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On Being Honest About Being Fat

By: Simar Dhaliwal

Right before I started high school, my family and I moved from India to America. The first thing I noticed when I walked on to the concrete that would support my footsteps for the next four years was how much everyone resembled barbies. With their straight hair, straight bodies, and defined thigh gaps, I felt shame and fear and insecurity because I looked so different. The second thing I remember doing is bursting into tears and frantically texting my older sister to regain some semblance of control over myself. I had never experienced feeling so uncomfortable before and it didn’t take me long to understand why. I hated my body, and I despised it so much that I couldn’t stand looking at myself in the mirror because all I saw was inadequacy. I remember feeling very anxious about walking in front of people, and this included being called on in class, getting something from the front of the class and going to the bathroom. I had severe anxiety about being late to class because it meant walking in and having people look at you. I unconsciously began the habit of hunching to avoid attention and crossing my arms over my stomach in hopes that it would hold me together. My only goal before starting high school had been to achieve straight A’s, but here I found myself in class unable to move, let alone focus on anything apart from the way I looked. 

I sought acceptance and peace from the internet, and instead, I received the message that my feelings were expected because I was not good enough as I looked but I could be good enough if I changed how I looked. I read articles and articles on ways to lose weight, to be healthier, to look your best, to decrease the amount of food consumed, to hide body fat, what to avoid when trying to lose weight, ten exercises that guarantee weight loss, and so on. 

My mother began to monitor my meals closely but my family never realized the full extent of my starvation. My parents tried to tell me that I didn’t need to lose so much weight, that they didn’t see anything wrong with me, but my eyes would roll over before they could finish a sentence and my legs would start walking away faster than they could say, “you’re beautiful just the way you are.” They noticed that I ate little, that I could list the calories in any item off the top of my head, that I was exercising frequently, but they didn’t know it all. They had no way of knowing that I would frantically chew gum whenever my stomach refused to stop growling, hoping against hope that my body would be tricked by the chewing into believing it was full. They didn’t know that I exercised off every single calorie that I consumed, that I overestimated the calories to fool myself into consuming less and exercising more. They didn’t see me at night, feeling my stomach, relishing in its flatness and reveling in the noise it made. They didn’t see me measuring my thighs with tape or marking the points on my body that I wanted to erase.

At school, I was terrified of someone seeing me eat and judging me or even worse, whispering to their friends about how I didn’t need more food. Looking back now, I know that I was projecting my thoughts onto others and that the possibility of these words being said was small. But at that time, paranoia and anxiety were my best friends because they helped indulge my disordered eating. I wish that even if people had noticed and judged me, I could have had the strength to choose my health over their fatphobia. 

Compliments, instead of bringing me validation, brought me close to tears. I wanted to believe them so much, but I could not see how anyone could honestly compliment the way I looked. What I did believe was that I was receiving this attention because of my lifestyle and I knew that I could never stop because finally, I was desirable. It didn’t matter that my eyes would be on the floor in front of mirrors, or that I heard the sound of my stomach growling more than I heard the sound of my laughter, or that I felt dizzy sometimes. I didn’t think that I had a problem, that starving myself to the point of consuming less than 500 calories a day was an issue. I looked at it as a lifestyle, a path that I had chosen. A path that got me results, made me look good to others, and feel worthwhile when it was noticed by other people. How was I supposed to find the words “Anorexia Nervosa” and “Body Dysmorphia” amidst so many articles filled with why I wasn’t good enough, or how I could change myself?

