It has so happened in my experiences of late, that fat people have been assumed to be unhealthy. Strangers or even friends have found enough voice to ask, quite directly, if they were diabetic, suffered from cholesterol trouble, or if they ate well and exercised. They would recommend treatments, gyms, nutritionists – are perhaps well meaning too.
I have three problems with this almost-too-common-to-be-considered-weird scenario.
One, what gives us the liberty to comment on someone else’s body? As Indians, we take special interest in other people’s lives. We ask “shaadi ho gayi” (are you married?), if no, then why; if yes, then “bacche ho gaye” (do you have kids?) and it goes on.
Sometimes I’m mildly surprised they don’t want to know about my menstrual cycle as well. These are offensive, yes. But thankfully, we have also heard, equally commonly, “kitni moti ho gayi” (how fat you have become!) or “kitna patla ho gaya hai" (how thin you have become!)
I say thankfully because this intrusion is very inclusive - they spare no privacy to anyone, whoever it may be.
But let’s look at a more urban population. We have begun understanding that for us, it’s not normal to be asked these questions, and it is a matter of pride when we issue a clever retort to silence those pesky, intruding relatives forever. But we are hypocrites when we do this.
No matter how “modern” we try and be, this intrusive nature seems to be conveniently stuck. We have morphed the language of moti and patli, which was more direct and less apologetic, to the more obtuse medical jargon of diabetes, hypothyroidism, cholesterol, and obesity.
We can therefore, under pretence of concern, ask about these. We sometimes even apologise for asking about them, acknowledging that it’s a sensitive matter to bring up, but asking nonetheless.
How can we think it’s entirely alright to talk to someone about the way they look, the way their body is perceived? And how can we assume we know their bodies better than they do? We seem to shrink more when telling someone about their BO.
We think it through, get advice, we google “how to tell someone they have BO” and muster courage to have this particularly painful conversation. But we never google “how to talk to someone about their weight” (that we should or shouldn’t is another point.)
The second careless assumption is the equation of fatness with unfitness. This could not be more wrong. There are so many people who are thin and suffer from numerous ailments, especially ailments customarily attributed to fat people, like diabetes. But when talking to a thin person, we never think of asking them if they are healthy or not. They just are. Apparently.
The last and most grating assumption is that fat people are stupid. It’s already a common misconception that they’re lazy, but I’ve been noting that people tend to think that fat people are stupid too, as if they don’t know what they look like, and need a reminder from everyone else.
But like everyone else, they too wake up in the morning and look at themselves in the mirror. When this happens, there are three distinct possibilities: either they’re okay with the way they look, or they’re doing something about it, or they’re not okay with it and are figuring it out. Either way, we must trust that they are capable of asking for help if they need it.
There are of course circumstances where some of us develop a sustained, unhealthy attachment to food, and need intervention, but that is to be treated as a problem of a different nature, with a psychological component to it, perhaps.
Then there are physiological conditions that cause weight gain that is harmful to us. Obesity is certainly a problem, and there is no dearth of evidence that it must be curbed or reversed.
But this article is not about goodness or badness of obesity; it’s about our understanding and cultural treatment of fatness. It’s about how one person’s fatness becomes everyone’s problem, and about staking claim on someone else’s private, personal and perhaps vulnerable space.
|We have morphed the language of moti and patli, which was more direct and less apologetic, to the more obtuse medical jargon of diabetes, hypothyroidism, cholesterol, and obesity.|
So I’m flagging these three thought conditions - think of your place in someone’s life before commenting freely; you will likely hurt them more than help them; think more deeply about what the fatness-thinness binary means to you and why you feel compelled to be on the side of thinness (and not health); and how can you assume that fat people can get fat on their own, but need your help to get thin?
When you weren’t a part of their experience of getting or being fat, what gives you the imperative to insert yourself into their personal space and command thinness?
There are three sociological events happening in urban India that are adding to the complexity of the problem. One, weight-based shows (Fattertainment) are rampant. I haven’t seen one made in India, but they are accessible from here anyway.
They try to be body positive, but their underlying assumption is that all fatness is bad. Fashion and media, clothing stores use terms like “plus-size”. I can appreciate their attempt to be body positive, but they’re eventually segregating this body type (do you see special stores for thin people? Those are just stores). The last one is a fat reclamation movement, that inspires women (and hopefully men) to be comfortable with their fat.
Every day there are articles on body-shaming, and taking back the power to feel confident about your own body. But while these articles help, there is no escaping the larger pressure to be the thin one who can console the fatter one into loving his or her body.
I think this is what is extrapolating to our incessant, uncontrollable need to question other people’s bodies: maybe our miserable bodies need a more miserable body so our body can feel less miserable, at least till the next less miserable body will come along and make our body feel more miserable, at which time we will find a more miserable body to make our bodies feel less miserable. No?
In the middle of this crazy circle, we’re also being taught how to talk about certain people and to be politically correct. The phrase “body-positive” is one such example.
So here’s another one for you to catalogue. For the moment, don’t call people fat. It hurts them. I say "for the moment" because there is one other way of thinking about this which has recently been brought to my grateful attention*.
Let’s not consider the word “fat” such an abusive term. Let it be okay that we are what we are, fat and all. It’s just another descriptor after all, an adjective, like thin, tall, dark and fair. So maybe we shouldn’t do away with it just yet. Maybe it’ll be okay to just be fat, as long as you’re healthy.
*I want to thank Neha Singhal for helping me flesh out this article, and credit her for bringing the “fat is just another descriptor” thought to mind.
(This article has been written by someone who is thin enough to not be questioned about her health, and someone who has been noticing how some thin people claim they’re looking/feeling fat only to elicit assurances that they’re not. She is also the founder editor of The Shrinking Couch, a portal encouraging open dialogue around mental health through the sharing of personal experiences. Somehow, she is also pursuing a PhD in psychology from IIT Delhi.)