Kerala minister calls out menace of body shaming, but victims have no legal recourse against it

Kerala's General Education Minister V Sivankutty has said the state govt will create awareness among school students against body shaming and will make it part of the school curriculum

Kerala minister calls out menace of body shaming, but victims have no legal recourse against it

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

Kerala General Education Minister V Sivankutty on Sunday said that the state government will create awareness among school students against body shaming and will consider making it part of the state’s education curriculum.

Evidently prompted by a personal experience, Sivankutty wrote in a Facebook post: “Body shaming is a heinous act. No matter what the explanation is, body shaming phrases are the worst. It is said as though in a loving manner. This happens in our society on many levels. There are many among us who have lost our sanity, being victims of body shaming,” he said, adding that body shaming and bullying based on a child’s appearance causes deep-seated trauma right in the developmental years.

“I repeat, we should end body shaming. Let’s be modern people,” the minister said.

Many have lauded Sivankutty’s statement and have expressed that other states should follow suit. 

“Schools are primarily where children experience body shaming and it becomes the root cause for long-term body image issues and may lead to Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and Eating Disorder (ED) later in their lives. In the developmental years, our minds are fragile and outside of our homes and the familial unit, schools largely shape our personality and confidence. 90 percent of school kids are bullied because of their bodies and their physical appearance. It is something that is not taken seriously even by the school administration and normalised everywhere," says Kolkata-based clinical psychologist Shatabhisha Chatterjee from the Mental Health Foundation.

"If the Kerala minister’s idea is to be implemented in the school curriculum, it will prove to be extremely beneficial for a child’s holistic development – which begins in the school sphere,” she added.   

“It wreaks havoc on a person’s self esteem as I see in my patients, who are not even aware of the cause of their problem. Without realising the reason, they also seem to cut down on their social engagements because it affects them when people comment on their looks,” says Dr. Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Healthcare.

A 2019 study conducted by the same department, sampling around 1,244 women aged between 15 to 45 years across eight Indian cities, showed that schools are the primary sites where people experienced body shaming and discriminatory comments on weight, shape, skin colour, etc. 

“In India, body shaming is disregarded and dismissed as jokes, as something so futile that it does not even deserve the government’s attention. Body shaming in schools stems from internalised fatphobia, colorism and an overall bigotry that children inculcate via the society. When I started my body positivity journey on Instagram, I was a teenager who was ruthlessly bullied in school because I was fat, because I did not meet the conventional ‘standards’ set by the society. Now I use this platform to engage and empower anyone and everyone that has been a victim of body shaming. We have all been victims of body shaming at least once in our lives. I, for one, have lived this experience throughout my life,” says an Instagram influencer and plus-size model who has amassed up to 80,000 followers on the platform.

Gender non-conforming performance artist, activist and writer Alok V. Menon often talks about the stigma around body image, and has over time carved a safe-space on the internet grounded in body positivity and self-acceptance.

“What’s important to understand is that as a gender non-conforming person of color there is a direct correlation between loving/celebrating myself and being attacked for it. It’s not just that I need to be positive about myself, it’s that society needs to stop being invested in gender binaries and conventional body types," says Menon.

"However, I’ve recently been uplifted by the visibility of queer people in the body positivity movement not just calling for celebration, but calling for organizing against discriminatory policies and institutions, moving the onus on society and not the individual. I’m fighting for a world where all people can safely self-determine their gender and where all gender expressions are appreciated and recognized as valid, and I think that is deeply related to body positivity,” he added.

They talk about how body shaming is inherently a societal problem and the path to “body positivity” (or even self confidence) is a difficult one – and something that requires institutional support and structural change. “I am constantly struggling with body-image issues: feeling too masculine, too feminine, too hairy, too ugly…but I always remind myself that I’m not the problem, the norms are the problem,” adds Menon. 

Earlier this year, Bharatiya Janata Party's Telangana unit decided to take 'legal action' against certain body shaming remarks allegedly made by some TRS party leaders on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Minister for Tourism & Culture G. Kishan Reddy and others.

“The TRS leaders from Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao onwards made uncalled for personal comments on our leaders including body shaming against the PM. This is unacceptable as they have been filing police cases against those making similar comments here,” alleged Telegana MLC N. Ramchander Rao.

However, the Indian Constitution does not include any legal remedy against body shaming and there are no legal consequences to the act. There is only a thin leeway for remedy against body shaming at the workplace. Body shaming is prohibited under labour regulations and other employment-related legislation.

“Obesity or a thin figure will not cause an agreement to be cancelled under the provisions of the Indian Contracts Act, 1882,” states the law.

While conversations against body shaming and the movement toward body positivity has gained sizable momentum in the social media spaces over the past two years, it is yet to be solidified with institutional action in India.

In fact, Sivankutty’s statement serves as one of the first signs of hope for the victims of body shaming. 

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