We spoke with Ushshi about her experience emigrating from Bangladesh to New York City, the downfalls of the body positive movement, and why she loves the Harlem YMCA. (Photo by Samantha Casolari & Lilac Perez)
LJ: When did you first think about your body as an entity, and what was that experience like for you? Was body image something you thought about when you came of age?
Ushshi: I remember early on being aware of my body as an entity, I used to have a certain amount of dissonance as a very young child about, well, being a child and being small. I felt like I was larger in presence than almost all adults and so this littleness didn’t quite fit, but I didn’t ruminate on it too much. By the time I started to become a chubby child though, I became aware that my body was something to separate from myself, an idea created as a coping mechanism to deal with what I can now call stigmatization but back then didn’t have the emotional or literal vocabulary for. It happened by being treated differently, told to constantly lose weight, having my food intake be severely restricted, controlled or alternately inundated with, in receiving this messaging that you are not good enough, that there is something wrong with you, that you are not developing right and your physicality is a problem or an indicator of a problem.
Those messages very quickly heaped up on me by the time I was seven years old, which is about the time I was put on my first diet. I learned to warp and compartmentalize aspects of myself. I knew, with the kind of blithe confidence of youth, that I was smart and cool and a multitude of valuable things. Much deeper down I knew I was good, that I was okay, but that truth was made less and less accessible and couldn’t coexist (or so I was told/believed) in the body that carried me through this world. So, conceptually I divorced my inner self from my body because I came to view it as the enemy - something I had to mold and change in order to give me a better life because my life, for a myriad of reasons growing up, was hell. The more trauma I incurred in my childhood and my teens, the more my body became a tool for me to control, to subvert, to punish, a canvas upon which to turn all my rage back inwards. There was this really deeply unhealthy fracturing of the self and the body as separate entities with which to experience life. It got me through and out but in the worst way possible. You can only hurt and destroy yourself so much for so long in the name of self preservation. I was trying to protect the “good” part of me, the resilience that I thought lay only in my mind and my soul, while taking out all my worst feelings onto my body. In that sense I almost understand the ways in which parents do the same with their children’s bodies (ones that see their kids as an extension of themselves, anyway) - it's disowned and projected rage. Period.
Back then, the lowest weight I ever got to still wasn’t even a low weight, but it was during the height of my eating disorder and professionals would say I looked normal and must be as such. I was at my “ideal” BMI range (another junk/bad science construct) but in Bangladesh, that’s still a behemoth. That is still an XXXL over there. Readymade clothing still barely came at that size; the tailor’s shop was my safe haven. But here’s the real kicker: at that lower weight I kept waiting to be and feel beautiful, to be treated differently, to be happy. Did I get positive reinforcement for being mentally and physically sick? Yes. Was I finally happy? Far from it. That was hands down the most miserable I have ever been in my life. It was such a jarring realization that this fallacy I’d been sold--that if you get thin, you feel good inside and life will be perfect--was a crock of horse shit. It slowly started to turn me off the idea of pursuing thinness in general. So in short, yes, struggling with body image in a world hostile to bodies like mine was one of the defining rites of passage of my childhood and adolescence.
LJ: Can you speak to your experience of moving to New York and what your cultural adjustment was like moving from Bangladesh? Was there a change in beauty ideals?
U: In Bangladesh, the beauty ideal is very petite, very light skinned--as in close to white passing--and slightly curvy. The average woman’s build there is very petite. That was the norm and that was what was idealized, if you fell too far outside of that, you were both hyper visible and invisible. But at the same time, it was a country where I didn’t have to question or think about my ethnicity or microaggressions based on the colour of my skine, not once, in eighteen very formative, character building years. I didn’t even know what that felt like. I had such culture shock when I moved here. I had experienced some overt racism here and there in my travels but that quiet dehumanization that I experienced when I first moved here of, “here, this is your place on the totem pole” was a complete mind fuck. In the beginning, racist shit would happen to me and I would keep questioning and think, there’s got to be an explanation to that I’m missing, it can’t be that, I was in denial, literally, because it’s such a shock to the system. My first experience in moving to America was at this very expensive liberal arts college in upstate New York where I arrived on an almost full merit scholarship and where there were maybe thirty-something students of any colour. I don’t have to tell you how that went, do I? That was supposed to be my ticket out to leave Bangladesh for a better future, me bargaining for survival with myself for a different life. And it felt a little like I went from the frying pan to the fire. I was very quickly fell out of that place and moved to New York City.