It took me years to stop the vicious cycle of starving my body and counting calories, and even longer to stop feeling guilt and shame around food. Once I was able to eat the way I truly wanted and needed to, I gained back all the weight and then some. For years, my sisters and my best friend had told me to embrace myself. But it wasn’t their words that helped me heal. It was the body positive models, and fat models, and body neutrality models who helped me face my fears. If these people had never taken the step towards talking about their experiences, and their journeys, and if they hadn’t dared to pursue their dreams in a world that actively works against fat people, then I probably would never have seen what I could become. This is why representation is so important. Them refusing to put limits on who they could be because of their bodies showed me how I didn’t need to either. It wasn’t as instantaneous as it sounds, but the work it took to unlearn everything I thought was right was worth it. Ironically, I used to be horrifyingly paranoid that someone would see me following a fat person on Instagram and assume I did so because I was fat, and now those very models are the reason why I feel so deeply and completely whole in any size.

However, despite making so many steps in the right direction, I was still struggling. I had forced myself to conform to society’s standards of beauty by making them my own, reveled in my success, only to realize my mistake and work my way back to health. But still, what other people thought of me mattered to me more than my need to take care of myself. And yet, how could I have thought any differently when the people around me made sure to express their discomfort with my weight. 

One summer in high school, we went to India for two months. While visiting my aunt and cousin, along with being put on a diet, I was forced to go to the “best” dermatologist in the area for my offensive acne. The last time my cousin and aunt had seen me was amid the eating disorder and so the contrast between what they approved of and what I looked like now was enormous. I had had acne then too, but it had spread as it does as you grow into your teens. My cousin accompanied me to the appointment because she knew the dermatologist and spoke highly of him. This esteemed dermatologist weighed me, a highly humiliating experience in front of my fatphobic, diet encouraging, disordered eating cousin, and turned to her and told her to make me sweep and mop the floors every day because by doing so I would lose weight and my acne would disappear. If this respected dermatologist had bothered to have a proper, confidential appointment with me, he would have learned about how bad my sleep quality was, how I knew nothing about skincare, and how much stress I was dealing with to succeed academically where I hadn’t before. Acne is frequently caused by stress and hormonal imbalances, and therefore these questions should be imperative in skin evaluations. But, he only saw my weight. 

The year after that, while playing soccer with my family, my uncle, though on my team, kept up a steady stream of insults about my width, comparing me to a panda, until I was blocking goals blindly because of the tears in my eyes. Another year, one of my friends remarked that I shouldn’t attempt sitting on a bench lest it breaks from my weight. Last year, my boss’s receptionist commended how much weight I had lost from the last time she had seen me. I was shocked at the unprofessionalism and frankly, the audacity. I had lost weight because of depression, and for something born out of hopelessness and despair, to be complimented so proudly was almost too much to bear. These happenings, and so many others, reinforced to me again and again that my insecurities were real, that no matter where I was, no matter who I was as a person, no matter how hard I worked- the way my body looked was what mattered the most and I could never exist in peace as I was. 

All through the last few years, I have been constantly shamed for the way I looked. On social media, I presented the image of happiness, and in turn received validation, but in reality, it took everything in me to never show how destroyed I was by these taunts. I felt that I would emotionally burst at the seams at any moment, and as weird as it sounds- I was amazed at how much internal pain my body could endure. Many people know me to be outspoken but when it came to being bullied about how I looked, I had no voice. I was too emotionally battered to fight for the space that I took up in this world, and mostly I was afraid that if I showed them how much it affected me, I would have to defend why having fat on my body was okay. 

The problem is that fatphobia lives in all of us. My mom is my biggest inspiration for everything. She has taught me what it means to be confident and strong and loving. And yet, she is fatphobic. There have been countless times over the past few years when she has told me not to wear something because I “look fat in it”, or how I shouldn’t wear that because I have thick thighs. And yet, she is my strongest support system. Culturally and societally, what she says is both acceptable and expected. Despite the trauma that fatphobia has inflicted on me and so many others, I don’t believe that being fatphobic or acting on it inherently makes you a bad person. It’s just a belief that’s been fed to us repeatedly from nearly every avenue. It is so very important to look into your beliefs about being fat. It is so important to examine how you talk about fat, whether it be the fat on your body or someone else’s. For years I was scared that my fatphobia might have affected the way my younger sister thought about her body, and I was agonized by the realization that she might react the same way I had. Telling my story means laying my trauma and shame on the table for all to see, to show just one person that maybe their thoughts are leading them down a dark and unhealthy path, maybe their beliefs are born out of a toxic, ableist and fatphobic system, and maybe their actions cause deep-rooted trauma and pain. 

