to say the least and if there is nothing else that can be said about it with explicit clarity, I can at least say this, this was the only time in my entire life that I actually believed and saw a world where we were all experiencing something so similar that we actually understood each other. What each of us did with it was different. I used the pandemic to write my first novel, shift focus from journalism to writing and alternately gaining and losing weight. I also learnt that I can move a lot of furniture with alarming frequency. I stopped travelling for the first time since I started working. Unable to socialize with other human beings, I focused on all the animals living around me, and then had a breakdown because I cannot stand the chirping birds. My sister threw herself into art projects. My other sister dedicated herself to acting classes and skin care. My mother took knitting to a whole other level. My father experienced what it was like to stay in one country for six months.
We were the fortunate ones, but there were others whose experiences were much less pleasant. Many experienced a loss of livelihood and food security. Supply chains broke down all over the country. We realised the gaps in our public health systems and political processes. Some of us felt betrayed and let down by the governments we had elected. Others realised their marriages only worked if their homes were empty. And all of us, each one, realised we weren’t invincible, neither as people, nor as a species. It was the year of hard truths and of determining what really matters to us, and who really matters to us. Every generation expects to go down in history, but it was the year in which we learnt what it really means to live through history. Ultimately most of is turned to all that is left: god, faith and hope.
It will take years to unpack everything that has happened this year from mindless, rampant loss of life to economic impact to the nature of the very disease. It is unlikely we were learn from this any of the things we vow so fervently to learn now, and it is more likely we will gain another version of A Journal of The Plague Year that will be read only by lit students trying to clear UGC NET. A day will come when only the intelligentsia will remember us, our stories and how our lives were impacted by a disease. They will discuss us as a case study in a classroom or on news channels when comparing the crises of their day to ours like we do now to the millions of people who died of the Spanish Flu. The tally of our casualities will be the answer to one of 300 questions on an entrance exam.
We will be gone. Our masks will have decomposed. Our medicinal knowledge will be considered primitive. Our pain will be crafted into colourful sentences laden with metaphor. Our plight will be interesting instead of horrific. Our stories will be constructed by second and third generations. Our vaccines will disappear along with our bodies. If there is nothing else we have learnt, we know now at least that our mortality is real and afflicts each one of us. We know nothing can save us from the world, even if we cure the predicament of this year, we will not cure the human condition. We will die and we will be forgotten. We will become remembered only by history.
And that is okay.
We will love, cry, suffer, laugh, eat and learn today. Tomorrow it will all be forgotten. In a thousand years another generation will look at us like we do the Greeks. Tomorrow they will love, cry, suffer, laugh, eat and learn. It will be their time. Today, and only today, is ours. Sometimes a dagger at your neck is that only thing that reminds you don’t need to write your own story, sometimes all you can do is live it and hope for the best.
Young girls who are assertive and unconcerned with being “girly” are often called tomboys, but what are we really saying to our daughters when we call them that?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
If given a choice I have always dressed in exactly the same outfit my entire life: a black shirt, black pants and sensible boots. It’s not just because I am always dressing for efficiency, but also because that is the aesthetic that I find most appealing. Even as a child, I hated having to be decked up or colourful. I liked having my hair cut short and I enjoyed being outdoors. I never really could understand the value of combing my hair or ironing my clothes. I was outspoken and that often led to my parents worrying about me and trying to avoid letting me come in contact with their more conservative friends. There was a term that was used to describe me, a term we use to describe all rough-and-tumble girls who don’t take to make-up or softness. They called me a tomboy. I thought that was just a neutral descriptor but over the years, I have come to feel that it might be the most offensive thing we could say to a young girl.
Let me explain.
Right off the bat, when we say the term ‘tomboy’ what we are saying is that this is a girl who acts like a boy which means we have already decided the manner in which girls and boys are to behave. I was called a tomboy because I was interested in politics, social reform and never cleaning my room. I was called a tomboy because I had short hair, I liked black and rolling around in the dirt. I was called a tomboy because I wore baggy t-shirts, unflattering trousers and talked about my career a lot. It was presented to me as if “tomboy” is an acceptable gender based identification prescribed to someone like me. I didn’t know it was for me to choose, and I didn’t realise it was even about gender. To me it was presented as acceptance, because I didn’t feel accepted within the gender I was assigned at birth, it felt like an olive branch that I was all too pleased to take because it felt like I was then normal.
