I’ve carried much baggage around with me since childhood – it’s called excess weight and it comes with accessories like guilt, self-loathing and frustrated desires. I can never pass by designer-store windows without wisps of longing, or sneak away a bit of chocolate without pangs of shame. I often avoid mirrors and cameras. Being overweight in today’s times is like an overt admission of a character flaw, something the fashion industry keeps reminding us of all the time: Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld infamously declared earlier this year that Grammy award-winning singer Adele was a ‘little too fat’.
In India though, it wasn’t always this way. Our plump grandmothers didn’t grumble about their soft tummies or wobbling bums. We snuggled into their big bosoms expecting and receiving an abundance of affection, and we described them as glowing and beautiful. Today, however, inspired by their Western counterparts, grandmoms work out at gyms, drink wine and protein shakes, wear backless blouses or little black dresses that require toned limbs and anti-gravity cleavage, and hang around aesthetic clinics mulling over the pros and cons of Botox versus Restylane.
Though I don’t agree with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s opinion that his state’s girls are thin because they are fashion-conscious, anyone can see that the contemporary urban obsession with slimness has a trickle-down effect to other strata of society. My 33-year-old housekeeper, who weighs 48 kg and is a mother of three, is paranoid about her ‘paunch’ – she takes the stairs to our seventh floor, goes on fad diets and asks me to teach her ab crunches every time she perceives a bit of weight gain.
When I asked our cover diva Sunanda Tharoor her opinion on why she was being targeted by her husband Union Minister Shashi Tharoor’s political rivals, and if her glamorous image had anything to do with it, she replied after a momentary pause, “Someone actually suggested I put on weight to ward off these attacks.” It is as if being svelte is dangerous while stout is safe. In the Indian political sphere dominated by men, a woman who enjoys and flaunts her body is a target for male viciousness and sexist remarks; whatever one may say about former UP chief minister Mayawati, she would not be labelled somebody’s expensive girlfriend or groped at a public gathering. Perhaps the Indian male’s subconscious connects rotundity in women with maternity and cosy infant naps – they’d rather women be Mother Indias than empowered divas flexing their literal and metaphorical muscles at them.
While our men lament their lost childhood in the laps of pillowy grandmothers, Indian women run steadfastly on their treadmills towards camera-ready bodies. As our roles change, our bodies change too. It would be wise, however, to make sure we aren’t sacrificing wellbeing and happiness for the sake of a commercialised, impossible ideal; to be wary of shackling ourselves in a body-image trap while unburdening ourselves of the weight of convention. Like the different shapes in a box of chocolates, we’re all perfect in our own contours – the slim, the tall, the short, the paunchy. All of us – especially the obsessively slim and the sorrowful big – probably need to love ourselves a little more, and burn up less in self-flagellation.
Much of self-love has to do with the gaze we use to view the world and the mirror. As Adele responded nonchalantly to critics of her plus-sized frame, “I don’t know these people… so why should I care (what they think)?” When I turn off Fashion TV, I realise: This body may not fit into a designer gown but it sure works well, doing its duties and revelling in its pleasures. As long as I enjoy being in it, opinion-peddlars shouldn’t bother me.
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