It was only after I recovered from the eating disorder that I realized just how much time, energy, and most of all, space it had taken up inside of me. After recovery, my fatphobic beliefs became crystal clear to me, as did the lens through which I had been peering at society. I realized how common fatphobia is, and how much trauma and bias almost every person carries with them. I realized how the idea of being fat is just another way for us to be distracted from what matters to each of us. For me, it meant not knowing who I was at my core. The core of who we are has nothing to do with the body we’re in and everything to do with how we use our minds. But if our minds are so focused on the idea of a body, on fitting a mold that doesn’t fit everyone, then we aren’t focusing on the important things that benefit us. Fatphobia is, directly and indirectly, to blame for people feeling insecure in who they are, and projecting those insecurities onto others, simply because the body they inhabit doesn’t fit a fake mold we’ve created. We don’t have access to our true selves when we’re obsessed with an idea of who we are supposed to be. Being thin does not equate to being healthy the same way that being fat does not either. Fat is not an insult, and nor is it a feeling (bloated is). It hurt me when taunted because of the cruelty and the connotations, but it is a body type just like any other. What your organs are doing inside of that is the business of the person whose body it is.

I don’t think this would be complete without acknowledging the privilege I have. I have privilege because I have not experienced the shaming and public ridicule that people who are fatter than me experience every single day. Along with that, I have not experienced the exclusion that they experience. Whether it be in ballet, or on planes, or in doctors’ offices. Whether it be in the line for food, or while exercising at the gym, or when being denied jobs because of the way you look. It may be while walking their pets, or at school, or enjoying in a pool. These are everyday occurrences for fat people, and my goal is for people who are impacted the most by these systems of oppression to be the center of advocacy. Especially plus size black women who are so often excluded from platforms of advocacy. It would not be fair of me to talk so much about my experiences without acknowledging this. 

This article is written in hopes that everyone’s existence can be respected equally. I have privilege as a cis-gendered woman because I am allowed the space to express my feelings without repercussions, but also because it is acceptable for a woman to be insecure about and obsessed with her weight. But it is not seen as “masculine” in today’s society for men to admit to that they are struggling or that they are insecure. Boys and men have eating disorders, they have insecurities, and they are frequently ridiculed for not looking a certain way. They are objectified when they fit society’s standards of beauty, and loudly rejected when they don’t. LGBTQIA+ people are marginalized on levels that straight, cis-gendered people are not and never will be, and when they are fat in today’s world, the consequences are usually direr. 

While people who are thin experience occasional shame for being skinny, they are not marginalized in society because of it. A doctor might encourage them to eat more and put them on a diet but the care and coverage they need will rarely be overlooked because of the way they look. They will rarely be denied jobs, or be shamed for lounging by a pool, or denied love because of their size. Their accomplishments will not be doubted, nor will their identity be whittled down to the way they look. Fat people’s very existence offends people. All pain is valid but some experiences are endured on a much wider, systemic scale. 

When I realized how powerful I was in any shape, it changed the way I viewed everything, but especially the way I carried myself. Confidence and self-worth are not size exclusive. Ultimately, you should be whatever size your body is. I wrote this article because I wish I had stumbled upon one like it before I forced my body into starvation. I wrote it for the people who instead of receiving water (from the internet, from friends, from family) to quench their thirst for acceptance, found poison disguised as nectar. This topic is so complicated, so entangled with opinions and stories and reasons that it felt almost impossible to articulate into words why your size should not make you any less worthy or any more worthy. All I know and believe is that separating your self worth from your weight, and adding self-love and confidence to whatever size you may be, can make this world less complicated, and so much more inclusive. Your body loves you and that is enough. 

