I met Priyanka through a friend. We were acquaintances and had spent a fractional time with each other here and there. I had always seen her as a very strong woman and she reminded me of Merida (from Disney’s Brave), mostly because of her beautiful curly hair.
I can’t remember who texted whom but I was so glad she was ready to tell me her story. We met one Saturday afternoon at my house. I had put up a makeshift background so we could take photos afterwards and all that space had only spared us the sofa in the corner. We spoke for hours – about her life, how she struggled with her body, her ‘hoodie phase’ as we will be calling it and her new savage self.
Priyanka is all the feminine energy you need right now. She brings to the table real girl-talk and her absolutely unapologetic stance which will make you feel stronger and braver.
To know more about ‘We Need To Talk:Shaming’ – click here.
No more holding back. Let’s dive right into the conversation.
The Earliest Memory
“Well, I’ve always been on the curvier side but when I was a kid, like in 2nd grade I used to be really skinny. Then I went to the 3rd grade and I actually got my period. It was that soon. I saw my body start changing and so from being this really skinny girl, I went to having boobs in the 3rd grade. I used to feel like I can’t run and even to this date, you know I gym but I don’t run. I only run when I do my functional training and that too in a secluded section where no one can see me. I’ll walk, I’ll pick up weights, I’ll crush my workouts and I’ll do everything else, but I won’t run.”
“Bullying happened to me at a much later stage in my childhood” Priyanka recollects.
She fondly remembers her years up until the sixth grade. Her mother was a cook and she was offered a full-time job at a Parsi residence in Colaba. She moved from her former house in Virar and she and her mother lived with the Parsi family. Priyanka grew up in a contemporary society till she was 14 years of age.
“So I was 12 years old and that is the age when you’re gathering all your information about growing up. It is like the beginning of a very important phase and I ended up living in a society that was very different from where I lived earlier. You were allowed to be who you wanted to be. If I told someone I wanted to be a psychologist, they would find it interesting. If I told them I wanted to be an artist, they’d want to see my work. That comes from people who are educated and have a broader perspective. That was the society I grew up in, with these open-minded people who had an opinion and let me have mine.”
The family Priyanka lived with were very accepting of her. She was treated like the other children of the household and even as a child, she felt her opinions were considered.
“When I was young I always had the choice of picking up the toys I liked or the dress I liked, there was no rok-tok. What I learned from them (the Parsi family) was freedom and I learned it at a pretty young age. I learned very early on that I’m allowed to do what I want to do and I am allowed to pick the things I like and I am allowed to dress a certain way, by choice. Those two years were great. I was studying in a good school, I was surrounded by good people who were always there to help and talk to me. It was all very comfortable. The problem was going back.”
Returning Home To Virar
After spending a couple of years in Colaba, Priyanka and her mother return to their home in Virar.
“I shifted back to Virar and it was an entirely different world. From where I came, the kids and families were very kind. When I moved back, I was still the same – I had my voice, I wore my low neck tank tops and shorts, but I didn’t fit in.”
Virar is the last station in the north of the western line of Mumbai’s suburban railway. It is in every way possible the opposite of where Priyanka had grown up in Colaba. It is a small town in the Palghar district of Maharashtra. In the past decade, Virar has grown to become a popular settling destination in the city thanks to it low-cost apartments and cost of living. It is now seen as a cosmopolitan suburb owing to its growing population of the working class.
Priyanka moved from the southern tip of the city which is known for its rich heritage buildings and pleasant beach views to the northern tip which had its own countryside appeal with large open fields and surrounding rugged hills.
“I started noticing it very soon. Like when I went to a store to pick up groceries or if I’m passing people on the street, I started noticing that they were looking at me in a certain way; and it wasn’t just the male gaze, it was the female gaze too. They looked at me like I was different and it was wrong to be different.
“I started observing that people in Virar dressed differently and talked differently and I could tell that they were looking at me differently. People would just stop and stare at me and I wasn’t willing to accept it. I still hadn’t spoken to myself about it and so I was still playing it cool.
“One day, when I was on my way back home, this guy makes a comment when I crossed him. It was the middle of the afternoon, and he was with a group of other boys and he said – “She’s definitely showing something”. At that time, I couldn’t even turn and look at them. I felt like I had done something wrong and so I ran home. I felt dirty and when I got home, I cried. I was in the 8th grade then and this was in the second week of shifting back home.
