If I had to write about the first time it happened, how far would I have to go? Which would be it? The first time?
At age 5, I was told at a shop where they sold static cycles, concerning my size, that ‘barota beje gechhe’ (A Bengali saying literally translating into ‘It has already struck twelve’ and meaning that something is ‘irredeemably damaged or lost’). I had just learnt to read the time. And I found the comment odd, even funny, because the clock strikes 12 every day, what’s so terrible about it?
I searched in the mirror for the signifiers of the word ‘fat’ on my body. At 5, alone, in the dark yellow of the dim light in my parents’ bedroom that I shared with them. Finally finding it, in my gamma-palowan (used as a nickname by the family, supposed to be ‘funny’ and ‘cute’) tummy, it took me time to imagine people without it. Did ‘normal’ people not have this cute thing? Oh, so this makes me fat?
That could be the day it all began.
The day I accepted that I would be made fun of, and I had to be the tummy-less normal, if I had to stop being made fun of. So began an era of shame, and denial, and defensive self-deprecating humour. An era I recognised as such only months back. An era I am not yet out of. My biggest fantasy still being, being ‘slim’. My biggest fear being rejection for being fat.
I have just embarked on the longest, hardest journey of my life. It is not easy to bring on the self-love advertised by many influencers on Instagram, nor is it easy to be comfortable in your skin when all you get outside of it, is ridicule, concern-trolling stemming from entrenched fatphobia, and a pervasive feeling of being an ugly freak show. It is difficult to love yourself when you know that, and so much more difficult to imagine being loved, truly loved and desired by another person.
Insecurity is a fat person’s biggest battle. And it comes from the oddest quarters — the auto driver refusing to take you on, or blatantly charging extra — bullying in school, by students and teachers alike, in the name of well-meaning humour (whatever that means) — seat belts on flights that don’t clasp — plus size stores that think sacks are all you deserve to wear, tailors who shy away from giving you the plunging neckline — because you are, well, fat.
And so, sexiness is necessarily unnecessary for you, aunties and uncles in sweet shops and grocery stores and bus-stops and hospitals and weddings and funerals and birthday parties, who think it is absolutely fine to just randomly assume that you are lazy and don’t wake up in the morning, and you eat everything off the ‘junk food’ slab, are a slob to be this ridiculously fat, even friends, lovers, family making it obvious that you are less in being physically extra. ‘Plus’ is the cross any fat person has to carry. And by Jove, it is heavy.
I have thin friends, who are promptly called ‘stick-thin’, or such other names which obviously allude to their frame, again reinstating the same objective criteria of desirability and sexuality. The nicknames operate across languages and cultures that circumscribe desirability and self-worth on fixed images of the ‘right’ vital statistics of bust, waist, hips, thighs, and height. Being heavy bosomed myself, I have found myself being criticized, ridiculed, harassed, judged for my clothes which often tend to show some inadvertent cleavage. I have seen friends being made to face the same for being ‘flat-chested’ or for being ‘less than enough’ curvy.
Bollywood traditionally has been exceptionally unkind to the ‘fat woman’, so much so that the claim to fame for “Hindi cinema’s first-ever comedienne”, Uma Devi Khatri, or Tuntun of popular recall, was her fatness; so much so that it was okay to nickname any fat woman as Tuntun, under the dirty garb of comedy. Even later on, the fat woman has been the butt of jokes, finding love or marriage in men, like Johnny Lever, or Rajpal Yadav, men in a comic role, mostly. She is the one the attractive hero must run from to save his own izzat as in Diljale and so many other utterly denigrating films, including Kal Ho Naa Ho.
Fatphobia, much like homophobia, seeks to ridicule, and thereby invisibilize the subject of ridicule, be it fat bodies, or homosexual ones, or both. It is only in the 2014 film, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, where Bollywood somewhat grows up to the hitherto before irreconcilable idea of a fat woman as a heroine in a love story. Bhumi Pednekar sure smashes some stereotypes there, and though she is called a “moti bhains” she owns her body. Though the way she has to prove herself by dint of her higher education, and her higher earning potential remains problematic, and self-defeating in a way. Also, Bharti Singh, a comedienne of our times, is so body-positive that she is an inspiration.
Recent beauty pageants like Ms India Curvy have been successfully, though in a somewhat marginalized manner, promoting the curvy, more real and regular body types as normal, and beautiful, even conventionally so, which is an admirable first, in itself. This visibility granted to women of bigger sizes is a real boost to the confidence of so many. And some Instagrammers make fat appear not unfashionable, nor a sin to be.
But popular culture the world over has made “fat” the worst thing one could become. So you have memes that joke about “getting FAT for Christmas”, popular TV shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S making “fat” seems like a catastrophe worse than death. And as a fat woman who was once a fat girl, and a fat teenager, it hurt like hell. It undermined my basic self-esteem, made me believe I was undeserving of love and desire, so much so that when I finally was in love, I allowed myself to put up with too less. And I ate, almost to save myself from all the mortification, ate to normalize my size. Ate all the wrong things, and in too huge portions. It was part abandon, part defiance, and the rest part was pure self-loathing.
I am in no way advocating obesity, nor am I unaware of the health issues that may arise as a consequence. But, as a fat person, I know, I did not choose this. I did not choose to be fat. I have hated my fat body for as long as memory serves me. I have purposefully bought the longer jacket, the looser pants, the full-sleeved maxi dress, at plus size stores, whose collections are enough to make one feel apologetic about one’s very existence. I have spent hours in the gym, hating myself in the wall-to-wall mirrors that gyms have for some reason. I loved working out though. I love dancing, but have danced on a stage only twice. Because I was ashamed.