I believed I had to be a tomboy and that meant I had to judge women who care about their nails and ones who buy pink diaries. I had to be unemotional about everything and focus on always being the responsible one in any situation. I had to focus on functionality and never on aesthetic. I had to fight for everything and do it loudly on behalf of people who never even asked me to do it. That way I could be secure in my identity as a tomboy, afterall what I wanted from life was to be a black-clad, smooth-talking, career oriented, weight-lifting, tax paying, social justice warrior and being a tomboy seemed like it was exactly that.
But I never should have been encouraged to call myself a boy just because those were the things I wanted from my life. Tomboys don’t grow up to be women or men in view of society, when we grow up we become women who are trying to be men and we do it to gain acceptance from men. It should never have been taught to me that I had to aspire to manhood to be able to have the goals I and the right to speak as loudly as I desired. As I grew older I began to crush my own desire, I stopped allowing myself any indulgence in aesthetics, even when I wanted to decorate my world. I wouldn’t let myself experience emotion because that was the womanly thing to do, as if emotion plagues only those that bear vaginas. I stunted myself because I was taught I was always trying to be a man and I had to continue to do that.
But what is it that we really way about men and women when we do this?
We say that men are the ones who speak loud, the ones who care about career, the ones who are allowed to shed focus from appearance long enough to get dirty, the ones who focus on solution and not emotion when one can obviously do both at once. Then when we call girls of similar persuasions “tomboys” we strip them of their gender and tell them they are aspirational boys; we tell them that they want what boys get and they want to live how boys so. Instead I should have been taught that women come in all forms, just like men. That I could a girl who liked mud or a girl who liked pink and it didn’t really speak to my gender orientation. I should have been taught that women have as much right to ambition and ego as men do.
What happens when we call girls like me tomboys is that we tell them they are trying to eat from the pot of another. We are trying to take what belongs to men by acting like them. That’s what the patriarchy wants, it wants women to believe we have less rights to opportunity and economic advancement and it wants men to believe that every opportunity that a woman gets is an opportunity that they lost. It wants to explain women as opposed to letting us grow into whomsoever we have the right to be. When you call a tough girl, a boy, you tell her she is taking the rights that belong to a specific gender. They aren’t just the rights of men though and young girls deserve to know that. They deserve to be able to be sweaty and confrontational without being told they are boys for doing so. They deserve to know their own rights without feeling like they are borrowing them from another.
I am not a tomboy, I never was.
I was just a girl who wasn’t taught that I don’t have to be a man to be free, and that is an offence most severe.
We’re often told that love and marriage aren’t the same thing and it is ordained that everything will change after marriage. Yet it is not marriage that necessitates these changes, it’s the manner in which we socially conduct affairs of the heart. Nothing changed in my life after I married, and this is why.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
It’s no secret that I had no interest in marriage. It’s not only that it’s a sexist institution that has largely benefited men but also that it is an unnecessary agreement that sanctifies love for the sake of society. My husband and I only married because we couldn’t continue to cohabitate without it because of his job, and we often joke about getting divorced once he retires. I don’t need a legal contract to love him nor do we need legal access to one another’s assets, I would just happily give him my 456 books and he would just happily give me his four precious pairs of shoes. We had the world’s most unromantic proposal and we bought cheapest ring possible to commemorate it. There was no element of surprise and our wedding was nowhere near the most amazing day of our lives.
Part of this resistance I had always had to marriage also had to do with a phrase that is often repeated to couples that are just about to marry. We tell them — Everything changes after marriage.
