Gentrification of our bodies

Photo of Mahika Singhal

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Do you remember being dragged to a distant relative’s house as a child and discovering a little too much about them through their furniture? Their inspirational fridge magnets revealed their deepest affirmations. Their sprawled magazines spewed the secrets of their highest fantasies. You weren’t snooping, you were just looking. But the details, they’re everywhere. And they’re so telling.

That’s how I have always felt about bodies. Each feature divulges information and each marking holds a story that would have been long forgotten if it wasn’t for its permanent etching. I’m never snooping, I’m just looking. But the details. They’re everywhere. And they’re so telling.

In my Indian neighborhood, social conditions are instantly displayed through physique, like how the economics of a house can be found in its wooden or steel framing.

The beggar heats dinner over roadside coals, and her stomach bunches up thrice over, where it holds the abdominal fat stores to survive the droughts her ancestors faced. It’s like the fascinating disjoint structure of a multipurpose folding chair.

In the meantime, her children plead at traffic signals, and their ribs protrude from their dirtied skin to arouse the sympathy of passerbys. It’s like the thin pleats of drapes that let in just enough light to let you know it’s daytime, yet never disrupt your sleep.

The middle-class, middle-aged, middle-management lady in the yoga center across that street elongates upwards on her trainer’s command, and her stretchy pants hike up too high, ballooning her torso. It’s like a comical, bulbous lamp shade with a slender rod.

In India, the markers of age and infirmity are also etched into skin, like how the era a house was built in can be deciphered through its dated aesthetic sense.

The toddler in the park learns how to walk, and his podgy, segmented thighs peek under his bulky diaper. It’s like a hodgepodge stack of old books supporting a giant fruit bowl.

The uncomfortable teenager has shifting eyes and fidgeting fingers glued to his phone, and his bumpy cheeks erupt with pimples. It’s like the wet, peeling texture of yellow wallpaper.

The breastfeeding mother balances groceries and car keys in one hand, and props her slipping child up her sagging breasts with another. It’s like a brimming, stretching laundry bag tied to the door knob.

In my hometown in India, I began relating familiar features with warm and cherished relationships.

My middle-school teacher’s wide hips rhythmically swayed when she turned away from me and shuffled across the chalkboard. It was like the hypnotizing, majestic strokes of a grandfather clock.

My childhood nemesis spread fantastical rumors about me through her gapped teeth, until we sorted our differences and became inseparable for the next ten years. It was like a child’s crayon drawing on an otherwise white wall.

My dying grandfather lifted his hand to place it on my head, and the visible blue-gray veins in his arms flashed by my eyeline. It’s like the first lines of water seepage in the ceiling that won’t be dealt with until later.

As Western ideals seeped into Indian neighborhoods, the beauty standards evolved to become exclusionary, only accepting bodies that fell straight. Our Pinterest boards for home decor started featuring clean American aesthetics of light colors and symmetrical lines.

But for us, the attainment of this detached design trend would require too much renovation, and the structural integrity of our houses could not be changed, no matter how much we fought with the builder. The result was a norm of explicit critique and comment on one another’s bodies: an open-house concept that judged the furnishings by alien and impossible measures.

Somehow, that was still less daunting than shifting my body, this metaphorical house, to Berkeley. California casual was not imposed with obvious messaging from authorities and onlookers. Rather, it seeped in from the marbled floors.

Everybody’s proportions fell within a five-inch radius of each other. Narrow and symmetrical waists and legs seemed to be the only real estate allowed to occupy space, especially in the social settings of college culture.

I soon started scratching off the color and details in my furniture: my blackened knees from years of playing in dirt fields had been scrubbed white and my birthmark inherited from my mother and mother’s mother strategically hidden under straps.

I did, however, leave up a few fetishised pieces of furniture that are considered exotic and artistic here. My stick and poke tattoos seem folksy. My shaped eyebrows, that I had always been conscious of, are constantly complimented.

But even after all this, my new, off-white look still didn’t look right on me – clownish and inauthentic, rather than cool and natural.

If we all looked closely and drove by Berkeley really slowly, maybe we’d see too many cream-ish squeamish houses that blend into this white neighborhood just enough.

The lack of body diversity in Berkeley deadened the sensory play I often embarked on in India, of witnessing a myriad of dimensions and distortions in physicality. It made me erase my markings of created and cultural make, imperfect and non-comforming experiences. I wonder how many others’ furniture of features was similarly displaced.

In this locality, it is only silent — and silencing — covert homogeneity, rather than overt exclusion of posters and evictions, needed for the gentrification of our bodies.

Mahika Singhal writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.