Over the past few years, I’ve been reflecting on how shifting body standards in the South Asian community have shaped my self-concept. 

As a kinesiologist by trade that has practiced in the health and fitness industry for over a decade, I’ve seen how the amorphous body standards have affected so many members of our community.

I was one of the co-founders of FIT Nation, a strength and conditioning facility in Surrey, BC that also offers injury rehabilitation services. The main demographic whose health we aimed to impact was that of the South Asian community which heavily populated the city we opened our business in. 

As my debut article for 5X Press, I’d like to dive into my personal experience navigating body image as a man in the South Asian community since I feel this issue may not receive as much attention. 

I, like many others, grew up with immigrant parents and grandparents who had to navigate molding their values in a foreign place which presented us with very unique, and also shared, lived experiences. 

I noticed that being blunt and blatant when it came to commentary on things such as one’s body could be argued as being nothing out of the ordinary in the Punjab, but in Canada that’s not the case. This polarity in cultural norms is hard to miss. 

Despite the favoritism I experienced on the simple basis of being a man, I got my fair share of unsolicited commentary about my body throughout my life. 

I noticed that commenting on peoples’ bodies was something that was second nature to the aunties and grandmothers in our community. My brother, too, battled with his fair share of weight issues and would always find himself in the crosshairs of my Nani’s remarks. Needless to say, it impacted his psyche well into adulthood, as well as mine. 

The impact of these comments didn’t only impact the men in my life. Girls and women’s bodies were also subject to extensive criticism—they were either teased for being too thin and weak, or scrutinized for being too heavy and “letting themselves go”. 

Throughout my years of observing this pattern, I noticed that we rarely ever gave or received compliments that were targeted towards being healthy or in good shape. We only ever heard, “you’re too thin and look weak,” or “oh my, you’ve gained a lot of weight. You look fat.”  

When it comes to being blunt, our Bibis take the cake. 

It was hard to not feel embarrassed after having criticism around your body being thrown your way. Ultimately it made me feel very insecure around how I looked, resulting in me trying my best to determine what needed to be done in order to avoid being under the spotlight.  

The unwanted attention driven by this scrutiny made me feel anxious and sink more into my introverted side, especially at large family gatherings where everyone seemed to have their say. If at the last family gathering someone mentioned I looked a little gol mol, I would immediately think of ways to manipulate my diet or exercise to drop a few pounds. 

The younger I was the less I was able to make my inner self-talk serve me and the more I would continue to echo the negative comments I received back to myself. Eventually I felt I had grown not to care about the commentary and instead trained and ate as I felt necessary. However, the confidence in self-esteem would fluctuate and during certain moments my inner child would rise to the surface and take offense when receiving criticism.

I received messaging that being overweight was a problem from a very young age. My father forced me to join track and field at ten years old to avoid gaining weight or being unfit. By 12, I was already learning how to lift weights and by 14 I had my first membership at a commercial gym.  

Fast forward to the present day, and I myself have gone through over two decades of gaining weight with barbell training followed by losing the majority of it after switching into endurance sport while having a plant based diet. Personally, I would say I’m a fairly “health conscious,” individual.  

However, the comments I receive from middle aged men and women from our Punjabi community and in my family are quite contrary to the objective measure. Oftentimes I’m told that I’m too skinny or that I tend to exercise too much. According to others, I don’t “enjoy my life,” since I fail to indulge in a lot of the cuisine that is common within our culture. 

A few months ago, I went out to pick an outfit for my fast-approaching wedding. As I browsed the selection, the male sales associate commented on how it’s easier to find outfits for slender and fit individuals such as myself–there came the unsolicited commentary once again. 

Following that, it was time to measure me so that the outfit could be altered slightly to fit snug. 

Upon wrapping the tape around my midsection, he was a little surprised by the number therefore let out a not so subtle reaction. 

After that, he sarcastically asked in Punjabi whether I eat at least two meals a day or not.   

About ten minutes prior to the measuring he commented that I was fit, and now he was insinuating that I was too skinny.

Throughout the course of my life I was left wondering, what’s the yardstick we’re using to gauge these measurements and in their eyes who possesses an “optimal build”? 

I quickly realized that there was very little objectivity in these assessments.

Although this type of commentary no longer captures my attention, since I’d like to believe I’ve grown thick skin over the years, I was still left pondering whether I truly am “too skinny” or not? What strikes me as ironic is that in my experience I’ve felt that it was almost impossible to receive positive feedback on one’s physique, however what appears to be a rigorous evaluation process is instead correlated with a grand health epidemic. 

When compared to white people, South Asian people living in Canada suffer from a high prevalence of increased blood pressure, two times the rate of type 2 diabetes, a higher percentage of body fat, high levels of bad cholesterol compared to good cholesterol and lower levels of physical activity, all of which contribute to the current cardiovascular health epidemic present in the community. 

It seems that as a whole, the health of our community is in major need of being remodeled. 

While we can’t completely overhaul the structure of health in our community overnight, reflecting on how we speak about other’s bodies, and even our own, is a great place to start. 

Throughout my years working firsthand with our community in a health and fitness setting I’ve been able to witness just how deep the impact poor health is causing to those we love. As a Kinesiologist I’ve worked with countless patients where cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity have been key variables to consider during the injury rehabilitation process.  

From as young as I can remember, I’ve witnessed many families lose loved ones prematurely due to complications arising from the many aforementioned morbidities. Seeing friends lose their parents and grandparents to diseases that could’ve been prevented has been very unsettling for me.

Far too many Punjabi men in particular have passed away leaving behind their young sons with a lack of guidance and positive male influence; ultimately creating a generation of lost souls.   

During my years of working with our community, it’s shocked me how normalized it has become to be on medication for either blood sugar or cholesterol regulation while viewing invasive surgeries such as having a stent put in the heart as being just a part of life.  

The health standards that we uphold ourselves to clearly need to change and it’s something that can only be rectified through a communal effort. 

We have to work together to nudge our loved ones in the right direction through guidance around nutrition, exercise and overall wellness. 

We have to create spaces that are safe enough to have open conversations about health, and know that the outcome isn’t about looking a certain way, but about improving our overall well being. 

About the author

Jas Johal

My name is Jas Johal and I am an Entrepreneur, Kinesiologist, Husband, Writer and Triathlete. After graduating from UBC in 2011 with a degree majoring in Kinesiology alongside a Psychology minor, I co-founded FIT Nation. For over a decade I’ve worked as an entrepreneur and kinesiologist servicing primarily injury rehabilitation patients in Surrey, BC. In 2023 I stepped down as Co-owner and moved on by shifting my practice to the South Vancouver area.  I enjoy spending a lot of my recreational time swimming, cycling, running and reading.  My goal as a human is to raise awareness around the importance of optimal health and wellness while combating the prevalence of preventable disease within our South Asian community at large.  As a writer I hope to leave readers in deep thought while nudging them towards striving for the betterment of both humanity and themselves! You can find him on Instagram @j.singh.johal for more!

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5X Press is a forum for opinions, conversations, & experiences, powered by South Asian youth. The views expressed here are not representative of those of 5X Festival.