As Anuja lines her immersive eyes with kajal, touches up her full lips with burgundy, slips on her arch-framing sandals, a vision of feline sensuousness, I, her obese, overweight, hysterically weeping husband, a full-grown ‘man’ of thirty-two, sprawled in an unravelled heap of my own mess, bark from the bed, “I have NOTHING, not ONE SINGLE thing, that fits me! Everyone will laugh at my face!”
This beauty and the beast routine, a tad different from the fairy tale, was my reality, and by consequence, my wife’s and mine. An unfairly shared, nightmarish truth, each time we were to step out in public, a dinner, a function, a show, an outing. Frantically I’d bring down cartons; I exaggerate not, cartons of clothes from the loft – each one containing a phase-of-life – one 46s, another 44s, still one more, the slim-days, 42s!
Ever since I can remember, I struggled with my weight. As a very young child, I was ‘fat’. Why? Because my overtly-loving Bengali nanny, Shanti didi, expressed her unflinching love and devotion toward me, the only way she knew – by cooking the criminally fattening Mete Curry (that’s Liver in Bengali), and following that up with the copious quantities of the most vulgar dessert – Malai (cream) and Chini (sugar). Clearly, chini-kum, was a concept alien to her.
That she lavished me with such unbridled culinary savagery wasn’t what worried me, naturally, it didn’t, for I had no concept of its ongoing, real-time manifestation. What didn’t worry me either, was that I was, a ‘healthy’ (read countless Indians’ euphemism for overweight). It was that there were people in my immediate universe who made fun of me!
That is where, precisely when, it began. My life-long conflict, complex relationship, inextricably toxic dynamic, with my own body, and, as a byproduct, with my own, fast-depleting self-worth.
The emphasis that is paid in the world to a person’s body-type, is simply, entirely not commensurate with how healthy that person is, with how ‘fit’ that individual is. Nor does it relate in any manner, to ‘beauty’, which also, not unlike fitness, is pronounced good or bad on the most bizarre parameters. It is absolutely skewed.
Why? How? We could investigate, even debate those reasons, till the owls sleep off. Perhaps, in my experience at least, it has been a combination of the judger’s own frustrations and complexes, and what society has dictated over decades and generations. You’re too thin, you must be ill. You’re too fat, there must be something wrong with you. Too short, too tall, everything is a problem!
When I think back to my own childhood, I realize that I was very happy while I was away at boarding school. I used to until recently, feel that those were my glory years, years when I accomplished a great deal. Upon deeper introspection though, the ugly truth reveals itself like the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ lying in bed, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood’s Grandma – it was body-image all that while.
How? Simple. Throughout boarding school, perhaps because it was a number of very active years, in addition to being away from Shanti didi and her inglorious, gluttonous meals; I was ‘thin’. And hence, respected, cool even. The moment school drew to an end, the frantic sporting and other physically demanding lifestyle ceased, back came the weight, in oodles.
It coincided so perfectly with the start of college that all the confidence and self-worth that I’d have liked to have at the cusp of a new life in Delhi University, slipped from right under my feet, like a shag-rug away to the cleaners! I was, once again, the ‘fat’ Kartik from my pre-teens. The ‘butt’ of many jokes, taunts, hushed mockery; that I’ll never have a girlfriend, that I wouldn’t be able to go for a little run; all manner of assertions were made purely based on my ‘physicality’. And it drove me entirely over the edge.
In a recent post on YKA, I graphically described the genesis of my awful smoking addiction. To now realize that it was, in fact, this specific insecurity that played a huge role in adopting the former habit, is eye-opening even as I write this!
The pursuit of being cool, fitting in, belonging, being accepted, depended, and continues for millions, on how others, and most importantly we ourselves, perceive our bodies, and the conclusions we come to, basis that.
Years later, in Anuja, I might have met a partner who genuinely couldn’t care two hoots about how ‘large’ I am, evidenced by her dating, marrying, and staying with me (happily!). The sad irony is, even she, ‘thin’ and pretty as she is, has not been able to escape the ire and discriminant gaze of judgers who have, through her life, labelled her, too thin!
Today, bringing up our wonderful three-year-old daughter Krisha, I see the same judgment and pressure. It is woefully palpable. To equate a girl’s beauty to princesses from fairy tales and boys’ ‘handsomeness’ to being strong, like He-Man (read chiselled, ripped, built), to me is the most reprehensible, damaging, and permanently scarring conditioning.
We are what we are. We have grown up, and even into our early 40s, will continue to battle our body-image-demons, best we can. On days we will overcome, on others, our insecurities might prevail.
As a new, young generation of to-be-parents however, there is an unmissable opportunity to understand this and take corrective action. To bring up a generation of children free of body-bias. To be, healthy, fit, happy. To define beauty, on their own, through their own mind’s eye, and not only based on ‘reflections’!