I moved to Harlem and oh man, Harlem was a homecoming. It was the energetic embrace that my heart and soul had needed for so long. I felt like I could breathe for the first time. When I moved there, just to see the diaspora of black and brown people, to see the body shapes and sizes, to see the rich African American history and cultural legacy that is uniquely akin to Harlem, the weave of immigrants in that thread was life and identity affirming. I would just roam and listen to the sounds of the neighbourhood: delta blues CDs sold on the stoop, rap blasting at the block parties, motown and doo wop seeping through every neighbour’s window on Sunday afternoons. I would walk from my apartment, stop by Nigerian owned stores to pick up some fabric and raw shea butter, nod in reverence walking past Langston Hughes’ brownstone, eat an empanada from the chuchifrito joints on my way to my homie’s place in spanish harlem, run into ten friends on the way and it was just magic. I felt at home. And I felt at home in a way that I didn’t feel in my actual home and in a way that I didn’t when I first moved to America. It was truly beautiful. It still is. It’s why I haven’t moved from the neighbourhood in a decade.
Going to the Harlem YMCA, also, as a nineteen year old was one of the those super pivotal moments for me in terms of my body acceptance. I had never seen --even though I have fat people in my family -- a variety of bodies naked and just existing without overt displays and talk of self loathing. In that gym, I saw the grandmas being fierce, I saw people my age and cute, chubby, brown kids moving freely, I saw the variety of skin colour. I saw people that were reflections of me, literally. I had been conditioned all my life to believe that this is ugly, that this is unwanted, this is what you don’t want to be. I looked at them, and I truly, for the first time in my life, was like, fuck, these women are beautiful. I wanted to get my sketchpad and sit my ass down and just draw them, to hold on to the glory of their corporeal forms. I feel like I was truly looking at people for who they inherently were and not through the narrow, warped lens I inherited from society at large. It was in those locker rooms where I learned to get naked and be unafraid, specifically outside of a male or sexualized gaze. That was really critically important for me.
LJ: I would love to hear how being a Bangladeshi woman plays a part of your body identity.
U: When I talk about fat politics and body politics, it’s really important to acknowledge that when you stand at multiple margins and identities, it’s impossible to separate them all as through individual lenses. You experience it all together, it’s multidimensional and multifaceted, much like the human experience at large. I can feel good in my body and size and feel really prideful of my skin color, ethnicity and my nationality and, at the same time, have huge issues with how we’re treated here in America. And I can have huge issues with how our government and society treats us back in Bangladesh as well, sometimes for the same reasons, sometimes for diametrically different ones.
I have a muslim last name and am from a predominantly muslim country, I am visibly a person of colour. I’m also tattooed and hypervisible in my aesthetic choices and generally look like the anti-authoritarian that I very much am. Guess how often I get flagged at airports? Hah. It’s impossible to not be aware of how my body identity and presence factors into all of this. As a large person, as a brown person and as a woman, in no particular order of importance, I sometimes lament and feel like there is nowhere in the world that is really safe to just exist and truly be free. That’s a conundrum that I have to negotiate daily and I would be lying to you if I didn’t say it is a heavy load I am always unpacking, always attempting to cast off, always heaped back upon.
