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Riya Chandiramani: Breaking down walls when she’s not painting them

By Riya Chandiramani

Sat, 1st Aug, 2020

Hi, I’m Riya. I am passionate about breaking barriers of shame, limiting stereotypes, norms and taboos – with the ultimate aim for us to exist as the most authentic versions of ourselves.

This passion stems from a string of experiences that might seem like quite debilitating events. But without them, I would not be who or where I am today.

Today, I work as an artist – I have loved creating art since I could hold a pencil. I am grateful to have this mode of communicating my complex web of thoughts to the world.

When I was growing up:

Did I know I’d become an artist? Nope.

Did I know anything about my vulva or vaginal health? Not in the slightest.

Are these questions connected? Absolutely.

As a young adolescent woman, Indian in ethnicity, born and raised here in Hong Kong, educated at a German international school, I was immersed in a hotpot of cultural systems and influences. I chose to keep my head down and study, and be a good, obedient girl who aimed to please everyone else. I was content in my little bubble of straight A’s and naiveté.

Upon entering university in the US, I quickly realised that although I had the studying part down, I had to play catch-up socially. Unlike me, my peers all seemed equipped to tackle the intricacies of the play-hard, hook-up culture. I also didn’t know anything important or useful about my body. My period was simply a bloody inconvenience once a month, except when I could use it to get out of swimming class in high school. But I quickly assimilated to college life and frat parties, or at least, pretended to.

I joined the crew of the Vagina Monologues in my second year. We, a community of 50 women, would meet every Sunday leading up to the show, and discuss a range of issues concerning female bodies – from sexual health and body-shaming, to sexual violence and restorative justice for survivors. I absorbed the information like a sponge. I finally started feeling more confident and sure of myself, as an active, aware and adept 19 year-old. The progress then quickly came to a crashing halt.

On the night of the Vagina Monologues show, I was sexually assaulted. I went back and forth, between denial and blaming myself. I told myself it hadn’t happened, even though there was physical evidence. I told myself I’d asked for this to happen, even though I’d been unconscious. I felt like a failure of a feminist and a terrible VagMons crew member.

But bodies can store memories, separate from our minds. My body remembered. My entire nether region became even more foreign tome than it already was. It was invaded territory, full of shame. It shut down.

Soon after, a combination of this incident; stress about my future (everyone around me knew they wanted to become an investment banker, what was I going to be?); and my high-strung, perfectionist personality, lacking in self-esteem, culminated in a demon possessing my mind and starving my body. I weighed myself constantly, wanting the numbers on the scale to show the demon that the punishment was working. Those numbers were my reward, just as my straight A’s had been for all those years.

Fast-forward 2.5 years to the student hospital, whereI was told that I could have a heart attack and drop dead at any moment. In this duration, I’d lost my period and become a shell of a human – a living zombie. At 21, my body had regressed to its 12 year-old weight and form, and my physical and mental capacities were about to give way. I was sent to a treatment centre for eating disorders.

This wake-up call completely transformed my life. It made me confront my past, my beliefs about myself, and from this point, everything changed. I was no longer going to blindly follow what anyone told me to do. I became committed to breaking stereotypes and stigma; and felt empowered, as a strong woman who had overcome a massive obstacle. I wrote about my experiences withAnorexia and shared them online with the world. This is how I overcame my shame about my mental illness ­– actually, there was nothing to be ashamed of to begin with. It was the most liberating experience.

During my recovery, I had to accept big changes to my body, which included my breasts growing and menstrual cycle returning. In place of the pre-pubescent body I had created by starving myself of nourishment, I became a nurturer, feeding myself with food and positive messages affirming myself-worth.

When I went back to university to complete my final year, I enrolled in a class called “Gender and Sexuality in Hinduism.” I got to understand the roots of the gender imbalances, norms and expectations that I’d grown up hearing about within traditional Hindu culture. I learnt about menstruation taboos in India and where they originated. It turns out, many of these ancient scriptures (circulated around an elite male 2% of the population)professed that women’s menstrual blood was impure, born of woman’s inherent sinful nature.

I became very attached to the idea that one day, I would break down and translate what these scriptures propagated about women, and how this has trickled down into where we are today with certain traditions, values, and taboos being practiced without a real understanding for the motives behind them. In Asia, I’m sure a lot of these harmful taboos exist in their own communities and contexts – not just regarding menstruation, but mental health as well. It’s so important for us to learn WHY certain beliefs exist, where those stories came from – and do they still hold true? And we can only achieve this by being curious, asking questions, and sharing what we know.

After I graduated, I returned to Hong Kong and worked at The Women’s Foundation before realising that if I was going to be true to myself, I needed to pursue art full-time. Respecting my time and purpose, my body, and my boundaries all came with acknowledging my self-worth.

I am currently working on a series entitled Cereal Box, a commentary on consumerism, nourishment and the female body, specifically women as givers of life and feeders – while being reduced to sexualised objects, and stigmatised for the parts that perform these magical feats.

I think this series ties in perfectly with the theme of this week, Vulva Love. We have to acknowledge just how amazing our bodies are, respect them and take care of them. We need to stand up for their rights and protect them from being violated. They are powerful, magical, and nothing to ever be ashamed of. We are born with perfect, pure, divine bodies, and no amount of social conditioning should be able to take that away from us.

In our society, we are taught there is never “enough.” we don’t have enough, and we are not enough in our most natural, truest states.

We are fed messages, telling us to consume to fill our voids. We buy into brands that promise to give us everything we could need.

Propaganda, in the form of branding and advertising, manipulates us. We are oppressed by choice and messages consume us.

As women, our bodies, that are magic - they give life, they feed - are stigmatized and sexualized. We are told to hide those parts away, or put them on display for the pleasure of someone else.

In this series, I portray the fierce warrior mother goddesses who represent the multilayered, powerful and magic nature of women. Cereal boxes serve as a metaphor for feeding and nourishment we get from packaged goods as well as oppression of consumerism in that the aisle is overwhelming with choice. And, the fact that all the mascots are male (!) and targeting children at a young age to establish trust and connection with them through eye contact in the cereal aisle.

Follow Riya’s journey on Instagram @riyachandiramani and on her website.

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