Whether it is in matrimonials, drawing rooms or classrooms, fat girls are taught to hate themselves for the bodies they have. Pop culture reduces the representation of fat women to a comedic trope or a pitiful sexuality. If it is all done in the name of concern and health then why do millions of women suffer from eating disorders and self loathing because of it?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
In early 2014 I met my (then) boyfriend’s entire family for the first time. I am not a great candidate for familial introduction in such circumstances so I had asked my sister to come along. After spending some time with his parents, he took me across the street to meet his grandparents. I sensed something odd when his grandmother only responded to everything I said in cold mono-syllables but I ignored my misgivings and sat down to tea with them. Over the course of tea she smilingly spoke only to my sister, frowning in my direction each time I said something, and then silently turning back. Ultimately, she spoke out loud across the room,
“Why don’t you marry the thin sister instead?”
I finally understood, in old-lady court, I had committed the crime of being fat and that meant she didn’t even need to talk to me to decide I was unfit for her precious boy. It was a crime so grave that she would replace me with the next thin woman she could see and in that scenario it was my sister. When I put it like this, this scenario might be sound crass and openly rude, and it was, but it was also another thing, common.
When I was very young and overweight, I was taught that it was unhealthy. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realised I was also being told that it was ugly. At the age of fourteen when an endocrinologist thought it was appropriate to prescribe diet pills to me for high testosterone, I thought of it as medicine, but when I saw the posters in his office, it started to also feel like punishment. One of the posters that has stayed with me, had the image of a thin woman in a skirt and a pink top who was dancing and on the other end was a fat woman in a saree with a frown on her face holding a plate of food. The caption read — Remember, it’s always thin and beautiful or fat and ugly at a party.
It was around that time that I started to identify as the ugly fat girl. It wasn’t a single-point messaging system. Every person that I met felt it was appropriate to comment on my weight and tell me what not to eat, from family members to school teachers, and I was actively encouraged to skip meals. Asking for more food was met repeatedly with so much scrutiny that I felt like I was always being watched if I ate, and I developed a fear of eating in front of people so severe that I didn’t have lunch or breakfast for at least five years and sometimes still have trouble eating three meals. I would only eat when I was alone late at night because at least then I felt like I was the only person judging me. Despite the fact that I was always an active child who swam and played tennis, people called me lazy and I was expected to just take it. If I walked five kilometres comfortably, it was treated as if I was a pig who has demonstrated she could fly. I was told that fat people are never successful and asked to list any examples of ones I knew that were. Anytime I indulged in what I thought was beautiful clothing, I was told it was vulgar because when thin women wear skirts, it might be called revealing, but when a fat woman does it, it’s immediately vulgar. I was encouraged to dress for maximum coverage not because of conservatism but because if I hid it under clothing, I wouldn’t seem so fat anymore.
There were other things I was expected to do so I could no longer be fat. I was expected to be on diets as a teenager as often as possible even though I had no desire to replace dinner with a powdery-shake. I was expected to go to places that would vibrate or sweat the fat out of me. I was made to join gyms where the instructors were told right in front of me that I ate too much and it was probably impossible to get me to be thin. It was all presented very casually, like everyone did this, and so I suppose at the time I didn’t find it as disturbing as I do in retrospect. Then there were the scare tactics where I was told I would have so many health problems and definitely a heart attack if I continued to be fat, and I do now have heart-attack triggered anxiety so, huzzah? I was told no one would ever love or marry me and I was asked how the people I did date were okay with me being fat. I was encouraged to seek what they really wanted from me because it couldn’t be that they actually liked a fat girl, because if you are fat, that’s the extent of the personality you are allowed to have. If you ever lose the weight you are allowed to be more than, but until then, that’s all you are.
I realise issues of body-image don’t only plague fat women, we police the bodies of all women and only about 5% meet the beauty standard, the remaining 95% of us, spend our lives grappling with the flaws. We all have something that we have been told is wrong about us: Too skinny, too fat, too “wheatish”, too short, too tall, the list is really endless, but weight is a consistently pervasive subject of shaming for women. Women are taught to aspire to perfect bodies and to love the bodies that we aspire to as opposed to the ones we have. Women who are curvy or even overweight are expected to always be working on achieving slimness and all the methods I mentioned above are applied to all of us in some combination to shame us into compliance. It’s all hushed up under the guise of concern though, because anytime you question these ghee-eating, incense-burning, think-kapalbhati-cures-everything people about boundaries, they all say the same thing in response,
“We are saying this for your own good.”
In the name of this good fat women have been reduced to a comedic trope for pop culture. They have been disallowed from the cult of beauty and any attempt to be sexy. In the name of good countless women have been taught to hate our bodies. I certainly hated mine to the point where self-harm and an eating disorder seemed like the correct way to treat it if only that meant I could maybe be thin. It’s because wellness campaigns and weight-loss programs are designed to tell you that you can love your body, if you lose the weight. It is conditional. It’s because the female form is seen as an object that is not fulfilling its aesthetic duties of it fails at being the statuesque figure that pleases every eye. It’s because women are taught to view their bodies only as a function of how they look, but our bodies are so much more than a mass of flesh to cover with pretty fabrics. It wasn’t until I started to regard my body as the thing that carries me through life and brings me great pleasure that I started to learn to respect it. It wasn’t until I ran for the joy of endurance that I learnt to enjoy being inside my body. If wasn’t until I gave myself to the feeling of sexual experience instead of how I looked during it that I was able to appreciate the capacity of pleasure inside me. It wasn’t until I started eating for the joy of nutrition because my body deserved it, that I was ever able to lose a single kilogram. It wasn’t until I did yoga for the beauty of movement that I was able to find any beauty in myself.
It wasn’t until then that I also learnt that it didn’t matter. If the social forces genuinely cared about women’s health they would encouraging anorexia and dieting in women. They would stop asking the fat girl doing push ups why she was still fat if she exercises so much. They would stop eating samosas as snacks themselves and stop taking offence when you refuse to eat them if you visit their homes. If the concern of society was genuinely women’s health, I wouldn’t have (in my lifetime) met a girl who shared a menstrual rag with her mother. I wouldn’t have met a doctor who said abortions should hurt because they are wrong. I wouldn’t know multiple instances of gynaecologists who have deliberately made the insertion of IUDs a horrific ordeal for women. There wouldn’t be so many anaemic women. There wouldn’t be so many clinically depressed women being told they were just “overthinking”. Endometriosis and menstrual pain wouldn’t be called imaginary. Society doesn’t care about women’s health, it cares about women’s aesthetic representation and marital value. The marital value of a thin woman is higher, so as far as society goes a million eating disorders in the quest for that are a small price to pay if it gets more women to eat less, buy more diet pills and be thin.
That’s what my ex-boyfriend’s grandmother told me too as I left their house.
“Please lose some weight before the wedding,” she told me, “It doesn’t look nice to be so fat. Please lose some weight.”
Well, I did. I had to lose the toxic influence of people like her and her grandson first. I lost some weight because that was the consequence of learning to not only respect my body but also understand what was happening inside it. Did I become thin? Hardly. I learnt to be okay with that though, and it’s not because I am beautiful enough now that I am slightly smaller. It’s because it doesn’t matter if I am thin or gorgeous if I hate my body. It doesn’t matter how I look especially to me since I almost never see myself, but it matters how I feel. It matters how my body feels. It feels healthy and capable. Every juror in the old-lady court might tell me to hate that, but I don’t, I love it. If only loving ourselves was taught as thoroughly as we are taught to aspire to be thin.