Being cat-called is not a new thing for women in India. A lot of women are subjected to the strange sounds of hooting, whistling, name calling and singing when they pass strange men on the streets. While women choose to walk past these men and not bother to engage, it does affect them and their mental wellbeing on a daily basis.
“I decided to observe this place a little more. I noticed that every girl around me was wearing salwar suits and they always wore dupattas to cover themselves, even the younger ones. I remember their school uniforms were also a salwar suit with a dupatta, unlike mine which was a skirt and blouse or a pinafore dress.
I was home alone a lot because both my parents were working full-time. So one day when I’m at home in the afternoon, I sit down and make a pros and cons list. I clearly asked myself what I wanted to do. I had two options – first was that I change and be more like them but I didn’t see myself like that. The second option was that I could be the way I was and ignore these people, and till date, that’s what I’ve done. It was a choice I made. Even now, when I was walking out of my area, I had heads turning around but I didn’t really care.
“As I grew up, my body went through more changes. I became curvier and I don’t know if you’ve heard this but having a big butt is like you’re asking for it.”
The Hoodie Phase
What came next for Priyanka is what we decided to call the ‘hoodie phase’. Priyanka gave up on her favourite spaghetti tops embraced the all-covering hoodie. If you think about it, the hoodie is an incredibly comfortable garment that can not only keep you warm but also tuck away everything bad about your body that you want to hide. She describes it as her worst mistake and blames it for making her insecure about her body again.
“So I had gained weight, put on a few extra pounds, and that is why I started covering myself because I wasn’t happy about my body. I wore hoodies for three years straight – just jeans and hoodies. It kept away my belly, hip, arm, waist, all kind of fat covered. I did this for three full years. Lucky for me, I ended up at an all girls college where there were all kinds of women and I felt very much accepted. I was studying sociology and I had a really great professor. He openly discussed the female paradigm in the Indian society and suddenly I was thrown back to the previous environment where I was respected for the opinions I had and I could wear what I wanted.”
Now came the social media era. While Facebook had long existed and was the pioneer of the social internet, it was apps like Instagram and Snapchat that really set things on a roll. Priyanka was still in college when the world was raging over these apps and so did she. She found a way to express herself to the world with pictures and poems.
“I came from a place where I loved my body and I found it okay to post a picture of me in a bikini. I really didn’t think of the people I would offend. I started getting comments like “Oh! You’re sharing such bold pictures.” I still don’t understand why people called it bold. It is a human body, same as yours. I just took a picture of it. I’m sorry you are too afraid to do it but that doesn’t make me bold.”
“People have asked me if my parents know that I’m posting “such” pictures on Instagram. Yes, buddy. My mother knows I took the photo.”
“I was totally bullied on Instagram. I’ve been sent dick-pictures on Instagram. I mean, why would anyone do that?
It was one of the most disturbing experiences I had. It made me feel disrespected and unpleasant.”
When I asked her about how it is today – like this very day, she tells me nothing has changed – people still cat-call, bullies still comment on her Instagram and send her creepy messages, it is all still there. What has changed is that she chooses to be herself, every single day without a doubt.
“I am approached by so many women who ask me how I do it. How am I so comfortable in my skin, and I always tell them one thing. People who judge you are always going to be there. There is no way around it, you have to walk through the fire. Just remember one thing – you should accept yourself first. If you can do that, you won’t care of what other people think or talk about you because no one knows you as well as you know yourself.”
“It is very easy to pull down someone. All you need is one nasty comment. So the next time someone makes you feel uncomfortable – remember that you have a choice. You can choose to live the life you want or you can try to fit in an unfitting society. Get one thing straight – you, my dear, are never going to fit into the society. No one is meant to fit in. You are here to create your life and the best version of it. It doesn’t have to be under the pressure of being accepted by the society.”
Priyanka describes herself as savage and I can only agree. Her undoubting belief in who she is will give you the strength to feel that way about yourself too. It is something we as women often seem to forget. We don’t need approvals, permission or anyones judgement. We can be who we want to be, wear what we feel makes us look beautiful and do for ourselves what we think is best.
“It is important to connect with yourself or the world will bring you down. Whenever you are feeling low, sit back and connect with yourself. Think of what your values are, what you are made of because this is your journey. So don’t let anyone else tell you how it is done.”