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No One Asked You

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Aug 19, 2015

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I was having a quiet birthday dinner with my husband and a couple of friends, when an old college acquaintance walked up to the table.

“Hiiiii! How many years has it been?!” he said. Then, without warning: “Still as fat as ever I see!”

I wanted to say, “It’s been 14 years. It is too soon. I’ve not had the time to lose the baby-deux weight. Go away.” But I was having fun, feeling loved and special, until he walked in. I had just turned 32. So, instead of swallowing my hurt, I tried something new.

“You’ve put on some of that more-to-love stuff, too,” I ventured.

“Yes,” he boomed, sticking his massive belly and moobs out. “I’m HAPPY!”

I was fat. He was happy.

Underneath the table, my husband reached over, attempting either to hold my hand or restrain me from leaping up and stabbing this man with a shard of my butter-garlic naan. Despite my friends closing in around me, I let this man’s thoughtless words ruin my evening.

 “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
— Kate Moss

I was going to write about how it is getting better. How the discussion on body image issues had made the world an easier place for those who don’t fit a societal norm. I was going to thank J-Lo. There were going to be references to Aishwarya Rai, Vidya Balan, Lena Dunham, Pink. I was going to sing, “I like big butts and I cannot lie.” But last week a friend on Twitter was completely despondent because her 7-year-old was being teased in school for being overweight.

My first reaction was: Come on! Still?!?! The conversation grew. There were enough instances of thin-shaming, fat-shaming, short-shaming. It wasn’t gender specific, either. Boys are increasingly being shamed as well.

So things aren’t changing. As it has been pointed out, even the deceptively heartening “strong is the new skinny” holler is almost always accompanied by images of highly defined muscles on very lean frames that to the trained eye look wrought out of extreme calorie counting and possibly dehydration.

I’ve done mini-theses on body image for myself, for my kids. The world tells you how to feel about your appearance when you walk down the street, enter a room full of strangers, or stand at the edge of the swimming pool waiting to dive in. Mainstream media is homogenous, dull, mean, exacting to delusional standards. It does not have the depth or imagination to incorporate the sheer expanse of human physical, racial and cultural diversity.

But, if you pay attention, you realize physical attractiveness in the real world, especially for women, is so much about milieu. When I was younger, post-holiday, I’d fly from my parents’ house in Dubai, five kilos heavier than usual and attracting all sorts of admiring glances from rugged Arabs. Then, I’d touch down in Bombay where at least one small child would point at me and snigger.

In a study on obesity and culture, in 2010, Latino-Americans and African-Americans stated an aesthetic preference for the heavier set individual. Reasons included being better able to fill out clothes and a culture that found larger individuals more physically attractive. In India, though Bollywood unites us, it seems every culture has its favourite physical attribute (though they must always be modestly covered). Only in the big cities is there any leaning toward a Western/body-conscious standard. But I bet chubby kids are called Motu, TunTun, Haathi (I could go on) across the map.

My kids are lucky to come from an extended family where every possible avatar of ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph is represented. Some parts of the family turn mayonnaise into muscle, while for others, sunlight seems to be a high-calorie nutrient.

When my eldest was 4, my pediatrician raised a gentle alarm and told me that my daughter was in danger of childhood obesity. I shrugged it off at first, offended. But then I slowly honed the children’s diets, brought exercise into the family activity plan. Now, she is one of the fastest runners at her athletics class and a strong swimmer. Over time, the spectre of obesity dissipated. But worrying about thigh-gap and comments in school didn’t stop.

 “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
— Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

And that’s what it comes to. Body image issues stem from ‘what people say.’ We need to shun the victimhood that comes from the fat-shaming. That is the only solution. In fact, there needs to be a concerted campaign to shun all forms of commentary on cosmetic appearance. At best, it is small talk. At worst, it is bad manners and shows poor conversation skills. It is often used to belittle, to ‘put in place,’ to gang up on someone. In short, no matter what age you are, it can be regarded as bullying.

People gain or lose weight for many reasons, like pregnancy, cancer therapy, thyroid malfunctions and medication side-effects. You could have taken up a job that is extremely sedentary or really physically demanding. In fact, even your financial situation could dictate how healthily you’ve been eating and whether you can afford a gym. So, you can’t just go about calling people fat.

I decided to not go quietly mad; I tried sarcasm and spent a great deal of time devising comebacks for people who told me I’d gained weight, including:

  • Omg, thank goodness you told me. I’m all out of full-length mirrors.
  • Wow, obvious observations for the win, huh?
  • Don’t be silly. My clothes have shrunk.

It was harder with those who masked it as concern. Like the one friend who asked me every year if I had had my thyroid checked. Hardest yet, are the ones who think, after years of learning not to care what people say, when you lose weight, you will welcome the new, open season of ‘compliments.’ Three years ago, sick with the grief that comes from the loss of a parent, I was walking home, ragged from the insomnia, bereft. A woman said brightly to me, “My goodness! You look fab! You’ve lost so much weight! How much have you lost?”

“Nothing much,” I said, “Just the weight of an entire mother.”

In the 1940s, etiquette expert, Emily Post said, “It is hard for an overweight woman to be dignified.” It is 2015 now. I think we can all agree, if someone is making an unasked-for commentary on how you look, it is they who are ridiculous and undignified.

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Written By Genesia Alves

Genesia Alves is a writer who began her career as a journalist. She has also doubled-up as several Asian Age editors’ gopher, her Channel [v] production crew’s ‘emergency replacement presenter’, a late-night radio host on Go 92.5FM and development of new shows at BBC Worldwide, India (where she was also enforcer of women’s rights to good quality chocolate biscuits). This did little to prepare her for working from home around three children and a constant yearning for quiet time with an Earl Grey.

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