By Kanchan Raju
POV: You set foot into the family function that you’re reluctantly but obligatorily attending. The bustling chatter of aunties and uncles and the tangy aroma of paneer sabzi fill the room. One vaguely familiar aunty approaches, and you brace yourself for several minutes of cheek squeezing and mildly invasive questioning. But rather than a mere “hello” or “how are you,” you’re greeted with the one recurring question you dread most:
“Kanchan, is your Amma not feeding you?”
For as long as I can remember my long legs and thin stature have been kind of a staple — an essential part of who I am. I grew up with a plethora of affectionate nicknames, from classics like “Stick” and “Twig” to my personal favorite, “Daddy Long Legs.” I’ve never done anything in particular to warrant my skinniness; my DNA just happened to contain genetic instructions along the lines of “Make! Her! Longer!” But whether it was an aunty investigating my eating habits or my own best friends giving me far too elaborate nicknames, I always responded to the skinny comments the same way: by laughing and brushing them off.
While it was fairly easy not to think about my figure in my day-to-day life, it became much harder to ignore in my dance endeavors. As a dancer of thirteen years, I’ve always thought of my body as my instrument. But when your instrument is disproportionate compared to the standard, it’s of course more difficult to produce the correct melodies. I felt constantly hindered by my body type, no matter what the dance style. In Bharatanatyam lessons, I struggled to make my aramandi (a fundamental squatting posture) extra deep in order to match the level of my classmates. In Bollywood class, my peers would nail the confidence and femininity of our Madhuri Dixit-inspired movements while I lacked the hips and curves to do the same. No matter how hard I worked on my memory, clarity, or stamina, nothing could change the fact that I just didn’t look like the other girls.
Throughout middle school, my skinniness became even more of a sore point. I started to struggle severely with body image and for those few years I genuinely hated being in my own skin. I dreaded going to dance class, not because I lost my passion but because I just couldn’t stand how I looked doing any and every movement. How is it possible to play the right melody when you hate your instrument?
But in the utmost paradox, the thing that fueled my negative self image the most was exactly what sparked my journey to recovery: dance. I slowly realized that dance doesn’t have to be a reason to scrutinize my appearance or a means of dictating my self worth. I could simply dance for myself. I had always heard expressions like “Dance is the hidden language of the soul” and “Dance like nobody’s watching” and deemed them cliché, but as I entered high school I felt myself truly embodying these statements for the first time. When I learned a new sequence of Bharatanatyam abhinaya (storytelling using intricate hand gestures and facial expressions), I shifted my focus from nitpicking my own body to immersing myself into my character. I never felt more comfortable in my own skin than when I captured the elegance of a gopi (milkmaid) or the might of Lord Shiva.
On a mission to build my body positivity, I dove into a whole new realm of the artform: choreography. As I began to create my own pieces I found this invaluable feeling that I have full and total control over my body, that nothing can come between me and the music. To this day when I lock myself in my garage for hours on end, I’m transported to a safe space wherein no one’s perception of my appearance matters — free of judgment from others and myself. Throughout high school I also mustered the courage to dabble in more outgoing styles that I was once too self-conscious to try — hip hop, jazz funk, modern, and more. And sure enough, the less I tore apart my appearance while dancing, the better my execution. I wish I could see the pure disbelief on middle school-Kanchan’s face if I told her hip hop would be her favorite style just a few years down the line.
I’d be lying if I said my body insecurities have completely vanished, and in all honesty they probably never will. I still have days where I look in the mirror and am habitually inclined to pick apart everything I see. But for each instance of self criticism, I try to remind myself how the same body in that reflection has deepened my appreciation for dance in ways I never thought possible. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.
I’m slowly but steadily learning to value my instrument for what it is — quirks and all. For even though no two instruments are built the same, each is capable of creating its own uniquely beautiful melody.
My name is Kanchan Raju and I’m a first year Cognitive Science major at UCLA. I have been passionate about dance and piano for as long as I can remember, and I’m currently a member of UCLA’s Bollywood dance team Nashaa and community service-based music club SLAM. I’m so excited to be part of this team of impassioned writers and to contribute to the conversation on South Asian representation in mainstream media.