Right before the election, I went on a short trip to a nearby college town, supposedly a liberal enclave and within my first two minutes of getting out of the train station, a white woman, in a car full of kids no less, was screaming racial slurs and telling me to get the fuck out of their town/country. Her face was contorted with rage and vitriol. It’s the most overt individual racism and xenophobia I have experienced. I tried to salvage the other two days of my trip, but I was crushed. I just remember going to the hotel and fucking weeping because I’m an immigrant, and every time I forget that, feel a part of this place, I see what this country is quickly devolving to politically, it’s hard not to take some of that in. What happened that day - I felt less than human. I didn’t feel like a whole person. I felt reduced to what this hateful person had done and said to me. I felt diminished of my humanity and individuality. And maybe because it was right before this election so I was especially sensitive to it - I just felt as if so many people were voting against people like me, that they just don’t want us to be here. It’s a conflicting awareness to have as someone who, every day, makes an active and intentional choice to be here and make a life in this land but has to fight for it in ways, both systematic and cultural, that a lot of (particularly, privileged) citizens won’t even begin to understand. I’m grateful and proud everyday that I live in New York, a city full of communities that protest, fight for and stand up for the rights of all of its inhabitants, including immigrants.
LJ: In general, how do you feel about the body positivity movement, particularly in social media?
U: It’s twofold. I’m glad it exists. I’m glad the message is getting pushed forward, I’m glad it’s reaching more people. The cantankerous side of me is like, well fuck this shit. Even just being a person mired in language, the word “positivity” is so fucking toothless. This is everything that has already been done, but without its bite. It’s reductionist. Body positivity came from radical fat and body politics. It irks me that people bypass the full dissemination of the axiom that the personal is the political. That at large, folks eschew real discourse or reading that really push back against the dominant narrative, versus, let’s just all like each other a little bit more in prettily packaged and accessible increments.
First and foremost, when you tell someone who is really in a dire place with their self-esteem, “you know, just have body positivity”, that seems utterly unattainable, this idea of sunshine and flowers and just magically loving yourself. The actual process does not feel like or mirror that “positive” language. It’s work and wading through the muck. So I think it's problematic even as an attempt to be an “easy” introduction.
The movement has also been co opted by the mainstream. Now, what passes for body positive is someone who is a size 12 or 14, hourglass figure, white or light skin, and not visibly fat at all. You have models who disavow terms like plus size because their internalized fatphobia is so strong they’d rather do away with words that indicate largeness, and are embarrassed by it more than they want to take the power back. I think that disservices and further marginalizes the people who made this movement, who started this, who rallied against what they knew to be oppressive constructs of beauty and objectification. As always, they go back into being silenced by erasure. Everyone who fought to have a better experience is not reaping the benefits. A lot of people who fit or are ever so slightly adjacent to the beauty ideal are reaping the benefits of the work of voices that matter the most. I do want everyone to feel better about their body, I do want everybody to unlearn body shame. I do want everybody to be able to push back against a system that tells you you are less than, period. But do the thin folks who newly come into and preach body positivity understand that their body shame they battled is largely rooted in fatphobia? Something they still partake or passively condone in when they health concern troll, or how so often they stop their advocating for women that start to defy what they now, think are “acceptable” bodies? That they’ve only broadened their horizons to include who looks like them and how damaging that still is? How they’ve taken our words to continue to push us out of a conversation we started? I think a lot of what is happening in the body positive movement, in its name, in its practice, in its commercialization, is what happens in general with a lot of activism. It’s what happens in general with a lot of discourse, especially discourse that comes from women of colour. It gets co-opted, rebranded, packaged and sold into something completely different. Capitalism and brands swallow it whole, it becomes another wave to ride and exploit.
Scrolling through a feed full of diverse bodies day in day out, living their full lives and thriving can recalibrate the brain as to what the norm should and could be, versus what mainstream media feeds us.
LJ: Can you tell me what social media has been like for you?
U: I remember when Instagram started, I was all about it. That was my first time truly starting to connect with the fat community. Scrolling through a feed full of diverse bodies day in day out, living their full lives and thriving can recalibrate the brain as to what the norm should and could be, versus what mainstream media feeds us. It was monumental. But it’s also devolved for me. The currency on Instagram, by framework alone, is purely visual. That’s who gets rewarded and that’s what gets validated. I started to feel the pressure of that too. There’s this sense of existing performatively, for the benefit of an audience, to give people what they want to see and my gut instinct is to reject that wholly, to withdraw. Because my intention is always to connect, I am sometimes uncomfortable with being reduced to just being seen. I’m trying to pick and choose the elements that I love in that media without becoming jaded about how the format itself operates.
