Food is all round us, each place with bigger portions and more variety than the last. But the current trend demands that we eat less. So what do we do?

Four limbs, a torso, and some other bits and bobs that get me from here to there. I feed it fuel when necessary and then carry on with my life. Quite simple really, having a body. Oh, if only it were so.

There comes a point in every girl's life when her focus changes entirely. Eyes that always gazed up and outwards suddenly become critical, and the lifelong process of self-examination begins. What was once simply a vessel in which you lived, played, and explored now become its own entity; one that needs constant attention, grooming and upkeep. Easier said than done.

The truth is simple: both men and women prefer to be thin, because it is healthy and attractive. But in a day and age when food is no longer simply a source of nourishment but a global industry, keeping our waistlines in check becomes a feat.

Eating at home

Indian girls of my generation are challenged in a way our mothers never were. We grew up with grandmothers and ayahs piling rice onto our plates, our little hands hovering over the towering portion not enough to deter them. First they cajoled us into having more, and then they pressured us to eat every last bite because, hey, you didn't have to look far to see a hungry person.

Through this process we came to associate leaving food on our plate as a sign of disrespect, as though we appreciate neither our own blessings nor the struggles of those without. However, at least in those times if we were eating too much, it was too much of home-cooked food: fresh, unprocessed, vegetable-heavy.

Cut to 10 years later: now we can drive ourselves around, and behold, there are endless restaurants and cafes to frequent! There are also specialty shops that carry the most popular treats from Asia, the U.K., and the U.S., and even the old-fashioned grocery stores carry a plethora of biscuits and crisps tailored to tantalise the Indian palate. Chicken Tikka Curry Masala Spicy Hot Tangy potato crisps? Why, I love all those flavours, yes please! Long skinny biscuits from China, with chocolate dipping sauce and adorable pandas on the box? Must try! Gasp, that chocolate bar I fell in love with when I visited England as a wee lass, how can I resist?

This is a far cry from the Chennai of yore. When I used to visit as a young American brat who abhorred Indian food, kilos melted off my frame as I subsisted on nothing but cereal and bread and jam; or as the family cook called it, “breadjham breadjham”, I think because it was so pathetic he had to somehow make it sound interesting.

Nowadays sinful foodstuffs are so ubiquitous that any junk food junkie can visit Chennai without fear of withdrawals.

The worst part? At least in the States if I am tearing through a giant bag of some popular brand of crisps, I may, halfway through, have a moment of clarity and hurl them into the bin. But, in Chennai, having paid a great deal of money for that same snack, I'll carefully transfer the rest into an airtight container before even wiping the grease off my fingers.

To sum up the plight of girls like myself: as children our elders' idea of attractive is full cheeks and ample curves, so they encourage us to eat well and make us feel guilty when we don't finish.

As young women we receive a new memo: thin is in! (For anyone who disagrees, I bring to your attention the “skinny jean”. Even the name does not merely imply, but dictates, that you have to be thin to be fashionable.)

New pressures

These new pressures arise at the same time that a surge passes through the culinary world of the city; now, instead of just Indian and Indian-Chinese, there are Thai, Italian, Mexican, and American diner options! And don't forget about Sunday brunch, where you can sample all of those cuisines in one place.

Some would be suspicious of a single kitchen that churns out Indian and Thai appetizers, pizza and pasta, kati rolls, grilled meat and seafood, and even sushi, but such a celebration of gluttony has become standard weekend fare.

I could mention that it is customary to wash all of this down with beer or wine or mimosas, but it would open up a can of worms to tread onto the subject of that other source of copious calories.

Food is everywhere we look, each place with bigger portions and more variety than the last. On the other hand, the current trend demands that we eat less. Bollywood actors who probably never before set foot into a gym suddenly abandon the voluptuous look in favour of ramp-model thin, endorsing diet plans and fitness DVDs just to clarify that the transformation was intentional. A difficult contradiction to reconcile, is it not?

The result is something I have seen in every place I've lived. Smart, happy, fabulous girls spend a disproportionate amount of their time thinking about food and weight. I have had the same conversations scores of times: how we lost weight, how we gained it back, what are our weaknesses, and how do we reconcile the pleasures of life with our standards?

It is easy for us to figure out that moderation is the key, but how do we practise that in a universal culture of excess?

I welcome any and all tips from both male and female readers. Have any of you found that perfect balance? If so, please share your secrets, so that the rest of us can stop fretting about our bodies and instead, start celebrating them as the sacred vessels they truly are.


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012