There isn’t a detailed or uniform explanation for this phrase but based on contextual inference it does mean a few specific things. It means that your relationship will no longer exist independently, once you are married there is a familial aspect that is added to your relationship. In some cases it is a relationship you have to maintain from a distance while in many, many others the woman is expected to embrace the man’s family often as a daily part of her “new life”. She is expected to learn and live within new norms. It means there will be freshly added social expectations that you will be expected to meet as husband and as wife. There will be a merger of your financial affairs, or in some cases, the woman will become the financial charge of her husband. It means that you will begin to cohabitate, which also most often means the woman will move from her home to the man’s (and/or his family’s) or in a more modern setup they will both move to a brand new house together. You be expected to dress different, as a woman, and explain it if you don’t. You have to keep your toothbrush in the same room as where someone else poops. Things do actually change after marriage based on how we currently conduct marriage.
Cohabitation is really the big one, I think. Not that the rest of those things don’t rally around it. In essence, what is different is that until you get married, you don’t have a “life together”. You don’t know how the other prioritizes their money. You don’t know how many hours of sleep they deem necessary. You aren’t overly familiar with one another’s bodily functions. You’ve may have slept together before but you may not have a sexual routine that has developed yet, and you may not even know if you are truly compatible. You don’t know whether the person you are with will suddenly decide a yellow leather couch is a great addition to your house. You should but you may not know where the other really stands on having children. You may not know whether you want to or how it might impact you to change your name. You may have envisioned forever together, but you may not have tasted it yet. With marriage the first taste is often the meal you have already ordered, to eat for the rest of your life, no less.
This isn’t as much about marriage though, as it is about how we conduct relationships. Marriage is a step on the relationship ladder and it shouldn’t be at all. As far as I am concerned if it isn’t something you would be willing to do on Saturday morning in your pajamas, don’t do it at all. Nothing changed about my relationship with my partner after we got married. Nothing. Not my name. Not our address. Not our bank accounts. Not the car we owned. Not the jobs we worked. Not the child who we co-parent. It’s not because we didn’t do any of that (though some of it we really didn’t), it’s because we had done it a long time before we decided to get married.
We met. We fell in crazy, stupid love. We drove around in the rain listening to our favourite songs. We had dinner. We spent the night together. We spent the weekend together. We missed each other. I cooked for him, he cleaned for me. We had a fight. We went away together. We got a cat. We had a conversation about children. We moved in together. We got another cat. We started budgeting together. We met each other’s families. We moved to a different city. We went house-hunting together. We bought furniture. We had our families come stay with us. We had a pregnancy scare. We struggled together financially. We almost got a dog. His son moved in with us. We learnt to parent. And then, after all of that, we got married. At that point, it meant absolutely nothing to do it. We had a life together. We just packed our stuff in one suitcase, put our kid in the car went to my parents house, got married and went back home where the bills we were used to paying and the bed we had perfected to our needs was already waiting for us to return.
Of course, I cannot pretend any of that is free of strife because in this country you have to go to the high court even to assert your right to live freely with whosoever you choose as an adult woman. You have to explain to teachers that you are the guardian to a child whose mother you are not and they look at you like you might be demented. You have fight to get your parents to understand that love is what matters, not what you call it. You have to contend with the people who cannot take your love seriously because you don’t call yourself by your partner’s last name. You have to explain to real estate agents that you don’t want to lie about your marital status. We had to do all of that as well and it wasn’t pleasant but it was still the best decision I have ever made. My husband is not a surprise to me at all, I have seen everything and so has he. We’ve danced with each other’s demons and we’ve held each other through the worst of things. In light of that, marriage means nothing. It means nothing when the only thing you care about is waking up to the joy of being with each other.
There is no responsibility in a relationship, it shouldn’t be the place that brings you stress, it should be the most constant delight in your life. It shouldn’t be hard to make it work. Politics is hard, socializing is hard, work is hard, money is hard but love, love shouldn’t be hard. Yet you cannot know if you feel that way until you have all the information and the way we conduct marriage right now, no one has all the information. You cannot know if you truly love when you’re spending all your time associating all your new familial and social responsibilities with the person you married. So everything it seems to change after marriage.
It doesn’t have to though. Marriage is a speck, love is monumental.
