B-Change ties up with New York-based gender blog, Chicks and Balances for this series #InHerWords.
‘In Her Words’ showcases the stories, experiences and interviews of women who have something to share. Here’s presenting the first in the series.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting up with fashion blogger and body positivity champion, Meenu Goel of Shesasixteen. We talked for hours about fashion and of course, feminism. With an Instagram following nearing 20k, a successful blog, and numerous features in various media, Meenu has been a trailblazer of the body positivity movement in India for about a year and a bit now. She’s a (size) sixteen, which was also the inspiration for her blog’s moniker. She has been instrumental in challenging the fashion industry’s traditional standards of beauty, empowering women everywhere to be themselves, and wear what they want.
While Meenu’s voice and blog have been vitally important to the highly under-represented group of plus-size women, the essence of her message – love your body, and don’t be afraid to be yourself – resonates with everyone. Her messages are liberating, personality vivacious, and love for fashion infectious!
In the below interview, MS will refer to the interviewer and founder of Chicks and Balances, Madhuri Sastry and MG will refer to Meenu Goel from Shesasixteen.
MS: Was there a specific reason you picked the time you did to start blogging?
MG: Yes, a year and a half ago. On October 15th 2015. I started working on Shesasixteen only because everything just fell into place. I mean, there’s no reason why I started when I did. My birthday had passed by, in September, and I kept feeling the urge to do something. Everything in the universe just fell into place and now this is it! The blog is my raison d’etre!
MS: Lovely! Congratulations on taking the plunge! One of the main things I want to talk to you about today is feminism. Do you consider yourself a feminist? What is feminism for Meenu Goel?
MG: For me feminism isn’t about clear-cut black and white situations. I have read, and heard so much about feminism, but I have never stopped to consider my thoughts on it. Now that you ask me, feminism for me is in the little things. It’s about — when I take a stand for myself, even against my own parents. Or it’s the blog that I run. My blog is built on the notions of body positivity for women. In a nutshell, it’s just about letting someone be. Irrespective of their gender.
MS: Awesome! Did the blog in any way make you re-evaluate your notions on feminism? Or did it change things for you, how you see yourself as a woman, or how you see other women, perhaps?
MG: To begin with, the blog has just pushed me to become a better person, because I realize I am now representing someone. I’m not just a plus-sized person anymore, I’m a plus-sized person whose words have a huge impact on people. Pre-blog I was negative about certain things about my own self. For example, I would think, “I want to change the way my arms, or my thighs look”. Even if I didn’t really MEAN it at the time, I would still SAY it. Now after the blog, I have stopped even saying things like that. So, what I say on my blog is genuine, and is a reality for me. I’m not just telling women to wear what they want, I am actually wearing what I want.
MS: It made you more confident than you thought you could be?
MG: Absolutely! I mean, there are days when I question my decision to blog, but then something or the other happens that makes me realize why I made the decision to start Shesasixteen in the first place!
MG: In India, the situation is just not as good as it should be. Mainly because even if women want, really want to feel confident about their bodies they can’t, because of the situation they’re in. What I mean by this is, even if they do feel great about themselves, they’re stifled by their parents, who don’t want them to dress the way they do because they feel like that’s not how a plus-sized woman should dress. And then there’s also the major pressure of “ladka dekhna hai”. (Translation: you have to see a boy.) So, they’re basically in a situation where they just can’t be body positive. And even I have gone through that. Even if I wasn’t interested in being in a relationship, everyone close to me would tell me that it would probably be easier for me to find someone that will want to marry me if I lose weight. Another thing that I have personally felt and experienced is that it’s the so-called “normal-sized” people who make it difficult for others to be body positive.
MS: In what way?
MG: I have dealt with criticism form bloggers who are essentially size 4.
MG: Let me clarify. There are two types of people. Women who are absolutely amazing and supportive. They may not have anything to do with body positivity, but they write to me saying “it’s so nice to see you be this way”, or that they like get to get a style tip form my page. But there are also women, – some of whom I know personally – who think that what I am doing is absolute crap. This one girl said about me, “what makes her think she’s a model?”. I can’t understand her position. I would have expected her to behave differently, especially as a woman. In fact, I get a lot of support from men, which is great.
MS: Really! Would you say then that you get more positive responses from men than women? Or more than you expected?
