Think of the Indian arranged marriage setup. What's the first thing that crops up in your mind? We bet it's less to do with qualifications, levels of education, and career, and more to do with physical appearance. In a country like India, with millions of women, it is incredulous that the arranged marriage process is all about favouring the slim, tall, fair, and 'good-looking' ones in an unrealistic, idealised way no less.

For aeons, films have been blamed for setting unrealistic standards of beauty but no one talks about the Indian matrimonial process’s unfair 'beauty test', which has become an ingrained part of the arranged marriage process. Need evidence? According to a recent Dove report, 94% of women were asked to work on their appearance to find a suitable groom, while 74% faced rejection due to beauty-related issues.

The result? Well, it's not entirely unexpected — 68% of women claimed that this rejection impacted their self-esteem and confidence! And while dismantling the process as a whole seems like a mammoth task that will take time, there are a few women who are moving past this and owning the narrative. Plus-sized fashion blogger Amena Azeez is one of them.

#StopTheBeautyTest: “The arranged marriage set up puts women in an archaic beauty standard box”

Amena is so confident in her skin that at first glance, you'd never think that she ever cared about people's comments regarding her body. However, you'd be wrong. She has been judged for the way she looks her entire life. "I think I was around 9 or 10 years old when I was made aware of my appearance, especially my body, and made to realise that something is wrong with it and I need to change and fix it. Since then it has become an everyday thing," she shares.

For someone as young as 9 or a 10-year-old, being told that something is 'wrong' with their body is perhaps one of the most scarring things they can face. "The first time I remember being judged is when I was 9 or 10 and attending a family function. I specifically remember a relative asking me to not take a second helping of food because 'ladke moti ladki se shaadi nahi karte' (boys don’t marry fat girls). And this has been a recurring comment all my life. I have often been told, 'Kisi ko moti biwi nahi chahiye' (no one wants a fat wife), 'Agar abhi wazan nahi kam karogi, toh shaadi ke liye accha ladka nahi milega' (if you don’t lose weight now, you won’t find a good boy to marry you), Ladko ko slim and trim ladkiya pasand hai (Boys only like slim girls)," recalls Amena.

#StopTheBeautyTest: “The arranged marriage set up puts women in an archaic beauty standard box”

And this definitely impacted the way she perceived her body. "Since childhood, I have been told that if I want to marry a ‘good boy’ I’d have to lose weight, or else no one will want to marry me. I believed this for so long that any time a man would show interest in me, I would wonder: 'What is the catch? Why is he interested in me? What is wrong with him?” she shares, adding that her weight impacted her career choices too, since many people refused to work with her in the realm of fashion, simply because of the way her body looked.

Having been an active part of the arranged marriage process and the online dating and matrimonial process too, the blogger has faced comments like this left, right, and centre. "For the longest time I have been told that since I am 'healthy/chubby/heavy/fluffy' — polite euphemisms for plus size/fat — I will have to 'compromise.' I have often been told that 'best quality' boys only want slim girls; therefore, I have to either lose weight or make do with what is available. There are times when people don’t even want to get to know me as a person and simply judge me based on the way I look," she divulges.

#StopTheBeautyTest: “The arranged marriage set up puts women in an archaic beauty standard box”

Amena continues, "This is not just in an arranged marriage. Online dating/matrimonials can be just as toxic. If I don’t show interest in a man who has shown interest in me, he will make it a point to remind me, 'you are fat,' and he is still showing interest in me and the least I can do is acknowledge him. He will make it sound like he is doing a favour by showing interest in a plus-size woman. Some of the men have gone as far as abusing me and stating, 'I was not even interested in you. I was only being nice out of pity'."

Safe to say, the arranged marriage process — and the overall matrimonial process — hasn't been kind to the blogger. "The whole arranged marriage set up puts women in an archaic beauty standard box based majorly on physical attributes and then uses that yardstick to guilt women into thinking they are not good enough and brainwashes them to 'compromise' and marry someone who they may not necessarily connect with, are attracted to or want as a partner. They use our so-called physical 'flaws' against us to make us feel the boy is not the only one who is not bringing enough to the table," she observes.

#StopTheBeautyTest: “The arranged marriage set up puts women in an archaic beauty standard box”

However, Amena is resilient through and through; while it has been an intense, difficult process for the blogger, she is working every day to overcome the unrealistic standards she had to face. "All the body-shaming and judgment I have experienced, first as a young girl and now as an adult, has stayed with me. This was the major reason for all my body issues, self-doubt, and anxiety," she says, continuing that, "It has taken a lot of unlearning, de-conditioning and healing to realise that my body is not a problem and there is nothing wrong with it. The real problem is the society and people who use my body against me and as an excuse to judge me without getting to know the kind of person I am."

When asked what her thoughts are on beauty and the beauty test after being subjected to criticisms regarding the same, Amena's answer is a little more holistic. Instead of looking at beauty as a physical trait, her perception of beauty is all about personality, compassion, empathy, kindness, mannerism, respect, emotional sensitivity, and a person's views on life.

#StopTheBeautyTest: “The arranged marriage set up puts women in an archaic beauty standard box”

And she wants that change everywhere! "If we really want to make marriage an equal institution, we need to get rid of the male gaze that has normalised judging women based on their physical appearance. It is important for women to know that they don’t have to adhere to society’s idea of beauty. Ladies, any man who rejects you on the basis of your looks and physical appearance is not worthy of you. Kudos to Dove's #StopTheBeautyTest for changing the beauty narrative," she concludes.

No woman deserves to be rejected for her physical appearance. While the narrative is slowly changing, we still have a long way to go before we get rid of the beauty tests for good. Dove, as a brand, is trying to accomplish this with its #StopTheBeautyTest campaign.

If you resonate with this story and feel the same way, learn more about the campaign here. Share your story on Instagram by tagging @bebeautiful_india and use the hashtags #StopTheBeautyTest and #DoveIndia. You're not alone!

All images courtesy: @amenaazeez