A short poem on the resistance to liberty that women face on a daily basis.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
Don’t you get tired? They ask. Don’t you get sick of fighting? Fed up of all these candles you keep lighting? Sick of talking about fear and rape? The endless tirades on body shape? Don’t you ever just want to sit down? Smile brightly, wipe off the frown. Dance gaily in the sun? Don’t you ever just want to have fun?
The shackles of your bangles bring me no joy, Liberty, really is my most favourite toy. It doesn’t soothe my heart to dance, Not as it does when I defend a stance. I don’t care about the colour I paint my face, And really, truly, please fuck grace. Nothing feels quite like exercising choice, not the pleasure you tell me is beauty and poise, I can’t put on your role for fun, when to me it’s the smoking barrel of a gun.
I don’t get tired, I don’t get sick, I love entirely this life I pick. It’s you, you’re the one who needs to find, in me a woman that you defined. And when you cannot find her anywhere you look, You tell me there in unhappiness outside your book. But I fight and shout and scream and defend, With relish, my people to the very end. In this life my joy is entirely mired, Yet you ask me, don’t I get tired?
When really, I want to ask you the same. Is breaking me really your only aim? Is it really so important that I alter, Each instance in which you think I falter? Aren’t you tired of defending the wrong side? Even after they took from you, cheated and lied? You rob us, attack us and try to erase our pain? And then ask if we don’t get sick of trying to say sane.
Even after everything we forgive, Don’t you get sick of telling us how to live?
Young women are taught to measure themselves by the weighing-scale and in doing that we encourage eating disorders in women. Mindless dieting, meal-replacement and social shaming turn into mental health issues that we continue to ignore, but what happens when your body retaliates? What happens when eating disorders eat away at your existence?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I was at a burger joint with my mother, sister and some friends. I could not have been older than ten. We had just eaten a burger when one of my friends asked if he could get another, normally I would never ask for more food but because he did, I asked if I could as well. My mother offered to get him another burger even as she simultaneously told me that I couldn’t eat more because I would become even more fat. My friend said he would share half of his with me but my mother loudly insisted that I couldn’t be allowed to eat any more because I was so fat. At some point so much had been said by her, my friends and the people around us that I had to excuse myself to go cry in the bathroom. Along with the tears, out came the food as well. That was the first time I felt better after throwing up my food. I didn’t force myself to vomit, but I think the emotions were so strong that a wave a nausea just came over me, I couldn’t help but throw up. I went back out to the restaurant and didn’t tell anyone. I pretended I didn’t want any of that food anymore. I started pretending I didn’t even need food anymore.
I was a chubby kid, right from age six or seven, and I cannot say with certainty how old I was the first time I was told to lose weight but most of what I remember of my childhood is shrouded in tales of weight-loss and my body being up for public discussion by everyone and anywhere. All of my “recreational activities” were dictated by the fact that I needed to lose weight and so I swam, skated, played tennis and generally maintained a very active lifestyle. I was a terrible tennis player, I still am truly horrible at it, but I loved to run and swim. I would run around the court and my coach would encourage me to do it because I would lose more weight, I would swim endless laps at the pool and everyone around me would ask how I could still be fat when I swam so much. Once I won a trekking award at adventure camp, and all our school sports trainer had to say about that was he was shocked I could be fat and fit. I loved doing those things but I stopped doing them because I hated being the fat girl doing them. I hated that no matter what I did, it didn’t truly seem to have an impact on how I looked and that’s all anyone cared about. Sweating is attractive on beautiful people, but when a fat girl runs around a track, we only see a pitiful struggle (even if that fat girl would beat you hollow). I didn’t want to be the fat active girl so I stopped doing the things I loved for the most part.