MG: More than I expected, for sure.
MS: And what’s the type of positive encouragement that men give you?
MG: To be honest there’s more to this. I actually block most of my male Instagram followers because I don’t see how their so-called opinion on how cute, or sweet, or pretty I am, contributes in any way to the content I put out there. So, I choose to block them. A lot of people think I’m stupid to do this, but I really don’t see how their validation is important to my blog and its purpose. I’m here to put out genuine content. The other men who support me have never really looked at me differently. This includes my male friends. The men that truly support me are those who don’t get taken aback when I say I’m a plus-sized blogger. A lot of the brands I work with employ men as their social media managers, and they are extremely supportive of me and that’s so heartening and refreshing. I wish that a lot more men felt that way.
MS: I wish the same as well.
MG: So, I recently had a conversation with a plus-sized blogger friend of mine, who has never been in a relationship. And it just got me thinking, why does LOVE have anything to do with your physical appearance…to this extent?! I don’t get it. Body positivity really is about just letting someone be. Don’t let their appearance – also their religion, color – define ANYTHNG about them. You may not have anything pleasant to say, but please don’t say something unpleasant.
MS: Do you think India is headed in the right direction as far body positivity is concerned?
MG: I don’t think so. There’s a very tiny fraction of society that’s working towards it. But even then, the majority response is still kind of disheartening. Like recently, a website had a feature called something like “10 plus-sized girls you should follow in India”. I scrolled through the comments section just to get an idea of what people were saying, and many of them were talking about obesity.
MS: There is a pre-conceived notion that plus-sized people are naturally unhealthy?
MG: I don’t get why people can’t stop to think that maybe some people are just born this way, or maybe they have a medical condition. Health, obesity and people’s weights are not necessarily all connected.
MS: You can totally be fit without being skinny.
MG: Exactly. So, if you go through the comments, you’ll see how much negativity there is. And this is because of the mentality with which we have been brought up.
MS: So, do you think that this whole body-shaming thing is something that’s been a Western influence? Because if you look at the evolution of Indian standards of beauty, at older Bollywood heroines for example, they were not all size zero. But if you look at all the Bollywood heroines today, they are *all* under so much pressure to lose weight, they keep “losing weight”. They’re beautiful women, but they perpetuate unrealistic standards of beauty. I feel like the standards of Indian beauty used to be totally different. So, do you think that this is because of the influence of the West?
MG: I don’t think so. I am 26 now. I feel like the first time I remember somebody’s saying something negative about my size was probably when I was like 8. In fact right from the first standard, you’re singled out for being a certain size. So, I don’t think the influence has come over time, and that our society has always just been that way – and I am speaking of the masses. Like I said, for women our age, all the pressure to lose weight comes from marriage. Gori, Lambi, Patli chahiye. [We need…fair, tall, thin] These three words are just ingrained in the general mentality.
MS: Yeah, I see. So, do you think that Bollywood celebrities and influencers are doing enough now for the body-positivity movement?
MG: I don’t think anybody is doing anything for it at all, actually. Elle magazine did a beautiful shoot some time ago with 4 curvy women, and that one article made some impact but that’s it. What after that? I feel like there isn’t a consistent effort. Everyone even from Kareena Kapoor to Parineeti Chopra went ahead and eventually lost weight because they were so pressured into it. If people valued them so much as actors, why didn’t they just let them be the way they were?
MS: Yeah. I mean I don’t know that male actors have to really face the same kind of pressure about their weight. Sure, they want to be more buff, but I still think after a certain age at least male actors are just left alone, and female actors their age, aren’t.
MG: Yeah. I know a couple of Instagram influencers who started off as body-positive bloggers, but then they went ahead and lost weight. Honestly, if at some point, health demands that I lose some weight, then I would do it. Totally. But I would chronicle my journey, in terms of WHY I am doing it, and how.
MS: As you said, you represent women. You are accountable to them, right. You owe them an explanation…
MG: Exactly, right. Weight has just become such a THING to talk about. Like today I posted a picture on my blog and I got some comments like “oh you’ve become slimmer, share your secret.” And I was like just because I am a plus-size blogger, it doesn’t mean all my posts are in some way about my weight. They don’t even see what I am really posting about – a brand, a fashion tip. Weight is the only thing. That’s the first thing parents want to talk about, that’s the first thing relatives want to talk about. Barring your closest friends, who won’t define you by your weight, it’s become the THING to DEFINE people with.
