It was the third day of college. The ragging sessions were in full swing. All kinds of silly pranks were being played. During one such session, one of my seniors asked me to go and propose to her male friend sitting some distance away. Unwillingly, I went up to the guy pretending to hold a flower and blurted an "I love you." In return, this guy shouted back, "Arre yaar kisse bhej diya? Size dekh kar toh bhejna tha! (Who the hell have you sent? You should have seen her size before sending her)!" I was mortified, angry and heartbroken. In that moment, it didn't matter that I scored above 90% in the CBSE exams. It didn't matter that I was multi-talented. It didn't matter that I was kind and generous. All that mattered was that I was fat... Hello adult life—you sure are harsh!
Now let me clarify. I've been chubby since the time I turned a year old, give or take a few months. Partly genetics and partly an insatiable sweet tooth. Add to it the fact that I was always a bookworm with absolutely no interest in playing any sports. And there you have it—stereotypical bespectacled fat nerd with braces in her teeth. Let me also clarify—I've never been obese. Just plump. By God's grace I've always been in reasonably good health, but to this day I have never fit into any definition of thin. I wear a size 12, have flabby arms and a mummy tummy. Today, I'm comfortable with how I look. But it wasn't always the case.
The stigma of being overweight tortured me for much of my life. It made me vulnerable. Open to emotional abuse of a certain kind that only fat people are aware of.
Teenage was a terrible time for me. I wanted to look good, to be "cool", to be popular. Instead, like every good girl, I was immersed in my studies with no time for any of that. But I'm human you see, and I did crave male attention. Like my prettier friends used to get. So though I was performing brilliantly in academics, there was a part of me that had zero confidence. A part of me that felt like a total loser. Undesirable and unwanted. And I always blamed it on my weight. (I was never bullied though, thankfully.)
It didn't help that my relatives didn't hesitate to voice their concerns. "Do you think it looks good? A young girl having arms like that! You look like your grandmother! How are your parents going to find you a suitable boy?" Thank you very much, I'm happily married to a very nice man now. (And as if getting married is the sole purpose of a young girl's life. Maybe she doesn't want to marry, chill dude.)
Thankfully my parents never put any pressure on me to look a certain way. What mattered to them was my career, my overall development, my well-being. There was no room for shallow things like fat or thin.
Today, I can look back at those times and laugh. But the stigma of being overweight tortured me for much of my life. It made me vulnerable. Open to emotional abuse of a certain kind that only fat people are aware of. It made me insecure. It made me try too hard to impress. It made me feel like a failure. It made me feel unloved and empty. I made terrible life decisions, and lost several years overcoming the outcomes of those decisions. I finally took professional help when I felt like life was totally slipping away and there was darkness everywhere.
It wasn't until I was in my mid-20s that I realised I was beautiful. By this time, I had developed a sartorial sense of my own, and was never sloppy. I could feel that people took notice when I walked into a room. Girls in my hostel would pay me compliments. Guys much younger than me had mini-crushes on me. Random people would come up to ask which college I was from. Honestly, it felt good.
It has taken so long to kill the "fat girl syndrome" that I suffered from for so long.
Security, on the other hand, has kicked in only recently, after several years of being in a stable marriage with a man who loves me beyond my looks. It has taken so long to realise that love is so much more than how you look, how you talk or how much money you have. That being fat has little to do with how desirable you are. It has taken so long to kill the "fat girl syndrome" that I suffered from for so long.
Why am I telling you all this? Because our society puts so much pressure on us to look a certain way. No matter how much buzz there is about body shaming, a fat girl is still a fat girl. As is a dark-skinned girl or a skinny girl or a short girl or a hairy girl. I was one of the fortunate few who could overcome this to a great extent. I still get nervous jitters if the numbers on the scale go higher. But most women don't get over their complexes and fears about such labels their entire lives. It saps so much positivity, vitality and enrichment from their lives.
Childhood insecurities travel way beyond childhood. They affect every dimension of our lives, especially if they make us feel undesirable.
It is strange when mothers tell me that they are taking their 12-year-olds to a dietician, to help lose the "baby fat'. Or to aerobics classes aimed specifically at slimming. She's a child for God's sake! Don't rob her of her innocence. If you are concerned about her health, introduce her to sports or to rigorous dance forms like Bharatnatyam. Something that is fulfilling and nurturing. By all means, inculcate healthy eating habits. I don't endorse being unhealthy. But don't push her into a crazy world with a negative body image. There are a lot of sharks out there waiting to prey on a vulnerable young girl. Let her feel accomplished—without the Spanx and the air brushing.
Please, for heaven's sake, stop body shaming your daughters or granddaughters or nieces or neighbours. Childhood insecurities travel way beyond childhood. They affect every dimension of our lives, especially if they make us feel undesirable. No girl must have to think that she is unlovable because of a genetic trait she has little control over. Tell her how smart she is, how strong she is and how much possibility the world holds for her. That she doesn't need a man to validate her existence. That she is an individual in her own right. That it's ok to eat cake when she feels like it.
With love to all the girls who have been called undesirable by people too blind to see their beauty.
This is an edited version of a post that first appeared here.