Instead, under the garb of health, my family decided I should focus on diets instead. The irony of that is lost on everyone. I must have been eleven or twelve when I started my first diet but even when I wasn’t on a prescribed diet, I felt like my food intake was always being monitored. Whether I ate at home or outside it, there were always eyes on my plate. Often, when we were around company, my mother would take me aside and tell me when to stop eating. Complete strangers would analyse the food on my plate and tell me which parts of it to eliminate so I could be thin. “Elders” would tell me that because I had already gotten my period it was unlikely I would ever be thinner so I should focus on never gaining another kilogram even though I hadn’t even gotten to my full height at that point. I don’t think it happened in one day, but I just stopped eating in places where I could be seen. I didn’t eat in school, I didn’t eat at restaurants, I tried to pretend I had already eaten when at home, I didn’t eat with friends. I only ate in secret. From my teenage years till I was twenty-two, I ate in the bathroom as often as I could. I hid all evidence of things I ate because I got into a lot of trouble if they were found. Even when I started to live alone at eighteen, I would turn the lights off when I ate. I feared throwing my leftovers in the garbage because I didn’t want anyone to know I ate. I never ate on dates. I would go to lunch with my friends in college and just sit there while they ate, pretending that I never got hungry.
In our world, women are rewarded for choosing not to eat and fat women are punished for being seen while they eat. I didn’t want to be the joke anymore, I didn’t want to be seen as the size of my body, so I rejected the notion that I was human enough to eat. I hated myself for being hungry. I hated my body for how it looked. The hate reached its peak at fourteen, I was taken to a man known as an endocrinologist who told me I had way too much testosterone and if I didn’t become thin immediately, I would become a man. Modern medicine is a miraculous thing dispensed mostly by fucking idiots (although I’d still pick them over ayurvedic surgeons), because the solution to this apparently was to give me diet pills (which have since literally been banned) and oral contraceptives to “regulate” my cycle. Apparently medical school teaches that an oestrogen/progesterone blocker/inhibitor, lowers.. testosterone? I can’t even figure that out, but I was young, my parents were concerned, he was a renowned doctor (and well contraceptives are a well know “treatment” of PCOS), so on the pills I went.
I felt sick all the time. There wasn’t a moment in my day when I wasn’t nauseated. I felt bloated and disgusting. Random people who had no business looking at my body expressed their concern about my body-hair growth. So while inside me, my hormones wrecked havoc, I had to look good (because, duh, woman, who will marry me otherwise?) so I went to dermatologists to get laser to remove all evidence of testosterone from my body. It burnt my face but the hair stayed. I went to sweaty rooms with vibrating belts that were supposed to..melt fat? No matter what I did, nothing worked, because we were never addressing the real problem. We were always focused only on making me look like a beautiful marriageable girl who wasn’t fat and didn’t have hair growing out of her chin but I could never say anything because everyone around me kept telling me they were destroying my sanity in the interest of my health. The people who were “helping” me never taught me to love my body, and I only learnt to hate it. Each time I failed at diets or other fads, I was told I was wasting money I never asked to be spent on me and I felt worse about myself.
I didn’t ever think of myself as beautiful, even now it never really occurs to me to do that. I didn’t ever believe there was value to my body or how I looked, that is also part of why I hated buying clothes because all my life, I had been taught to dress in a way that covered all the fat and each time I wore things that I liked, I was told they were “vulgar” because the unacceptable shape of my body was visible in them. My mother once, maybe it was causal to her, expressed a longing to take a knife and cut the fat off my body. That’s how much she hated it, and that’s how much I hated myself for it. I hated going back home because the first thing that was said to me was always an evaluation of my weight. I existed as an intellectual state of being and I ignored that there was any earthly vessel that ensconced me. If I ignored it hard enough, and I didn’t eat at all, and I destroyed my body with blades, I figured, eventually, I will disappear.
And I did.
One night, after 40 straight hours of working, I took a hot shower and came into my bedroom where I had my very first panic attack. I was convinced that I had died and no one was there to tell me that. I ran to the emergency room where I told them that I thought I was dying, I called my sister and told her I was sure I was never going to speak to her again. I couldn’t feel myself in there anymore, I touched my skin and it felt like I couldn’t register the touch. My heart-rate soared because of the panic but after checking my heart and everything else, the doctor informed me there was nothing wrong with me. I told him he seemed like a figment of my imagination and I wasn’t really sure if he was really there or if I was even really there. I was terrified that I would never stop feeling that way. Nothing around me felt real, I shook my head and pinched myself, but all I could see was a reality that was going on without me. I had tried to destroy my body and wish it away, and I had succeeded. I hated it and it hated me back. The doctor gave me an anti-anxiety pill that I pretended to eat and I went home with my sister who understood anxiety much better than I did. I didn’t really quite believe it was real, I thought it was a feeling, but it’s a sensation. You don’t feel it in your heart or mind, you feel it all over your body. Even as I fell asleep that night, I knew I wouldn’t wake up feeling better.
