In my 13-year-old, pre-teen sister’s class, in a posh South Kolkata English medium convent, an urgent meeting is summoned one afternoon by the Principal and her concerned class teacher. They are then solemnly informed that one of their classmates has done the unthinkable – that student has tried to cut her wrists. As the rest of the class listens in abject shock and horror and surrounds their classmate, covering her with their scawny arms and whispering solemn reassurances – the reason behind her long standing depression is painfully revealed.
The girl suffers from Bulimia Nervosa, commonly known as Bulimia, a potentially life-threatening eating disorder. Made famous by the deceased Princess Diana, persons who battle with Bulimia secretly binge — eating large amounts of food with a loss of control over the eating — and then purge, trying to do away with the extra calories in the most unhealthy fashion.
These include, hoarding or stealing food. Skipping meals or barely touching one’s food. Abusing laxatives, diuretics, enemas or other medications to drastically shed weight. Avoiding friends and activities you enjoyed and retreating into suffocating social isolation, and, sometimes, losing interest in life altogether.
‘It’s so tragic, di…we all love her so much, she is such a fun person,’ my sister narrates, her eyes moistening, adding in a soft voice, ‘also, she really wasn’t that fat. I don’t know why she felt that way. Who made her feel that way? Why she felt it so much…every single day…why she wanted to become invisible…when she started fading away?’
Her words trail.
Make no mistake – being fat and feeling fat are not the same thing, and, yet, the wafer thin intersectionality between the physiological and the psychological can be frighteningly fatal.
In the same school and back when I began piling on the extra pounds, soon after my menstrual cycle commenced at age 10 after which I was diagnosed with PCOD – a gynaecological condition affecting one in five (20%) of every Indian woman that leads to Severe hormonal imbalance and weight fluctuations – I was screamed at by the only male teacher in an all girl’s school in front of my whole class.
Our middle-aged physical training instructor who blew a shrill whistle and sported a baseball cap and narrowed his mean eyes when he meant business. It was he who brandished me as ‘fatso,’ and sniggered that I could not never run a relay. Basketball – a sport that my school exceled in was obviously out of the question.
I was humiliated and remember scurrying to the bathroom and banging the door shut and weeping copiously. I remember, how almost every week, and, at home, I would beg my widowed single mother to write a note explaining why I had to be excused from PT, since my menstrual pain was excruciating. It was easy to be a failure when you are fat. Bucktoothed and have a moustache that you converted into a social outcast. It was easier to just sit on the red benches and watch others win. Easily. Effortlessly.
It was how I started hating my own body. Knowing I was never going to be pretty – in a girly sort of way. Knowing that pretty translated into popular.
The same reason why I also quit Bharatanatyam – a classical dance form I exceled in, weeks after my Arangetram – my debut and first solo stage appearance. My Guru, a famous dancer in Kolkata and a woman herself – routinely poked fun of my paunch and the fact that I could never execute the ‘shringaar ras’ to perfection – how can a man/male God – the object of the danseuse’s affection and attraction ever be drawn to an obese, young woman? One had to look the part.
Desire, after all, has proven a male preserve and privilege. A woman – a mute, motionless object. A mostly silent spectator who after performing sexual somersaults to catch a man’s interest or lust must have no other job than to eternally wait for reciprocity. Viraha – separation anxiety is perennially celebrated. A woman’s worth dependent on her physical beauty, but, also, her tenacious patience. To be chosen. And chased. Consummated.
A look at India’s arranged marriage market
One look at India’s arranged marriage market blows the lid on this perverse fixation on physical perfection – the ‘slim/tall/fair,’ pressure to conform – a February 2021 news report in Indiatimes references 1,057 women surveyed for ‘India’s Beauty Test,’ a A study commissioned by Dove and conducted in 17 cities across India that reveals 94% of women have been asked to work on their appearance to bag a groom.
In the study, 68% claimed rejections based on their physicality impacted their self-esteem and confidence. 74% of women admitted they experienced exacting pressure to look more beautiful during the arranged marriage process. An equal number of women rejections for the same. The study included insights from matchmakers – both individual and companies/websites. For example, if the girl had short hair then the chances of a match working out are 1 or 2 in 1,000 cases.
In popular cinema
It is also where and why the recent Bollywood release, Double XL, staring, Sonakshi Sinha and Huma Qureshi is nothing more than superficial tokenism – a preachy sermon paraded as new-age feminism – a supposedly woke script peppered with a few tongue-in- cheek repertoires finally marred by the same slapstick characterisations and situational comedy that degrade a woman’s body and autonomy.
In the manner, Bollywood has almost trended in.
Remember, Sweetu’s best friend Naina telling her how she was only worthy of being loved if she lost weight, alongside Sweetu’s sister comparing her to a double-decker bus. In fact, Sweetu’s weight remained a source of comic relief throughout the cult film, Kal Ho Na Ho, with characters constantly commenting on it.