MS: That’s so sad. I mean even I have felt defined by my body. It was a *long* journey — I’m talking like eight years – for me to get to a place of “what’s on the scale is just a number…” I don’t fucking care…
MG: And just accept it, yeah. Exactly.
MS: Do I feel healthy? Can I run as much as I want to? Am I fit? These are my only parameters now, but it was very hard to get here. I used to be so self-conscious, it really defined me.
MG: Yeah, it’s really sad. I mean people never look at me and think, “oh I like the way she talks, or I like the way she writes,”. No. They WILL focus on the more superficial aspect – my weight.
MS: I really hope that changes…
MG: I just don’t think that will happen, sadly. I mean there is just SO much negativity out there. I mean, at least I am in a better place because my parents are ok with it.
MS: So, you’ve got a lot of support from your parents? I see your mom tagging you in articles about you on Facebook and stuff!
MG: Ummm. I mean, not really. At the end of the day, my parents are also typical Indian parents. They are very chill, and my mom is doing as much as she can…but…there’s only so much. They are still concerned because they feel like marriage is related to your appearance. And also blogging as a career is something I can’t even EXPECT my parents to fathom. I think they are feeling better [about this] now, because I have a full-time corporate job. They totally have their proud moments when they see how much is happening. Like today I came home, and there were four boxes of products for me to wear and promote. And they do tell me from time-to-time, that this is my weapon and I should use it. You know how I am fighting that battle of being a traditional person with modern values? I think my parents are fighting this battle in their own way. To be parents of a 26-year old who doesn’t really fit into the typical norms of beauty defined by Indian society.
MS: That’s so interesting, Meenu. We must talk more about this soon. But for now, to bring it back to you, I’ve heard you use the term, “plus-sized”…and I was wondering what your thoughts on the term are. Do you like it? Do you think there should be a different term?
MG: There should be no term at all! I use the term “body positive” on my Instagram because that’s what I am. I want people to know what exactly my aim is, and what I am doing. So-called “normal-sized” bloggers don’t go about putting “normal-sized blogger” in their bios, so why should I have to?
MS: Yeah, I agree! In fact the average dress size in the US is 16! So, you know, there should be no pressure on women to identify as plus size!
MS: So, what are some of your favourite brands?
MG: I don’t have one, to be honest. There are about 5 dedicated to making GOOD plus-sized clothes for women. Here’s the thing – I fit into stuff from Global Desi, and even Zara. But sometimes I feel like they don’t talk about the fact that they have a size 16. And that I feel, Is not fair! Why don’t these brands promote this? Why don’t they work with plus-sized models and bloggers? It seems like they worry about their image, or being perceived a certain way.
MS: Yeah definitely. I have been wanting to ask you, have people confided in you?
MG: Yeah totally, totally. Some days my fingers hurt, responding to the comments and the DMs. All sorts of women tell me all sorts of things. How their parents and friends have treated them. Or what is expected of them. Or just how looking at my profile has made them feel like, “I can wear a sleeveless top as well, what’s the big deal?”
MS: That’s awesome. What are the ways in which you support them? You said you respond to their DMs etc.?
MG: I interact with them on a personal level, so I can understand what they are going through. The only thing I can offer them is a listening ear. Do whatever it takes to get in touch with me, I will ALWAYS respond. Talk to me, because I know I how important it is to just have someone to talk to.
MS: That’s really sweet! I have one last question…what does acceptance feel like? Like the complete acceptance of who you are?
MG: Wow. It’s inexplicable. This may sound superficial, but it’s the little things. Or example, I recently went to an event. Everyone was all dressed up. We were standing there in a sea full of people, and I felt like I really BELONGED there. That’s how acceptance feels. Like belonging. It’s the nice things that people say to support me – something I never expected would ever happen to me as an individual. These are things that make me feel, on a daily basis, like I am accepted for who I am. People are not telling me, “don’t tie up your hair…” They are just letting me be. That’s what it feels like.
MS: Amazing. You deserve it. Congratulations and I wish you all the success in the world, with all my heart.