India defines beauty in new ways

By Kate Nutting:

As soon as you step out onto the streets of Delhi, it becomes clear that the City is in the process of change.

Urban India is growing more and more westernised by the day.

Young women and men walk confidently down the street in Western clothes, alongside their elders who are dressed in traditional suits and saris.

The roadside stalls selling sneakers and jeans are blatant signs of urban India’s fascination with Western culture.

A mother and daughter at Select Citywalk Mall in South Delhi.

A mother and daughter at Select Citywalk Mall in South Delhi.

Western culture started influencing India in the early 19th century.

The process of westernisation in India is said to be deeply rooted in its colonial past, speeding up in recent decades as the reach of Western media grew.

It is important to note that India is a very diverse nation, home to hundreds of varying cultures and great economic disparity.

This diversity means that not all of India has been affected by the infiltration of Western culture.

Much of India is still very rural and remote, meaning that the culture in these areas has gone largely untouched; it is only the cities where the ramifications of globalisation have been felt.

As with any change, the process of embracing Western culture is having both a positive and negative effect on society.

How India’s youth behave today is entirely different to the way in which that their parents did – their entertainment, food, clothing, behaviour and speech is vastly different to anything that India has ever seen before.

The way in which youth dress and behave today is leaving their parents and grandparents in shock, forcing them to quickly accept that globalisation has created a generation significantly different to the last.

Globalisation has effectively spawned a new breed of young, urban Indians – a group who are now facing a set of challenges that had never even been heard of before.

Ten years ago, eating disorders had never even been heard of on the streets of New Delhi.

Even three months ago, when HerBody mDhil on YouTube trawled the streets of India asking young people what anorexia was, the majority drew a blank.

Despite this, eating disorders, such as anorexia are becoming more and more prevalent in metropolitan India, leaving health professionals scrambling to keep up with the growing problem.

In recent years, body ideals within urban India have radically changed, consequently spurring eating disorders rates to rise.

Among the psychiatric community, it is widely believed that the increasing rates are linked to the rapid cultural change that the country is going through.

In fact, many academics believe that westernisation and urbanisation causes an increased risk of psychiatric morbidity in general.

In times of social change, eating disorders rates often boom, meaning that they are generally seen as markers of cultural transition.

In many studies, rising eating disorder rates have been linked to the unconscious and unquestioning adoption of Western values.

Eating disorders have always been seen as a ‘Western problem’ however as the Western culture spreads and penetrates the rest of the world, so does the illness.

H&M launch

On the 2nd October 2015, the first H&M store in India opened at Select Citywalk Mall in South Delhi. Here the true effect of westernisation could be seen. India’s malls are very westernised.

Traditionally, the Indian ideal of beauty was curves.

‘Well-rounded’ women were always admired, and curves were strived for as they were thought to be be representative of health, beauty and prosperity.

Historically, thinness was directly associated with being undernourished and from a low caste, but today that is not the case.

Today urban India’s perception of beauty is being increasingly being redefined by Western parameters, despite the fact that the size zero complex completely contradicts thousands of years of history.

In the last decade, India has certainly encountered significant cultural change as a result of economic growth, technological advances and globalisation.

Globalisation and the ubiquity of the Internet mean that today India is exposed to the Western lifestyle and appearance.

Today’s youth have been raised in this globally connected world, whereby Western culture is a normal and accepted part of life.

According to Dr Sanjay Chugh, a senior consultant neuro-psychiatrist, eating disorders are caused by biological, psychological and social factors.

“One may get an eating disorder if he or she is genetically predisposed to it. There are various psychological or personality traits that may make a person more susceptible to an eating disorder…At a social level, a person may be more prone to developing an eating disorder if he or she is exposed to the ideal of a thin body type. Its easily possible for such a person to internalise this concept to such a degree that he or she may start micro-analysing his or her own body, and interpret the smallest of deviations from the ideal as a catastrophe.” he says.

Given that Western media loves to promote the size zero body type, it is not a far leap to assume that it is contributing to body dissatisfaction around India.

Dr Rajesh Sajar, an associate professor in psychiatry from the All India Institute of Medical Science, feels the same, blaming the West’s fascination with thinness for the rise in rates.  

“Western culture has revolutionised the concept of beauty in recent times. Television and Internet have almost come to rule our world with super slim models depicted…This has a significant impact on young people’s mental health.”  he says.

It has been said that even the top Indian designers these days use a size zero fit model when designing as even they believe that a size zero figure is best.

Eating disorder infographic.

Dr Chugh also lays a large portion of the blame on the media.

“Today’s generation has an unprecedented access to the media and through that, to the Western culture…In my experience, a very big part of this [the rise in eating disorders] may be attributed to the increased exposure to all kinds of media and the depiction of the thin body ideal therein.”