Or, let’s hark back to one of the earliest examples of gross fat-shaming in the Aamir Khan blockbuster, Dil. The scene showing that if Raja lost a match, he’d be forced to kiss an overweight woman. Projecting a fat woman as a punishment was cruel, but almost a staple in movies from the 90s.
Who can forget Diljale boasting a whole song titled Ho Nahin Sakta commencing with protagonist (Ajay Devgn), fleeing from kissing an overweight woman who is projected as sexually untouchable naturally.
I ask myself as a woman who has battled labels like ‘chubby,’ and ‘pretty, but plump,’ all her life and been at the butt of male rejections all through my adolescence, till I lost weight, after my first gynaecological surgery at age 19 – if self-deprecating humour – a staple for scriptwriters actually salvages a woman’s dignity and physical agency?
Vidya Balan in Mission Mangal commenting on co-actor Nithya Menon’s weight while discussing her professional capabilities. Even as Akshay Kumar reacts with a disapproving gesture, Balan’s character, Tara, does not admit her faux pays. Rather, she sighs, ‘I know, I know, I have no right to talk about weight.’ Kumar playing Rakesh Dhawan does not correct this sickening sexism.
The lowest common denominator being noir films like Ghoomketu where Nawazuddin Siddiqui marries an overweight woman, thanks to an accident – referred to as ‘terrible’ fate, whereby the actors refuse to look at the woman’s face for ten days post the nuptials and is even shown afraid on the proverbial suhaag raat – the character’s face is finally revealed only when she transforms into a skinny woman and then, almost like a fairy-tale, Nawazuddin falls in love and is almost miraculously attracted.
Also, ever wondered why almost every so-called ‘healthy heroine,’ in B-town slims down with a vengeance at breakneck speed to survive the skinny standards associated with being a sex symbol – which is what the average heroine in India is, in an industry where stereotyping women like jars of imported mayonnaise with expiry dates runs aplenty – where a woman post marriage and kids must fit into the ‘yummy mummy’ category – which also means looking thin and thereby reversing the proverbial seven signs of ageing, stretch marks and post pregnancy weight gains.
Sonakshi Sinha, as an example, weighed 90 kgs before she lost 30 kgs on the heels of her debut in tinsel town. Albeit, with a little help from Salman Khan who supposedly spotted ‘her potential’. Huma Qureshi, Sinha’s ‘fat’ friend in the above mentioned film, openly speaks of being teased for being a ‘big girl’, has been giving media interviews galore talking about how the people around her advised her to be careful about choosing this role.
‘I was scared because my closest confidantes and companions told me that I was making a mistake. And it would be the end of my career.’ How despite all this she made up her mind and decided to play the role that she summarises as ‘liberating and empowering.’
Qureshi also hogged cover on Harper’s Bazaar India August issue which ironically was dubbed the Body Issue and marketed as the actor being unapologetic in celebrating her body, her personal, self-love journey and not seeking society’s validation any longer. ‘I cannot be just another pretty girl who came and went because there will always be someone prettier,’ her interview quotes.
My question is who decides these impossible and unreal standards, anyway? And, if fashion and lifestyle magazines want to really uncover the scathing lid on fat shaming and be trailblazers in body positivity, then why call the issue Body Issue – in the first place? Are tummies and double chins and thick thighs and sagging boobs and out of shape waists and flabby buttocks not every bit a normal body?
I mean, how long will Balan and Sinha and Qureshi be flogged as the poster girls in this department? Anyone seen Dum Laga Ke Haisha star Bhumi Pednekar who wowed audiences by portraying an overweight newly-wed bride, recently?
The actor has knocked off 32 kgs – going down from 89 kg to 57 kg. “Food makes me happy. It’s for the soul. I’ve never deprived myself of eating anything I’ve wanted. I had ghee, butter, buttermilk and the only thing I stopped having completely was sugar. But yes, I controlled my carbohydrate intake too. I followed my regular diet, exercised portion control and was very particular about not bingeing. I had a cheat meal every five days. It sounds fancy, but I never went to a dietician or a nutritionist. Till now, it has only been my mother and me. I used Google search and my mother’s vast knowledge on food to lose weight. Apart from being physically active, a simple home-cooked meal is the most effective way for weight loss. The two of us came up with a diet plan”
In the meanwhile, our second floor neighbor’s daughter is about to get her ‘haath peele‘.
I know as soon as I spot her get out of the elevator.
As my mother exchanges pleasantries, I overhear her mother, a widow having lost her husband to Covid last year, use the word, ‘shaadi se pehle toh sundar lagna hi hain (must look beautiful before her marriage).’ Where Sundar equals to being slim.
Sreemoyee Piu Kundu is the bestselling author of ‘Sita’s Curse’, India’s first feminist erotica, and ‘Status Single’ and the founder of India’s first and only community for urban single women. She is also a leading columnist on sexuality and gender. Views expressed are personal.
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