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Body Neutrality: Separation of Body and Worth

By: Sai Siddhaye

I, like many others, grew up within the culture of body positivity, yet also in the wake of a society that is deeply discriminatory. Some told us to love ourselves and our bodies, to accept that we were beautiful despite our flaws–and yet body negativity did not disappear. The subtle (and not so subtle) critiques of others’ bodies were veiled under “good intentions”, but their impact was no more positive. Though body positivity means well in theory, it is not quite effective when it comes to tackling the internalized and unfathomably long legacy of fatphobia, racism, transphobia, and ableism. A contemporary offshoot of body positivity, coined ‘body neutrality’, has been attempting to reframe the tenets of body positivity, and decenter attractiveness from the discourse about body inclusivity. Though this movement may not yet be able to fully decolonize how bodies are discussed in our culture, it is taking the important stance that inclusivity is about giving every body the same value, care, and visibility, regardless of whether or not it is beautiful or attractive.

The Body Positivity movement began around the 1960s, though similar sentiments have cropped up throughout history. It began primarily as a movement for fat acceptance, and over its multiple waves has expanded to promote acceptance of different sizes, features, and skin colors. Its primary goal is preaching the idea that people of all different appearances can be beautiful, and has made waves in improving the self-acceptance and general psychological health of people who it has influenced; its main goal is inarguably beneficial. However, many people have voiced their dissatisfaction with its scope. Placing emphasis on embodying beauty in order to feel self-worth reinforces the standard of beauty that is valued in our heteropatriarchal culture, and increases the value of beauty within our society. As such, using the values of body positivity in daily life can quickly turn into toxic positivity, which invalidates any negative affect and encourages people to veil their normal emotional fluidity with unwavering positivity. Body positivity can put pressure on us to feel beautiful regardless of what we look like, but this is hard for most people to truly internalize. Trying to ignore a fluctuating self-image in order to feel beautiful all the time can stop us from processing what we are feeling about ourselves, and from analyzing where these thoughts stem from or talking about them. Body positivity encourages accepting one’s own flaws, but doesn’t analyze the history of how these characteristics came to be labeled ‘flaws’ in the first place. 

As someone who has survived body dysmorphia and body image issues for several years, it has been very difficult for me to embrace body positivity, despite my best efforts. Trying to feel beautiful while my mind was filled with disgust at my own body was not feasible for me, nor was it a healthy way to try to repair my self-esteem. I felt that unless I was able to feel beautiful, I would not be worthy of love, from myself or others. My fixation on beauty as a gateway to acceptance was holding me back from caring for myself and healing. This certainly isn’t an indictment of body positivity, but rather an example of its limitations; I have many privileges and am certainly not one of the most marginalized in our society, and yet the scope of body positivity was not able to repair my unhealthy relationship with my body. Unless this school of thought can adequately benefit the most vulnerable in a community, namely fat people, trans people, disabled people, and BIPOC, it is not a viable solution for the intense body shame ingrained in our culture.

Though the idea of body neutrality is not directly confronting the root of conventional beauty standards either, it nonetheless separates itself from the patriarchal notion that being attractive gives a person more value. Subverting the power that beauty holds in our culture also means rejecting the influence of the power structures that emphasize a certain kind of beauty. Body neutrality has the same goal as body positivity: self-acceptance regardless of what your body looks like. However, its approach prioritizes the undisputable and objective value and functionality of each body over its appearance. In a body neutral approach, people do not have to feel beautiful in order to treat their bodies with love and care, nor should they emphasize other people’s beauty over their inherent value. 