I didn’t feel better for almost a whole year. I didn’t feel real, and I don’t mean that in an abstract sense, I would look at the world and be absolutely convinced I wasn’t really there. I went about my work, my life, I met people because I harbour a deep fear of being a non-functional member of society, but inside me there was no one. There wasn’t a person in there. I had everything checked out. Hormones, brain, stomach, old injuries that I had ignored forever. Nothing was wrong with me in terms of numbers on papers, but I was constantly falling apart. I was walking to the ER four times a week to tell them I was dying. I went to a therapist, another thing I am loath to do, and all he told me after a 140 minutes was that I needed to find god. I went to a psychiatrist and he told me I should take some pills. I went to my boyfriend and he told me I was being overly dramatic. I went to friends and my sister, and some of them helped a lot, others encouraged me to find someone in my life to blame for what was happening to me. I didn’t want any of that. I didn’t want god, I didn’t want to blame, I didn’t want seratonin reuptake inhibitors. I wanted to feel one with my body. I wanted to feel myself really in there.
The real issue is that I had never been taught I was allowed to like and love myself as I am. Women are always told to love the body they want to have and never the one they are in. When women talk of intermittent fasting (which is just a fancy word for how I destroyed my metabolism) and eating nothing, we encourage them. We motivate them to do it for the specific cause of being thin. We tell girls to go to the gym and for walks, so that they can be thin. No other reason. All of that had crushed me, and when I couldn’t think of any other solution, I remember the little girl who loved running on the tennis court and just fucking ran. I ran until I felt pain in my body again. I ran until I couldn’t breathe. I ran so I could feel myself in there. I ran until my lungs ached and my legs became sore. It’s terrible not to be able to feel your own skin, I ran so that I didn’t have to live like that forever.
Over the course of the last 6-years, I gave everything I could to my body, and I never ever did it because I wanted to be thin. I don’t, I want to be healthy but most importantly, I want to be happy. I don’t care about thin anymore and I have no qualms about shutting up the fuck out of any person who thinks they deserve a say. I ran so I could be capable. I did yoga because the joy of movement made me feel beautiful and my body deserves that, it deserves to feel beautiful. I did push-ups not because I want sculpted arms but because that feeling of strength burning in my shoulders reminds me there is a whole alive person inside me. I focused on the beauty of all the people around me instead of their flaws. I focused on their strength. I stopped being scared of food and I allowed myself to be comfortable eating publically. I let myself eat three times a day from once in three days. The first time I admitted that I was actually hungry and agreed to go to lunch with my colleagues, I felt a part of myself come back to me. I let myself have the joy and pleasure of movement and strength for the sake of itself, and with no other agenda.
I’m not thin even today. I am healthy and my haemoglobin could break world records, but I’m still fat. Muscular, and fat. I don’t hate myself for it. I don’t think of myself like that anymore. I love myself for the things I do instead. I love that I can lift myself up by the strength of my arms alone. I love that I can put my knee over my shoulder. I love that I can run for an hour and then go for a three-hour walk. I love that, yesterday, I did bare fucking knuckle push-ups and it felt amazing. I don’t see my body in terms of size anymore, I see it in terms of strength, I feel beautiful inside it. I don’t feel like an alien. I feel like it’s mine and I belong inside it and that’s wonderful.
I had to learn to love my body to erase the years of neglect and hatred that I had been taught, and I couldn’t learn that by becoming thin. I couldn’t decide to love it on a condition and I am glad I didn’t. I love my body, for everything it does for me, and all the joy if gives me. I realise now it’s not my place to punish it, there are enough people in the world working on that.