Content Warning [CW]: Body image (In general)
** This is my first time using content warnings on the blog, please shoot me a message if you have any specific suggestions about these.
In my sixth form, I took on a bunch of afternoon co-curriculars that, if I lined them up now, may look a little haphazard. I like to think of them as a cross-section of what I wanted to know, and who I wanted to be.
I won’t tell you all of these activities. I can say that I aspired to learn a few sports, and to be around books. But there was one co-curricular activity whose exact title I can’t remember. It wasn’t a sport or a hobby.
It was likely skills-based, and the closest I can come up with, is that it was a kind of short course for 17-year-olds to build up confidence for interviews. The teacher running the sessions addressed our self-confidence and the way we carried ourselves. It may have tended towards physical self-esteem, but I don’t remember it being shallow or objectifying.
I don’t know if it was meant only for girls, but I ended up spending afternoons with a very small, intimate group of girls, most of whom I already knew. The sessions culminated in an outing, in which we learned (and which I promptly forgot) the basics of makeup application.
On one of those afternoons, the teacher gently treaded on the topic of body image. We were asked: What part of your body do you like most, and least?
I don’t remember my own answers. I was at an age where I maybe had a general insecurity about my body, but wasn’t feeling insecure about a specific body part. (Yet!) If anything, I was unsure of my feet – wide, a little hard to go shoe-shopping for. I sensed that they were supposed to be daintier, smaller. But I wasn’t really beating myself up about them, and I don’t recall if I actually voiced out about them.
But I remembered what the other girls said.
What part of your body do you like most? “My eyes,” said one. This was a good answer, I thought, I hadn’t really thought of eyes.
Years later, I wondered if it was just playing safe – an inoffensive part of the body that is always easy to appreciate. But now, I acknowledge that any answer is valid. The question is meant to make you appreciate some part of your body, especially if you had never thought of it, or if you had never found any to like.
What part of your body do you like least?
Quietly, her head down, but with certainty in her answer, someone answered: “Body hair.”
Until that moment, I had never, ever thought of the hairs on my body being off-putting to other people. I was immediately conscious of the little hairs running up my arm. At home, I noticed the hairs on my legs. I would start shaving my legs when I started university later on. I also felt some doubt about hair on my face and my arms, but I was not quite committed to removing them.
But while I remember that co-curricular and that moment, and I know that it shifted my own awareness of body hair, I also think of the girl who chose it, as what she liked least about her body. I wonder how long she’d felt ashamed of her body hair.
Later, I learned that body hair was a specific insecurity of my female friends of South Asian heritage. (Some related reads and experiences on this: Refinery29, Asian Woman Festival, Brown Girl Magazine. My friend Manisha has also previously written of her own relationship with body hair.) As a Malay, with perhaps average length of body hair, I know it wasn’t quite the same struggle for me.
Could I revisit those questions again now? It’s very different, I think, to ask someone in their 30s about their body. Your body has been through a wealth of experiences since you were a teenager. But it’s not just that.
You also start to prioritise different things about your health and wellbeing, while at the same time, your body changes, and ages. You find out new things about how your body works, sometimes rapidly – an inherited condition, an exercise injury – but sometimes over subtle changes – a dietary intolerance, or just normal “aging” things like various body aches or needing better sleep habits.
That’s not to say that your teenage body insecurities weren’t important. They don’t always go away, as an adult. But you may have reshaped your beliefs and attitudes, and maybe even society has shifted. You can celebrate your body hair. There is a much greater emphasis on mental health and self-care. In Brunei last year, Cope for Hope Brunei held a major event on body neutrality.
I don’t really think I have any body parts that are my favourites, or the least favourites. My body hair is doing fine, by the way. My feet are a little sore, and they’re not in the best shape, but I try to take care of them.
Surprise! For the last week of January, I decided to try out a daily blogging prompt from WordPress itself.
Bloganuary Prompt, 26 January 2022: “What is your favourite part about yourself?“