I should make it clear, however, that valuing your body regardless of your appearance does not mean anti-change. A side effect of putting less importance on appearance should be that bodily changes, whether it be weight loss/gain or gender confirmation surgery, are destigmatized, but still legitimized. Prioritizing people’s physical and mental health, no matter what that entails–as well as divorcing health from appearance (read: thinness ≄ health)–should be one goal of body neutrality. However, a  critique of body neutrality is that moving focus away from attractiveness and onto health and functionality makes this movement inclined to ableism. Focusing on what a body can do instead of what it looks like is hugely detrimental to the disabled community, as it still places value on physical ability and productivity, which is not an inherent quality that all bodies possess. In order for the goals of body neutrality to be achieved, they also must be sure to put value in human bodies regardless of what they are physically capable of, or they will further marginalize disabled people.

Rejecting a connection between value and beauty also goes beyond combating fatphobia, and should also combat racism. Whether this means transgressing Eurocentric standards of beauty, combating fetishization, or addressing how “pretty privilege” is yet another function of white supremacy, body neutrality and anti-racism should go hand in hand. Decentering attractiveness and appearance from discourse about bodies benefits everyone, and requires systemic changes–such as preventing racial bias in medicine and dismantling the prison industrial complex– along with cultural changes. True body neutrality can’t be achieved without dismantling power structures like white supremacy or cissexism. 

The tenets of body neutrality have helped me finally understand that treating myself with love, care, and respect is possible even when I don’t like what my body looks like. Though this may come naturally to many people, my experience with mental illness has forced me to relearn how to care for myself, and refusing to place value in physical beauty has made this process much easier. The subversive nature of body neutrality may be hard to fully internalize, as that requires unlearning most of the cultural norms that we have been indoctrinated with, but it may have the potential to help repair the fraught relationships that many of us may have with our bodies. 

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The “B” Word: Why You Shouldn’t Bark Bitch

By: Natalie Lopez

Bitch. The word that began from the reference to a female dog has evolved. Now, it serves as a high and vulgar insult directed towards women. The use of the word held the intention that comparing one to a dog would create a ridicule of a person. A female dog made that matter more de-masculating and thus humiliating in its original connotation.

In modern conversations, bitch has steered from comparison to a dog and has created its own negative connotation. This determined identity of a “bitch” is what others refer to when attempting to demean the power and ability of a woman through intimidation. The improper use of the word has created identity traits that misogynists use to emasculate women’s accomplishments. For example, in the occurrence that a woman reaches a position of leadership and acts on it, they label them a bitch to demean and belittle their success. While society would look up to a man in the same position, they refer to a woman as a bitch.

The most recent victim called a bitch for doing the same exact job a man is doing is the Democrat Representative from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When Republican Representative from Florida, Ted Yoho, accosted Representative Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the capitol, it was not a new experience for her. She recalls in her address to Yoho’s actions that she had experienced men harass her in previous positions in restaurants, bars and in general life as a woman in a busy city. Men who treat women to this language are too often forgiven and exonerated from any repercussions for far too long. 

In her speech, Representative Ocasio-Cortez recognizes this and blames the commonality of it on the current culture that permits this behavior . “It is cultural,” she stated, “It is a culture of a lack of impunity, of acceptance of violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports that.” As long as other men do not hold accountability within their social groups, and as long as women stay silent and remiss about these verbal accostings, we are tackling another barrier that exists to divide gender equality. 

Yoho, in his response to Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s speech, accounted his respect towards women stemming from the fact that he was a father and husband who needed to be aware of the language choices he made. Yoho never acknowledged how degrading his remark had been or how sexist he had acted towards a young, talented Latinx politician in a very sexist arena. Instead Yoho chose to announce that he would, “conduct [him]self from a place of passion,” a passion that he could not apologize for. Upon listening to Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s impassioned speech, Yoho must have decided that he did hold respect for women because he lived with them, and that’s another issue.

Men like Yoho, who choose to hide behind the women they love, claim they are not sexist because they respect the women in their lives. This didn’t translate very well for Yoho. It’s possible that he is not using the same language he used towards Representative Ocasio-Cortez at home, but so long as he calls someone a bitch, he is not supporting the women in his life from men, like him, who negate women’s fair treatment. 

What we shouldn’t misunderstand is that not all use of the word is wrong. Women have been reclaiming the word in an attempt to take back a harassing term and use it to empower themselves. Where women choose to call themselves a bitch, it’s not exactly how Yoho chose to address Representative Ocasio-Cortez. Women have been reclaiming the word through a new assigned definition that calls a strong woman, one who is owning her power and ability, a boss bitch. Women and people who choose to should hold the ability to reform the misuse of the word bitch, but not continue to use it as a form of bullying and belittling. The men who bark bitch are the reason women are reclaiming this negative derogation in the first place, bitch is a word that should never have been transformed to fight women.

All cuss words stem from derogatory terms directed to minority groups. Bitch in particular holds a special place among these words because it is so commonly overused without much insight to the abasement it pushes. Because it’s not just being called a Bitch that should anger you, it’s the fact that women are being degraded and disrespected so publicly and commonly while society has chosen to ignore it.

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The Puzzle of the Sari and Indian Womanhood

By: Atmanah Parab

When I had six yards of fabric wrapped haphazardly around my body, hands clumsy and unsure of which step to take next. I wondered, was now the time for a YouTube search? I also wondered whether my cousins would laugh if they could see me at that moment. 

When my mom had helped me put the sari on just two days prior, the fabric had slipped through her fingers like magic and laid precisely where she wanted it to, the result of years of experience. Eventually, with the help of several safety pins, two or three friends, and the aforementioned Youtube video, I strolled out of the house, sari somewhat intact. I felt a sense of pride as that was the first time I’d put on a sari on my own without my mom’s assistance. 

When I was seven years old, I remember gasping in awe as my mom showed me a newspaper clipping of an article about her and her sari collection. In 1997 when my mother and father moved into a small apartment in Ontario, CA, they were some of the first Indian people in the city. The article featured pictures of my mom doing her laundry in the apartment complex laundry room wearing a shiny green sari. The luster and hue of the fabric in stark contrast with the neutrality of her background despite the fading from age.

When I was just a little older and living in India, I marveled at my grandmother who wore a sari almost every day of her life. Uncomfortable in pants of any kind, she lived her life in a balancing act of fabric and friction. In it, she couldn’t run or jump but she could work in the kitchen, walk around the neighborhood and take her afternoon naps without even a grumble of discomfort. 

When I tried on my first sari at thirteen, I was shocked and confused when I didn’t instantly look like my favorite Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone. The saris present in the movies certainly tell a story of womanhood but it is one altered by the need to appeal to lust. Featuring prominently in Bollywood movies is not the Indian woman and her sari but almost a costume of them. Blouses are reduced to bejeweled bras and the front of the sari is pushed off to the side to expose a flat stomach. There isn’t anything wrong with choosing to wear a sari that is decidedly sexy, but the use of such saris almost exclusively in songs or scenes where a female in a movie is to be highlighted as attractive runs counter to the true significance of saris to the Indian woman. 

The sari is not just an item of clothing, it is an institution. Indian women wear the sari as a form of expression, but the sari itself tells a story of the woman who wears it. Traditionally, a girl is bought her first sari after her first period, a sign of her transition into womanhood. She is taught how to wear it by the other females in the house and can now wear it on special occasions. 

Buying a sari is an event in itself. There are as many variations to the sari as there are languages and subgroups within the Indian subcontinent. Not only that, locales are known for saris in special fabrics, colors and patterns. The way a sari is draped around the body is also a matter of regional preference. All this versatility and identity wrapped up in a length of fabric. 

Upon setting foot into a specialty sari store in Kerala, two states over from where my family lives in India, we were greeted with a bustle of activity on arrival. Sitting around a large table laid out with a veritable competitive bracket of potential purchases, we chatted and exchanged stories while sipping on complimentary sodas. The four women in my family including me, did not leave the store until each of us had two or three saris each in a sampling of the local flavor. Simply the mode of shopping makes the experience feel heavier and more substantial than running to your local Forever 21 for a dress. 

However, for some the cost of donning sari is higher than just the rupees or dollars on the price tag. For Indian transwomen, life is incredibly difficult, outwardly using femine presentation such as saris and having other people be aware of their identities often leads them away from their homes and communities to the “hijra” communities that are mired by poverty and kept afloat by coerced sex work. However, these communities are often the only places where they can be accepted for who they are. In an interview with the Diplomat, Shreya, a transgender woman living in Mumbai, spoke to her experience, “We leave our families, the security and safety of our homes, only to plunge into poverty and destitution. All this so that we can wear a saree.”[1] There are risks to being authentically feminine, to wear something like a sari that for many woman is an unquestioned given.

To be a woman anywhere is complicated, marking a balance between what is perceived as femininity and what is seen as “other”. As a symbol of womanhood and femininity in India, the sari is not just beautiful fabric draped about the body free from the complexities of history and society. It is history, it is womanhood, it is femininity. Uncovering the secrets of a sari as I’ve learned go far beyond a Youtube tutorial. 

[1] https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/what-does-indias-transgender-community-want/

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Shattered Hegemonies: Queerness in Precolonial India

By: Sai Siddhaye

Just as glass, which we perceive as a solid mass, is actually an amorphous substance somewhere in between solid and liquid, culture is also ever-fluid, and actions from centuries ago still sent shock waves to our contemporary lives. As glass slowly shifts and flows over time, human cultures also flow and adapt, yet both will be unrecognizable when shattered by a traumatic force. This traumatic force, of course, is imperialism. Colonization has irreparably changed indigenous cultures worldwide, both erasing and rewriting traditional practices and beliefs. With this in consideration, trying to understand these practices becomes more complex, because the context within which they evolved no longer exists. This holds especially true in discourse about sexuality and gender. Many cultures which may appear binaristic or heteronormative today certainly weren’t so hundreds of years ago. Indeed, Foucault claimed that sexuality-based identity categories were a 19th century European construction, and did not exist prior to that. If this is true, then the political vilification of certain identity categories relies on a Eurocentric and imperialist ideology. 

Let’s put this in the context of postcolonial South Asia. The figure of “the homosexual” is pivotal for many discussions of what is “quintissentially Indian”, as modern Indian culture strongly enforces hegemonic masculinity and heteronormative values that erase queerness in any form. Contemporary India–particularly Hindu nationalist theory–frames same-sex attraction and sexuality as a Western import, a regrettable product of globalization that has only recently stopped being criminal under the law (though of course it is still socially illicit). Such a characterization, of course, is far from the case; queerness has existed in South Asia for centuries, and it was an accepted part of human sexuality and pleasure before the colonial era. We can see evidence of queerness not only in South Asian languages but also in religious and historical texts and monuments. Though ‘queer’ is a modern term, it is the closest umbrella term we have to describe nonnormative sexuality. From here on out, I will be speaking about what is known today as India, but it is important to understand that the hard borders and land disputes are also a part of the legacy of the British Raj; South Asia is incredibly ethnically and culturally diverse, and the political distinction between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is a modern concept conceived during decolonization. 

Many Indian scholars have studied the queer history of India and Hinduism, the most notable of whom are Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, and Rohit Dasgupta. They have written several books and articles about their research, including Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History by Vanita and Kidwai, Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society by Vanita, and Digital Queer Cultures in India: Politics, Intimacies and Belonging by Dasgupta. Their studies cover a wide variety of topics, and provide an approximate timeline during which queer attraction can be analyzed.

Medieval India, according to Vanita and Kidwai, is most easily studied through the theology that was present at the time. Hindu deities were treated as genderfluid and andrygynous beings; the reincarnation of godly avatars meant that Hindu deities occupied many different bodies that were male, female, and intersex. Vatsyana’s Kamasutra, which–unlike its public perception in America–was something of a guide for spiritual life, even describes queer sexual acts purely for pleasure. Many other ancient texts also feature intimate same-sex relationships, both sexual and asexual in nature. In the Mahabharata, for example, Krishna and Arjuna are said to have a bond of friendship that goes beyond marriage or procreation, and their friendship is a very important aspect of this epic. Krishna states that “Arjuna is more important to him than wives, children or kinsmen- there can be many spouses and sons but there is only one Arjuna, without whom he cannot live”. Though the nature of this relationship is not stated, the close intimacy between these two men implies that the modern hegemonic standards of masculine friendships–and the distinction between platonic and romantic relationships–were not expected at the time. In the Kritivasa Ramayana, the sage Bhagiratha is said to be born from the sexual union of two women, blessed by the divine sanction of the god Shankar. The variance in sexuality and gender in ancient texts and understanding of divinity suggest that sexual fluidity was also not culturally taboo at the time. 

This fluidity in intimacy is also present within the languages of India. The term ‘sahki’ in Sanskrit-derived languages translates to one’s close friend, yet the space the term occupies within devotional poetry describes a relationship that is much more intimate and sapphic than simply a friendly onlooker, and ancient paintings of heroines often eroticized their female friends. Because this role between friend and lover has no place in the Western cosmology, it is difficult to translate into American culture.

Many religious monuments and sites that depict same-sex eroticism still exist to this day. Konarak Temple in Odisha, for example, is a temple for the Hindu sun god Surya. This temple includes carvings and statues that depicts erotic scenes, which are sometimes queer in nature. This temple also harbors many images of group sex, suggesting that nonnormative sexual configurations was not uncommon, and that the patriarchal nuclear family did not play as big a role in Indian culture as it did today. The Khajuraho Monuments are a series of Hindu and Jain temples also depict same-sex eroticism, particularly among women. These temples indicate that in Medieval India, sexuality was seen as a spiritual practice, and queer attraction was not shunned in the religious tradition. As Dasgupta said, “Hinduism is content to allow opposites to confront each other without resolution, which provides a space for non-normative sexualities and same sex desires to exist”. 

This acceptance of fluidity, however, did not continue after colonial interaction began to occur. In the 1700s, Britain–driven by a Victorian obsession with ‘purity’–prompted policies that regulated sexuality. This was driven in part by the large number of British men who, while in the Indian colonies, would have homosexual encounters with Indian men. Homosexuality was painted as an “oriental vice” and Indian culture demonized as “backwards”. This also seems to have been a justification for the further expansion of British imperial rule; claiming to civilize otherwise “savage” indigenous people has been a long-standing excuse for enacting colonial violence. Thus bore the rise of the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1861, which made homosexuality illegal under punishment of incarceration for life. It criminalized queerness and forced any queer relationships, whether homosexual or simply nonnormative in nature, underground. This hypocritical and archaic law was only repealed in 2018, after centuries of damage to Indian culture and people. Section 377 also allowed colonial leaders to outlaw certain texts that they deemed ‘deviant’, which included some Hindu and Perso-Arabic tales and epics; such censorship allowed Britain to dictate what kind of masculinity was socially acceptable, and which actions were effeminate and therefore criminal.

Dasgupta states in Digital Queer Cultures in India that  “the normalisation of heterosexual identity is a part of the processes of colonial modernity”. This includes the centuries in which the British Raj rewrote the cultural rules for masculinity and sexuality, which bore the violent heteronormativity present in India today. This is especially ironic if we analyze the pinkwashing strategies that the Global North uses to depict the Global South as unaccepting and homophobic. The cultural vilification of queerness in India is a product of colonial occupation, and denying the material impact of the British Raj on queer people in India falls into the same branch of imperialist ideology that Britain utilized to enact violence in the first place.