Some of the people who changed my way of thinking don’t necessary have the most followers, especially on the ‘gram. They are writers, they are academics. Whereas, a lot of plus models or figures who are deeply problematic and do a bunch of things I’m very much at odds with ethically and intellectually have the largest platforms and reach. So in that way, I was very turned off. I hopped onto Twitter a couple of years ago and the dialogue and quality of back and forth that was happening there was miles and miles ahead in its progressiveness. The people I followed were razor sharp in their commentary and had intellectual prowess and emotional transparency that didn’t feel so curated, so posited to be pretty. I’ve learned so much from folks there (@kiddotrue, especially) and felt heard there about the ways in which we critique the very movements we seek to build in order to make it better.
LJ: I know you still have an Instagram and you were recently highlighted by Refinery29. What was that like for you?
U: It was really cool moment. The person who wrote the editorial, Nicolette, was one of the first bloggers that I followed very early on. She wasn’t a model, she was a real person on the Internet. She wore clothing from brands that didn’t make clothing in our size and encouraged people to try it on, to own space in spaces that didn’t actively include or make room for us, especially in high fashion. Her blog really pushed forth this idea that fashion could be democratized for all bodies and in a myriad of identities, by her visibility alone, but her words too, and it served as an entry point to make accessible what had often felt off-limits, style wise. What Refinery29 is doing with the 67 Percent Project is what I experienced in those Y locker rooms on a much larger scale. It’s putting forth the realistic and varied reflections of the human form, but particularly women’s bodies in their own platform in a world where when mainstream media historically (and still) would prefer to present that we don’t exist, save for a punchline or a sad trope. It's so long overdue and so very much the necessary, new baseline for representation.
And this is why I couldn’t quit Instagram, either. Because I remember what it was like when I first joined and why the visual normalization and desensitization to what has always been “normal” in the first place, was and remains so fucking crucial, for everybody. No matter how many years into the dissemination body politics I may be, I still need to see that. I’m at the point where now, if I look at magazines or I look at a certain show without enough diversity, it’s jarring. I think being repeatedly visually exposed to what we are told to hide, what we are told is ugly or unacceptable or not fit for “consumption”, holds a great deal of power. I might critique how visuals being the primary framework and focus of activism is a problematic and tricky road, but at the same time, I will say it crucially needs to exist, regardless. People in general, no matter how independent a thinker they imagine themselves to be, myself included, are easily influenced. Our thoughts, our ideals, our preferences are not created in a vacuum and the more we are seen in the full spectrum of our humanity, the harder it will become for society at large to continue to dehumanize us.
When I moved [to Harlem], just to see the diaspora of black and brown people, to see the body shapes and sizes, to see the rich African American history and cultural legacy that is uniquely akin to Harlem, the weave of immigrants in that thread was life and identity affirming.
LJ: How do you maintain a healthy sense of self in a society that tells women they always need to be changing? What has been really helpful to you that you’d want other people to know?
U: I would say you need to work on the inside and outside, you need micro and macro. You can’t tackle unlearning fatphobia or body shame from just one angle and think that is going to be enough -- it’s not. Yes, push back on the larger, systemic oppressions - dismantle beauty as a concept, fire back at the ways in which society attempts to control your body, to make your voice smaller, to make you an object of someone else’s desire versus the desire of your own making. Question the ways in which we are trained in needing outside validation and tacit approval. The ways in marginalized bodies are automatically posited as deviant. The ways in which we are punished when we do not comply and the blatant fucking wrongness of it all. The sooner you realize you need to tackle it from all angles, the better off you are.
I would also say, turn inwards and sit with your fucking feelings. Sit with your truths, even the parts of it that you want to disown, wish never happened, would rather never acknowledge because it’s too painful. Put things back where they belong including the onus of shame back on the people that taught you to internalize said shame. Know that their shit is not yours. Shine a flashlight on your experiences, you won’t go blind, I promise. Look at the places where it hurts too much too look, especially around messages about who we are and what we’re worth. Most people, everyone, honestly, in this world has gone through life at some point being told or treated than less than. And it’s important to look back and do that tough as nails work if you are ever going to be at peace with yourself in any shape or form.
