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Obesity can be unhealthy, leading to chronic lifestyle related ailments. But fat shaming and skinny shaming is also unhealthy and can cause lasting scars.
I must have been seven or eight at the max. I was, as the phrase went in Hindi, from a family that believed in good eating. Consequently, I was as round as they went, wearing a size 28 waist at that age.
My father, indulgent as he was, was bemused at my incredible appetite. Crueller people called me Little Lotta. I loved my food, I did. I could eat a stack of French fries in under a minute and watching a movie at the theatre meant I devoured a dozen Punjabi samosas all on my own without a second’s thought and woe betide anyone who dared put a hand out for one.
My appetite was always berated as being unseemly for a girl, and yet, my parents indulged me. My mother would cook the best for me, my father would take me out to eat the best the city could offer.
Heavily built as I was, I hit puberty early, just before I hit nine. And then I filled out. It was a consequence of being overweight that my parents had not anticipated. Back then, girls hit their puberty by the time they were thirteen or more. I was a child, albeit with breasts. And it was unsettling, not just for me, but for my parents as well.
My father passed away a few months later. He was the one who would buy me packs of sanitary napkins, explain to me how I was to use them, along with my mother. Yes, he was a man much ahead of his times. But then, here I was, nine years old, with the body of almost a grown woman.
By the time I was in Class eight I was wearing a bra that was 36 C cup. I barely grew in height after I hit puberty, I stayed heavy and rotund. And I was acutely conscious now of the fact that I wasn’t like the other girls my age. I was fat. Busty. Bespectacled. The grown women around me couldn’t stop fat shaming me. The grown men around me couldn’t stop trying to grab my breasts. I was so embarrassed of my body, I would wear a thick black cardigan every single day to school and back, putting it on when the monsoon ended, and right to the time the final exams were done in March. It became my carapace, a protection that I hoped would be my invisibility cloak. I didn’t succeed. I hoped covering myself with layers would minimise me, it didn’t. It marked me out.
By the time I hit college, I was convinced it was my weight that was the prime issue with me. The girl who stared back at me from the mirror was obese, so I starved myself so drastically my periods stopped for a full six months and post that, nursing myself back to a healthy body weight was a difficult process. As a result of all this yo-yoing of my weight, I developed polycystic ovarian disease. Weight gain, hair loss, facial hair, acne and worse. I had, in a bit to silence the voices in my head ended up ruining my reproductive system, a ruination which would result in years of infertility treatment before I could finally conceive my son.
When I look back at photographs of myself from that time, I look perfectly regular. A healthy 16-year-old, with the right body proportions. The mirror back then told me otherwise, the reflection in the mirror was not a reflection of what I truly was, it reflected all those years of being called ‘moti’ because they meant well and who would marry an overweight girl.
In my head perhaps, I continue to be her, that 16-year-old who looked at herself in the mirror and believed she was fat, and therefore ugly and undesirable. We didn’t have the words then to explain what I was experiencing, now I know what Body Dysmorphic Disorder is, now I have the language to define what I went through back then, all those decades ago. This knowledge has come decades too late.
Sometimes I want to gather that 16-year-old to my heart and hug her, tell her she was perfect, that she was as the ancients saw the ideal woman, curvaceous and buxom, and that her body was hers and that she should own it. That the body in the mirror that stared back at her was far from ugly, it was exquisite. It is a battle I still fight at 51, a battle that has me look at myself critically in the mirror every single day and then stop, take a deep breath and tell myself, I am fine, I am lovely, and I need to stop listening to those voices in my head. But those voices are loud and insistent. And sometimes, I have to shout back louder.
We’ve not been alone, us who were the chubby ones. Us who are. And us who are the ones on the opposite ends, the ones who are thin. If there is fat shaming that is rampant, there is also skinny shaming which as rampant and as toxic. And we do it as a society, unconcerned and uncaring about the harm that it might cause to a young adolescent’s self-esteem, at a time when one’s self image is most fragile, when a child is emerging from the cocoon of childhood into the full glory of young adulthood.
Body shaming isn’t limited to those who know you, family, friends, classmates, teachers, relatives, neighbours, telling you that you don’t fit some ideal body size. Complete strangers on the internet think nothing about voicing their unasked opinions on someone’s body.
Celebrities aren’t spared, in fact the gaze on them is crueller, more exacting from anonymous trolls on the internet. Actresses like Huma Qureshi, Sonakshi Sinha, Vidya Balan, Ileana D’Cruz, even Aishwarya Rai after her pregnancy to name a few have been body shamed. Deepika Padukone and Sonam Kapoor were skinny shamed. If there were any boundaries of civil discourse regarding personal comments on appearance, social media has dissolved them irrevocably.
Some days ago, Shark Tank judge Namita Thapar spoke about her own experience about fat shaming on the show. To quote from an article about it, “Sach much India mein jo ye body shaming jise kehte hain, jo yeh ‘moti, moti’ bulate hain, uski target main bhi ban chuki hoon. Aapne aisa kyun nahi socha ki mein only plus size ke liye fashion banati hoon, na ki sab sizes ke liye? (Truly, the body-shaming that happens in India, people saying ‘fat, fat’, I have been a target of that as well. Why did you not create a fashion label solely for plus sizes, instead of one for all sizes?)”
The fat shaming is not limited to women. Men too, face it, and not just young men. Recently the education minister of Kerala V Sivankutty posted about the fat shaming he experienced. To quote, “He wrote that a few days back, when he shared a picture of some students taking a selfie with him, a person commented that “you should reduce your stomach a little bit”. In his reply to the comment, the minister called body shaming “a heinous practice”.
The growth in obesity has been most pronounced amongst children. To quote a BBC article, “According to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), the most comprehensive household survey of health and social indicators by the government, nearly 23% of men and 24% of women were found to have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more – a 4% increase for both genders over 2015-16. The data also shows that 3.4% of children under five are now overweight compared with 2.1% in 2015-16.”
This is valid concern. Obesity can be unhealthy, leading to chronic lifestyle related ailments. But fat shaming and skinny shaming is also unhealthy. There are constant messages being thrown at us not just by insensitive people around us, but also pop culture. This means that perfectly regular young people, across genders, are battling chronic eating disorders that completely mess up their system, despite having the requisite body fat they need for their hormones to function normally.
A school of thought advocates that we have conversations about weight that are real without shaming the person, that focuses on fitness given that there is an obesity epidemic in India, with one in four persons overweight.
How can we, as a people, build the maturity needed for nuanced conversations around weight without being cruel? How can we teach ourselves to stay within the boundaries needed to refrain from passing judgement on another person’s weight? Where do we begin? These are conversations we need to start having, in our homes, in our offices, in our families, in our schools. These are difficult conversations to have, but necessary conversations, and conversations that we need to have.
We have, though, come a long way from the times where our movies used overweight people for comic relief. We do have movies like Dum Laga Ke Haisha that try to raise sensitivity about body shaming and advocate body positivity, but these are few and far between. Nonetheless, the fact that the conversation has begun is important, that the discourse has changed is important, and that a generation of young people are carrying this conversation forward is important. And that we all, in our own little circles, family, friends, work, break the cycle of body shaming when we see it, is the most important.
Image source: a still from the film Dum Laga Ke Haisha
Kiran Manral is an Indian author, columnist and mentor. She has published books across genres in both fiction and non-fiction. She lives in Mumbai. read more...
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Trigger Warning: This deals with various kinds of violence against women including rape, and may be triggering for survivors.
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