Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders – Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating
“You see, it’s all about the standards. When I am unable to meet certain expectations, it has a significant effect on me. As a result, I find myself doing things I never thought I would,” says Kiran*, a fresher from Amity University, Noida, when questioned about their previous experience with Eating Disorders.
I went on to ask where this notion of ‘standard’ comes from, and she promptly answered, “It’s the media, right? Social networking, the internet, and, of course, Bollywood films.”
For decades, Bollywood has been noted for adhering to a set of unrealistic beauty standards that people revere. Things started to drastically change after the 2000s for men and women both with regard to body image. Female leads became skinnier, and fairer drastically, the men started bulking up for their roles, with the standards getting even tougher and tougher day by day.
These standards make it difficult for people to accept themselves as they are, and that they contribute to a range of mental health concerns and body dysmorphia. Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a mental health issue; if you have BDD, you may be so upset about the appearance of your body that it gets in the way of your ability to live normally. Eating Disorder is one of them, and it’s a significant one.
When characters like Sweetu (Delnaaz Irani) from Kal Ho Na Ho are shamed for wearing body-hugging garments and consuming sweets, it reinforces the idea that being comfortable in your own skin is not acceptable. In order to obtain love and achieve success, you must conform to a certain body standard.
It is high time to address the long-term effects these larger-than-life Bollywood films have on us, and to highlight that Eating Disorders are a serious health problem that many people are still reluctant to seek treatment for.
“I started skipping meals totally when I was about 16 years old. To avoid any questions, I used the excuse of being allergic to certain ingredients. It eventually gave birth to a binge-eating habit in me. I was never ashamed of my weight, but I aspired to perfection. Yes, the kind of flawless actresses we see in cinema halls or the models we see on Instagram,” adds Kiran, elaborating on their health conditions in the past.
They had been hesitant to get diagnosed and seek medical care for years, but recently, they have started undergoing routine health checkups, during which their doctor revealed how their previous disease had profoundly impacted them.
Various studies of Indian school children have shown that disturbed eating attitudes and behaviours affect about 25 to 40% of adolescent girls and around 20% of adolescent boys, according to this report published by the Scroll in 2018.
When we talk about Bollywood imposing unrealistic standards, we’re not just talking about fat shaming or horrible character portrayals of varied bodies; in some commercial films, it’s explicitly promoting dangerous diets, or straight up not eating, as beneficial because they make you look ‘slim’.These implications have a direct impact on people’s health and also worsen their mental health.
We are introduced to a bride-to-be played by Sanah Kapoor in the 2015 film Shaandaar, which stars Alia Bhatt and Shahid Kapoor in prominent roles. We watch her having a Lehenga fitting in the early scenes, and when her mother offers her some snacks, the stylist comments, “Arey kitna khilaogi isko, Lehenga fit hi nahi aa raha hai!” (How much will you feed her? The dress isn’t fitting her)
Her character is continually body-shamed throughout the film, and her soon-to-be husband refers to her as, “Yeh kaisa riwaaz hai, medium dulhe ki dulhan extra-large hai!” (What kind of ritual is this? A medium-sized groom’ is getting an extra-large bride) in one of the song sequences.
Society has long destined women to be perfect brides and wives, and as a result, the ‘fitting in the dress’ pattern is worldwide, and can even be observed in Hollywood.
“You don’t alter Vera, you alter yourself to fit Vera Wang” is an infamous dialogue about fitting a high-end wedding gown from the movie Bride Wars (2009), starring Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson. It may have been meant as a joke, but it illustrates how people, particularly women, are forced to go the additional mile and sacrifice their eating habits in order to match society’s imposed standards, as Kiran previously stated.
For someone struggling with Eating Disorders, or with deteriorating mental health where they are struggling with body image issues, these instances can act as a catalyst for it.
Actors are also impacted by Eating Disorders in order to fit into these flawless characters and be more acceptable and charming in the industry. Richa Chadha spoke about her experience with Bulimia at a TEDx event in 2016. She discussed the pressure she feels to look a certain way for the parts she takes on. According to Richa, eating disorders are the film industry’s ‘best-kept secret’ with bulimia being the ‘Big B’.
It’s not just the on-screen presence but behind the scenes action and glamorous photoshoots as well where actors are put through this trauma. From Karan Johar’s schooling of Alia Bhatt to ‘lose weight’ before entering the industry, or photoshopped size-zero pictures of actresses, Bollywood is obsessed with being skinny and considers that as desirable, as further described in this article by Firstpost.
We as a society are infatuated with weight loss journeys. We don’t see anything wrong with them because they are perceived as healthy and fit. A similar course was taken by Parineeti Chopra, who was subjected to negative comments from the industry because of her weight, despite the fact that she appeared to be perfectly healthy to the naked eye.
In many aspects, the recent emergence of a ‘woke’ Bollywood, with films published on OTT platforms, is ambitious; nonetheless, eating habits and body image issues are almost never handled seriously.
An entire song called ‘Rekha O Rekha’ is dedicated to the protagonist’s journey of getting fit for the academy in Gunjan Saxena (2020), featuring Janhvi Kapoor as the lead, and is inspired by the infamous diet of the actress Rekha, published in several magazines like Filmfare, which made her ‘slim’ and attractive in Bollywood. While the messaging underlying that sequence is not intended to encourage anything harmful, it does have an unintended effect on people.
“It’s not something you can just put out of your mind,” Kiran explains. “Once it’s in your head, your brain actively seeks out factors that will trigger your condition,” she adds.
Bollywood has a large audience and the potential to affect a large number of individuals at once. It is critical that we take the representation of Eating Disorders and other body-related concerns on screen seriously. Films and television show frequently straddle the line between representation and glamorization. The ramifications of such an action must be carefully considered.
Names have been changed for privacy reasons.
The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.