I feared ridicule. And ridicule has always been ample. Starting with the auto-driver refusing me for my size, to being unable to communicate to the few boys I let myself have a crush on in my early youth, to being shamed for eating in public, to being told by random strangers to ‘lose weight’, as though I was sitting on them. My size was a burden to me. But the bigger burden was surely people’s fatphobia.
My biggest fantasy still being, being ‘slim’. My biggest fear being rejection for being fat.
Fatphobia is so ingrained in our society and our mindsets, that it often comes across as sheer concern. Except that it is not. It is this disgust, this utter revulsion against a fat body, to mask which, health-issues are brought up as a trope to diss, to shame the fat body into acquiescence and self-loathing. Fatphobia is probably why your middle school teacher did not take you to act in your dream-role in school, or why your friend did not call you to her ‘hep’ birthday party, or why this boy in your tuition-class bro-zoned you even though you were a girl. It is worse than just fear. It makes a fat body seem and feel grotesque.
I recognize that I am not alone in this. Fat shaming and fatphobia are but a major part of the larger problem of body shaming. Body shaming is the practice where people are criticised, humiliated, bullied even, based on physical appearance. And it is across gender, and often has deep-seated gender bias and fixed notions of sexuality and performance as its basis.
However, body shaming is not gender-specific. Shaming based on perceived body-image is something aggressively pervasive across gender and gender roles.
For men, body image is so intrinsically connected to the performative aspect of sexuality, it is unhealthy and scary, to say the least. Male body-shaming is a relatively less talked about problem, but its roots are deep and tenacious nonetheless, because it is not restricted to merely appearance, but to constructed notions of ‘manliness’ based on arbitrary, abstract ideas of masculinity equated with virility, essentially heteronormative in nature, and the pressure to constantly ‘be a man’.
Ayushmann Khurrana makes it his territory to challenge such hypermasculinity-driven stereotypes time and again — In Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, he plays a young man suffering from erectile dysfunction, and effectively smashes the patriarchal trope of sexual performance as a be-all and end-all of masculinity. In Dream Girl, he plays a cross-gender actor who makes a living out of impersonating a female voice, and it is suddenly okay, and a very welcome break from the toxic-masculine heroes of the earlier decades, and turns heteronormativity on its very head.
In Bala, he plays the story of a young man who loses hair, and his struggles with baldness. Bhumi Pednekar plays a dark-skinned woman who is a lawyer by profession, and is body-shamed for her skin colour. The film, though mostly a comedy, darkly underlines the malice in society, where a man is considered less of a man because of the amount of hair on his head, and a woman unmarriageable because of her skin tone. We have a man being put under the scanner for premature male-pattern balding, which is extremely common, and extremely commonly shamed. But baldness is just one of the plethora of body image issues threatening men, and challenging their masculine identities.
Male breasts, denigratingly called ‘moobs’, are a cause of shame for most men, and though natural, they are a cause for low self-esteem, which is perpetrated by the idea of the perfect male chest as one which is sculpted and most importantly, flat. So a man with a not-flat chest finds himself subject to much flak, ridicule, open bullying and body shaming and the charge of being ‘less than a man’, breasts being the markers of a woman’s ‘assets’. And such body shaming can happen from anyone, men and women alike. And to anyone.
The ‘before-after’ pictures, the narrow waistlines, the muscular arms, the perfectly pert breasts, the impeccable jawlines, are all baits we are made to fall for.
Another very common instance of body shaming is the trending concept of the “dad bod”, and the inadvertent fetishization relating to it. The unrealistic expectation that a man must have washboard abs, a sculptured chest, and rippling biceps and triceps has led to more men hitting the gym in the hope of “sculpting” themselves out of the “dad bod” reality into the “hot bod” stereotype, rather than for regular exercise. Fitness too has been ideated with the attributes of this stereotype. So, muscularity has emerged as the number one marker of masculinity, where the brawny, toned body is inherently seen as the “hotter” or the more desirable, as well as the sexually better-performing one.
The gym-culture, is part of the fat-industry, which includes big stakes that sell these unrealistic body images as the ideal ones, much like the beauty industry, making them seem achievable, albeit at a price. And people pay. I did too, so I know. The ‘before-after’ pictures, the narrow waistlines, the muscular arms, the perfectly pert breasts, the impeccable jawlines, are all baits we are made to fall for.
Body shaming feeds an entire industry worth billions. Because it is that easy.
To shame and be shamed.
So, we pay a price, to put an end to the suffering. Except that it ends nothing.
Meal-alternatives, obesity-reducing capsules and tablets, expensive, obscure diet-plans, gym subscriptions, body-sculpting sessions (and what not!) are all commodities in this elaborate industry. Feeding on our shame, our insecurities, our desperation. And it will continue so long as we let it. I am not saying that these do not work, but the question we must ask ourselves is, is the ‘new body’, more often than not, temporary, worth the painful processes of dysmorphia we put ourselves through?
Does it, can it, should it justify all that self-hate, self-doubt and self-humiliation?
These are rhetorical questions, we all know the answers to. But the trouble still remains, in the journey we must embark on, and endure, and strive to succeed at. The long travail of it all. It is not enough to practise self-love, it is not enough to feel beautiful, to call out the fake standards of beauty and physical appearance.
We must remember that we too are often complicit in this practice of body shaming. And if any change has to be wrought upon us, it must start with ourselves. Easier said than done, but well worth a try.
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Dyuti is a lawyer, and a professional dreamer, a part-time poet, and a full-time overthinker. She tries to be, amongst other things, a writer, a scholar, and a good influence. Can talk to cats more than to most humans, and is fierce and passionate about words. She has previously written for The Times of India.