What Happens When Your Body Is Not Your Own

by Aria Ridzuan

My body is not my own. Growing up in a Malay Muslim household, it took me a while before I realized that my body was not my own. Since young, my body has been policed by everyone around me; my self-worth reduced to my physical appearance as though I had nothing else to offer. That’s not true – as much as I am reminded of my intelligence (a trait identified by my kindergarten teacher who told my mother: “Wow, your daughter is different. She’s gifted.”), I am also reminded of my fair skin and my beautiful hair. And, how I have it so much better than other Malay girls.

“Don’t you know that your skin is fairer? You’re so lucky.” Am I? What does that mean? I have always been troubled by this question. When I was young, I thought the lightness of skin excluded me from being Malay. I could not identify with my Malay friends, their skin shades darker than mine. Nor could I identify myself with my Chinese friends because simply, I knew that I was Malay. And I didn’t want to be anything else. Yet, I was neither here nor there but somehow, this supposedly better skin tone that I had was desirable. I remember watching my cousins and my friends turn to skin lightening lotions and creams, telling themselves that they would look better with fairer skin. While on the other hand, I found myself running around in the hot sun, playing soccer and just burning, just so that I could feel more Malay. I remembered how thrilled I was when my skin finally got darker, only to come home and hear that, “Kenapa your skin so dark? Tak lawa.” It still haunts me how I wanted to be recognized for being active and happy and not burning in the hot sun (because of melanin), only to be reduced once again to the aesthetic value of my physical appearance. Am I not worth more than that?

And the thing is, I never really noticed when my skin tone changes. Living in my body, I was mostly occupied with how happy I was, how I was doing the things that I wanted to do and trying to strive to be better. Yet, everyone around me seems to be fixated on my physical appearance. When I was eight, my friend’s mother came up to me to tell me that I was beautiful. It was sweet, it really was. But, then, she began to push me to spend more time with her son – something that I continuously resisted. And it also made me question why she said that to me, and not everyone else. Were my other friends not worth her comment? What made it different? When I asked the adults, they said that I was just different – a child born out of Chinese and Malay blood. Naturally, you are prettier, they said. Now that I am older, their comment just reeks of exoticism, of colourism – that the stranger someone looks, the more desirable they are. The slimmer and fairer someone looks, the more desirable they are. It is what it is – bullshit, and it always has been.

But now, that I am older, I found myself going through other forms of prejudices. I went through several depressive episodes, my weight increasing and decreasing depending on my happiness. When my family lost three important people in our lives, my weight was at its highest. And so were my academic results, surprisingly. So, people congratulated me on my academic success but they also commented on how big I got. I remember this particular uncle who made the effort to comment on my weight every time we met. It doesn’t matter that I was successful in my academic pursuits; he only commented on how big I am. I hate to think how hard he must have been staring to see that I gained weight, how fixated he must be to think that his comment was of importance. It hurt me. It did. Because once again, I never truly noticed. I was overwhelmed by responsibilities and grief, and my body weight was the last thing on my mind. And suddenly, it was the first.

So, it began. I found myself researching on diets. I found myself recognizing the new way my skin folds because of the excess fat. I found myself fixated on the roundness of my face, the fullness of my thighs, the flabbiness of my arms – and all because of him. I turned to diet pills and ate them, not caring that they were not health-approved and that I got them from a carnival. I became embarrassed of my body, hiding them behind baggy clothes and shielding my face whenever a camera turns on me. I became someone I did not recognize – a large girl – and it was difficult, especially when I would turn to my friends and tell them that they were beautiful as they are. And yet, I hated every inch of myself.

I eventually lost the weight when I got happy. No amount of diet pills could remove the weight, not when I was still clinging onto my grief and depression, not when I was still turning to food to distract myself from my problems. But, I lost the weight and the uncle stopped commenting. Instead, everyone is praising my new weight, praising the fact that I was returning back to my usual physical appearance – normal weight, fair, myself. Yet, I am still angry. I am still angry that my physical appearance is holding any importance in my conversations with others, that my other successes can be blinded by weight gain or the current shade of my skin, or my hair, or other inconsequential things that are not determined by me. I am angry that this is not only directed to me, but to every other girl or guy around me – that our physical appearance is just as important as who we are.

It has never been important to me but it has become important through comments and unsolicited advice from the older members of my family. What I wear is deemed important, that the shortness of my school skirts is the reflection of my upbringing, that the lack of hijab on my head is the reflection of my lack of faith – once again, numerous physical representations that do not and should not define who I am inside. My philosophy is that the only ones who matter are the ones I love, and these individuals should know me enough to know that my physical appearance does not reflect my faith and my character. And that I have always been more and beyond my physical appearance. 

This is the body that I have been chosen to live in. As much as I am grateful, I wish that it had never been the defining reason behind actions that I have chosen to do. I wish I was strong enough to live beyond the comments, to know that my self-value is more than them. But as much as I wish for all those things, the pressure from public comments, media and people that I know have heavily influenced me to gauge my self-worth based on my physical appearance. And every day, I am fighting against that influence. 

I know: I am more than my body – more than my skin color, my weight, my features and everything else, and so is every other woman. We have our intelligence, our independence, our spiritual faith; we have so much more to us that is uncontainable by our physical appearance. And yet, we are still being policed and contained, our bodies reduced as the key to who we must be – but I believe that we can fight it. I play my part in advocating for that now, in reminding my friends that they are more than their temporary physical selves, as well as reminding myself of that fact. I will continue to live authentically, unbothered by my physical appearance and the comments that it might bring – because bodies change and that’s just a natural thing that happens, and in doing so, I hope that slowly but surely, we will change the societal preoccupation with our bodies. 

We are all beautiful; that’s how it has always been. 

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Aria believes in the empowerment of women and other marginalized groups. She has written essays on social inequality and other feminist issues in university and has a very strong passion for advocating for equal human rights. Apart from that, she feels at home in the world of screenwriting and watching philosophical films with her old cat.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu