I was 10 years old when Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham brought the all-time classic romance anthem “You Are My Soniya” into my life. I was enamoured by Kareena Kapoor and her blazing red crop-top and her easy bare-navel confidence. For months after seeing the movie, I would lock myself in my room, tie my t-shirt up above my belly, and mimic her moves. (I know now from drunkenly confessing this to other women my age that it was a rite of passage. We all did it.)
I was a pudgy kid and I knew even then that Poo wouldn’t approve. I snuck some of ma’s lipstick for glamour and, as I switched back-and-forth between playing Hrithik and Kareena in my bedroom mirror, I kept my stomach sucked in. As a pre-teen in the early 2000s, it was dangerously easy to internalize Poo’s insistence that only three things mattered in a person: good looks, good looks, and good looks.
In the decade and a half since, Bollywood has drilled those priorities into us with varying degrees of subtlety and lack thereof, defining the “good” in “good looks” with increasing rigidity. Consider Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani where Deepika Padukone swaps her glasses for contacts at the same exact moment that Ranbir falls in love with her. Or Main Hoon Na where Amrita Rao becomes an object of attraction when she ditches her punk-rock tomboy getup in favour of long, straight hair and a hyper-feminine sanskaari wardrobe.
Bollywood's lesson for women has always been this: there is a certain way to look in order to be loved and desired. Bit by bit over my generation's formative years, that aesthetic has defined itself as straight and shiny-haired. Fair. Tall. Conventionally feminine. And, without exception, that definition has included thinness.
I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said before by thousands of women much smarter than me: fashion and movie industries around the world famously rely on our continued willingness to drool at and aspire to the versions of beauty that they sell us.
But 2015 in Bollywood has been a breath of progressive air. Bollywood seems to have grown a social conscience this year. Several big-budget movies have centered on female protagonists, stars have loudly rejected endorsement deals for fairness products, and celebrities have used their huge platforms to candidly discuss issues that demand discussion, including mental illness. Bollywood’s most successful women are calling out the wage gap, its most successful men are proclaiming themselves feminists, it’s finally beginning to look like an industry we can be proud of.
More specifically, Bollywood this year embraced heterogeneity in female body-types. Just as The Mindy Project did for non-skinny girls in America, Dum Laga Ke Haisha reminded us that you don’t have to be a size-0 to find love in India. Later in the year, Shaandaar came along with a plus-size heroine rejecting a six-packed suitor. As simplistic a takeaway as this is, it has felt like Bollywood finally cared to bat for girls like me. Girls who wear mostly black because it's flattering, who dread family reunions because we know we'll be called "healthy," who have to make a concerted effort to love ourselves in a world hellbent on convincing us we're flawed. Bollywood this year deigned to tell our stories. To show us finding love and being fabulous and feeling sexy, as we do in the real world but never on-screen.
The stomachs we've kept sucked in for decades, it seemed, could finally afford an exhalation.
But let’s never dare celebrate too soon.
Last week, Parineeti Chopra broke our little corner of the internet when she launched her weight loss campaign Built That Way. “Four years ago, a chubby, childish girl was introduced to the world. Four years later, I am closer to where I want to be,” she said in a Twitter post, before uploading 15 images of her post-weight loss body on display in athletic wear.
When Parineeti had announced the name of her campaign before actually launching it, I’d let myself feel a glimmer of hope. “Built That Way” sounded promising, like it could be another much-needed reminder that we’re all built in different ways, and that’s OK. I let myself believe it would join Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Shaandaar as the industry’s baby steps toward reparations for the skewed, harmful body standards it’s gifted our nation’s women and girls.
Instead, she went the other way and doubled-down on already-too-peddled rigid notions of beauty. She chose to remind 6 million followers on Twitter and 2.5 million on Instagram that confidence is a reward earned with thinness. That “chubby” is a thing to fix. That you may only be “proud” of your body once you’ve hurled it through months of diet and exercise first.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a woman celebrating her body in any iteration of her choosing. Who am I to police Parineeti Chopra's self-esteem and where she gets it? Who am I to impose on her the burden of representation? It would be grossly hypocritical of me to dictate the terms on which any woman should love her body. Parineeti Chopra set goals for herself, worked hard to achieve them, and wants to show that off. Cool.
Only: I wish she’d made pause long enough to consider the harmful effects of launching a multi-platform campaign dedicated to celebrating thinness, rather than fitness or healthiness. While her images feature gym-wear and motivational phrases, her own words celebrate her subscription to a particular aesthetic. An aesthetic that she, like me, inherited a pressure to adhere to.
For instance, Chopra ended her photo-dump with this proclamation: “THIS IS MY BODY and I’m proud of it! Took me 9 months to look this way. But I’m still a work in progress!! Will look better with time.”
Zoom into that statement a little. The word "look" features twice. There’s no mention of being proud of a reformed lifestyle. No hint of pride at being stronger, being fitter, being healthier. The images feature gym-wear and sweat, but her own tweets and captions are about how she looks, and how she’ll go on to look in the future.
While all of her contemporaries are break-necking toward an accepting, progressive, socially conscientious future, Chopra celebrated her transformation with a prescriptiveness that instantly made me the ten-year-old locked in my bedroom, stomach sucked in. It scares me to think of ten-year-olds today, caught in the mindfucking crossfire between the body-positivity they see on Tumblr and the shrinking size-zeros they see on Bollywood's silver screens.
I wish Parineeti Chopra had hesitated before megaphoning, to millions of people, that a body worth taking pride in has to “look” a certain way.
Instead, she’s chosen to drive home the priorities that ruined us all to begin with: good looks, good looks, and good looks.