He also suggests that perhaps the current fitspiration trend has contributed to the growing problem.

According to Shweta Singh, a 33 year old Delhi tour guide, this health consciousness has manifested out of a desire to be thin and has consequently created a burgeoning gym culture in India.

“Size zero is like so fashionable these days, and girls are working hard to achieve that. Gyms are everywhere, in every residential, you will find a gym or a yoga centre. You will see more girls there than boys in the gym nowadays. They are getting more aware and conscious now.” she says.

While there has been no large scale, concrete study into the number of sufferers in India, psychiatrists are reporting an increase in the number of patients who present to them with symptoms.

Both Dr Sajar and Dr Chugh believe eating disorders are becoming more prevalent, particularly given that so many sufferers go undiagnosed.

“Based on cumulative research evidence from hospital and clinic based studies, the prevalence of eating disorders has increased in India. The prevalence is higher among youth population, especially female gender.” says Dr Sajar.

“With the advent of internet and virtual world, the actual interaction and sports culture is vanishing which increases the chances of increasing weight. Thus, passive routine along with high need to comply with Western standards of beauty leads to higher incidence of body image dissatisfaction and poor body image among people, leading to higher incidence of eating disorders.”

When eating disorders first began to appear in India ten years ago, the average onset age was mid-teens, however today they are now being diagnosed in girls as young as ten, with symptoms even appearing in seven year olds.

Samiksha Mehra, 20, says that she has seen the effects of the size zero phenomenon among her peers at university, with many dieting and frequenting the gym.

 “Very much there is a size zero effect phenomena. About five years back it was the rage in India. We have this idol called Kareena Kapoor, she is thin Bollywood film star, a very famous one.  About five years ago, she came out in a movie with a size zero figure for the movie. So around this time it became a huge rage in India, everyone wanted to be size zero and there was a lot of discussion on this topic. Now it has kind of subsided a little bit, but I think that it is there, everybody is surely after maintaining their body’s now.” she says.

Kareena Kapoor

Indian actress, Kareena Kapoor. Source: NDTV

Kareena Kapoor is an Indian actress, renowned for beginning the size zero trend in India and consequently changing the country’s age-old body ideal.

Before she appeared in the 2008 movie, Tashan, women in Bollywood films were mostly curvy.

It was rumoured that she lost 12kg for the film, outraging many but also incentivising some to follow suit.

Even blogger Shubhankhar Verma said that he felt inspired to try and also achieve a size zero figure.

“When Kareena Kapoor, when she came up with this zero size figure, I can only speak from personal experience, but I was impacted by that. I thought, I liked that figure, can I achieved that figure and I actually started not eating. I was going through the phase of confusion and struggle.” he says.

A poll conducted by news gossip site, Desi Blitz found that 76% of voters thought that Kareena Kapoor looked “fit and sexy”; only 15% thought that she looked too slim.

Her weight loss sent Desi Blitz and many other publications into a storm, with many chronicling her dramatic weight loss admiringly and discussing diet tips to also achieve her slight figure.

While it was a Bollywood film and actress that provoked the size zero trend to really take hold in India, it was the influence of Western culture that caused the film directors to encourage her shed the weight in the first place.

Western culture has infiltrated India to the point that Western ideals are now being depicted in home-grown media, causing the changing body ideals to rapidly spread.

Because directors are now casting westernised women like Kareena, Bollywood films are not at all representative of the majority of Indian women, a problem in itself.

Gauri Chakraborty, associate professor at Amity University in Noida, believes that body standards in Bollywood changed when India began entering women in global pageantry competitions.

“The earlier actresses, they were not physically perfect, some were heavy here and here and have a tummy a little bit. But when the Miss Worlds and the Miss Universes started entering Bollywood, it became the perfect body” she says.

She largely blames the westernisation of Bollywood films for causing the size zero phenomenon to take hold in India.

As India continues to move towards the future and westernise, it is somewhat frightening to think about what mental illness and body dissatisfaction rates will be like in another ten years.

Dr Sajar believes that a myriad of things need to be done in order to curb this undeniable problem.

Firstly, he believes that society needs to realise just how dangerous the size zero trend is.

“As part of the first essential step, it is important to talk about these issues and spread awareness about its adverse effects on mental health.” he says.

“Since media has a big role in having its impact on public mental health, their effort is also required to deconstruct the prevailing standards of beauty. This can be done by emphasising on healthy body in their portrayal of role models in advertisements, movies and serials”

He also thinks that more health professionals need to be trained in how to deal with this issue and that more research needs to be done into treatments that effectively works in an Indian setting.

If you or someone you know is struggling, please seek help. Call the mental illness hotline in India on 2549 7777 or The Bufferly Foundation in Australia on 1800 ED HOPE.

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