My cousin body shamed me today.
This was three days ago. My cousin — who is built by a steady six pack, relentless portion-control and a towering height — gave me what people call the ‘Manhattan once-over’ and remarked, “Hmm... You’ve put on a lot of weight nowadays, it looks like.” Ignoring his Yoda-like deliverance, it took me a few seconds to realise what he had just said. And by the time the comment hit me, my brain was searching for an acceptable defence, against the unnecessary statement, and a numb feeling had spread through my body as it prepared to deal with what was coming.
I say acceptable because it’s a universal truth that every time a woman gets talked down to by a man, consciously or not, she searches for an answer that doesn’t offend him, yet, is strong enough to hold its ground. And so I said, “Why is that your concern,” and looked away quickly, because I knew eye contact would’ve established a solid conversation and I was in no mood to relive agonising memories of early adolescence. What I got was: “Why not? So you’ll keep on piling up the pounds?” Annoyed, shocked and furious with the blatant sexism masked as concern, I mumbled a bleak rebuttal. “Maybe this is something you should just think and not say out loud,” and I left, just in time to see his squared jaw jut out in mild anger.
On my way home, I kept thinking to myself: Maybe I do need to lose a few kilos. I am somewhat on the chubbier side. Wait, my outfit’s slack, I guess that’s why he thought that. I should start running again regularly. What if I cut down on rice and sugar and fat — I’d easily lose at least three kilos. That’s a start, isn’t it? A full five minutes later — weirdly enough, I checked the time as I was waiting for an auto — I realised the irony of my thoughts. I was body shaming myself unconsciously. I was away from the male gaze and this was what I was thinking? Like every woman in this world, I can say with conviction that I’ve faced moments of body positivity (“I look good in these jeans today”) and body negativity (“Why do I feel like a sperm whale today?”) fleetingly. This was one of those moments.
After jumping to rapid conclusions, I wondered for a second if all my cousin was trying to do was to get me to be healthy. But earlier in the evening, he gave me a box of chocolates and his share of Mysore bonda, saying that he was too full and that “no one really eats chocolates in my house anymore”. If health was the supreme concern, he would’ve asked me to lay off the above-mentioned items. With health off the list, only sexism and body shaming remained.
Now, I know my cousin, and I know he isn’t one of those rabid, card-carrying sexists who go around proclaiming that “women are best left in the kitchen to make sandwiches”, or that “women, at best, make good mothers”. Neither is he a misogynist. What he, and some other men I know, suffer from is entrenched sexism — sexism so sneaky that what they think are good intentions only emerge as bad compliments. Something that’s fixable with an apology. A “that’s not what I meant” statement.
The thing with good intentions and concern is that they come from the right place, but they’re mostly gratuitous. They also usually come from a place of condescension. And when that attitude gets involved, it really isn’t about weight anymore: it’s subliminal messaging directed at one gender. It’s what Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth : That “a culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience...” That culture is fixated on dismantling a woman’s body to less than the sum of its parts. Even Princess Leia wasn’t spared — Carrie Fisher has 43 years of experience as an actor, writer and performance artist, and almost 60 years as a woman. And in the face of violent ageist comments, after the release of the new Star Wars movie, Fisher did come up with a ‘force awakening’ response (that, for reasons, cannot be printed here, so check Twitter). The body-shamer in question might have done this to gain traction for his story. But we can all agree that it was a jerk move.
What is this compulsion that women have to maintain a certain weight to look ‘feminine’? What’s so terrible about women who bring home the bacon and eat it too? Food, for me, was physically present at a time when I was going through a rough patch in my life. It still remains a form of stress relief — there’s a reason it’s called comfort food. And when you fat shame me, you’re only driving me back to the source: food. It’s reciprocal cause and effect.
I’ve gradually learnt to love my body: the canvas that stretched every time I sat at home, binged on junk food and played hours of Age of Empires, and the canvas that shrunk when I was affected with chicken pox and made me wonder, for a minute, if weight loss was simply that effortless, and if it was, I wished I’d get it every year. (I was quite young and foolish then.) But now, I know that it’s all right to feel fat one day and thin the next — as long as I don’t beat myself up too much about it. As long as I resolve to keep myself healthy, because I don’t want to puff and pant even after climbing just a flight of stairs. And because running helps me write better — and not because I want to outdo Adriana Lima in a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Or maybe I secretly want to. But it’s my body and there should be no politics about it.
Of course, eating my weight in feelings isn’t going to solve anything but provide temporary respite. But at the same time, no one has the right to punish me for how I look. It’s a Catch-22 situation for all women out there: you’re never enough. You’re never thin enough, beautiful enough, healthy enough, intelligent enough... There’s a fine line between concern and condescension; maybe you just can’t see it through all the fat that’s blocking your eye. Too bad for you, I’m not moving.