LJ: It seems like you have such a wise, healthy understanding of your body currently. Can you tell me more about how you’ve grown so much in your own understanding of your body?
U: It was a very long process and it was something that I’ve only recently, fully come into embodying. I want to also acknowledge that while I’m currently in this comfort zone of feeling good, that baseline still could be precarious. I’ve experienced how a trauma like a death, for example can set you back mental health wise in terms of progress, even if it can be seemingly unrelated. Your equilibrium is part of a larger whole, you don’t experience only one aspect of your life in suffering when that balance is thrown off. It’s key for people to know and understand when taking on the work of unlearning a lot of the shame and fatphobia that we’re conditioned with, that it’s not going to be an easy process, it’s not going to even be linear, let alone an uphill climb. It’s going to be awkward as fuck, it’s going to be years of hard work. It’s going to be back and forth, one foot in and the other out the door, negotiating and struggling with yourself about what you believe versus what you’ve been taught and how to disentangle one from the other. It’s not an ah-ha moment and then bam, your life changes overnight.
For me, it came in increments. First, in my late teens, it started by putting a halt to my disordered eating behavior and really trying to stick out the weight gain and not punish myself for it or revert. Once I moved to New York, I was walking everywhere and I was young and poor and working on my feet all the time. I started to lose a lot of weight that I had put on from recovery and I found that super triggering. Unintentional weight loss was and probably still is a very slippery slope for me because it mimics the physical symptoms of what was once a disordered thought process - those thoughts seep back in with the body memory and I have to fight that as well.
Back then I also very much bought into the good fattie trope - my acceptance then was deeply conditional to societal nods of approval. If I could take all the extra stairs I saw, work out x number of hours a day and be fitter than all my thinner friends and maintain an hourglass shape where my fat was parcelled out in all the “right” places - then I got a “pass”. I could cash in on enough privileges to tolerate and negate some of the overall crap that came with being a fat woman in this world. It was destructive its own right and certainly logically very lazy, but it was the in between I could occupy at that moment in time, mentally and emotionally that’s about all I could handle. I just wasn’t there yet, but in my own ways, I was trying.
The last step for me was after I had come into really being radically okay with my size. I thought I was good, nothing could touch my sense of self. But then when health issues hit me (not caused by fat but it wouldn’t matter if it were, we are all still deserving of respect and feeling okay in our bodies), I had to learn how to still love my body despite it failing or working against me. That was the biggest challenge of them all, to truly and fully understand what accepting your mortal vessel means, not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Can I really love my body when it isn’t really co-operating with me and bending to my will, when control becomes a mute issue? To not just love what exists and carries you forth through life but what can also limit you and cause you pain? I think if I had gone back in time and told my fourteen year old self there is going to be a time where you will be immeasurably happy in what you tried to cut off from your understanding of your personhood, that you will be the largest you have ever been and think you look fantastic and enjoy the ways in which your body exists - she would scoff in my face. I don’t think she could have wrapped her head around a life free of obsessive loops of thoughts of self-loathing, of not being able to sit still in my own skin, always crawling on the inside. The very concept of being fat and happy was beyond my scope of understanding back then, as it is to many people, still. I can’t explain to her it is like to have that voice silenced, the quietude that comes with being at ease with my body as an integrated whole of who I am in this lifetime; what I am supposed to be. Everything is exactly as it should be. It was all worth it, to be here now, just as I am.
*I requested that Laura Jane include spelling that didn’t fit American guidelines to reflect the versatility and lived experiences of the English I speak and have learned through my lifetime. For many immigrants, the language is malleable and includes post-colonial British English, the Americanized version they inevitably adopt upon moving, anglicized mutations of their mother tongue and individual words of the other languages that also permeate the cities they live in. Often the rigidity to fully conform to one or the other can feel a bit like erasure.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How do you feel about body positivity? Tweet us at us about it (or anything else is Ushshi's interview) at @bodyposproject.