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Growing Up As A Brown Girl, I Was Used To Being Called 'Fat'

20/08/2016 12:34 AM IST | Updated 12/09/2016 12:26 AM IST
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born and raised

As a child, my body was similar to a lot of my South Asian friends: I was skinny, flat-chested and uncomfortably hairy. I never considered myself to be "too skinny," but I remember being reminded (read: judged) by South Asian aunties, including my mom of course, of how I looked.

I had no curves as an awkward pre-teen. I was told I wouldn't look good in a saree and at a time when Bollywood stars weren't super thin, I didn't feel like I would grow into what I thought was a "normal" body of an Indian woman.

As a child of immigrants being raised with these values, I believed this was how South Asians -- and the rest of Toronto -- talked about bodies.

The words "fat" and "skinny" were thrown around my community like "hello" and "goodbye." It wasn't considered rude to call someone fat, it wasn't awkward to tell someone they gained weight to their face; and instead of focusing on eating healthily or exercising, I would hear people suggest skipping meals and fad diets like it was a one-stop easy fix.

arti patel

Arti as a child.

As a child of immigrants being raised with these values, I believed this was how South Asians -- and the rest of Toronto -- talked about bodies.

The first time I really gained weight was in sixth grade and I was over 100 pounds. It was the first time I was aware of my body. I noticed my pants no longer fit, my stomach grew and I wasn't flat chested anymore. In seventh grade, I took a family trip to India and my weight was the hot topic. Family members I hadn't seen in years commented on how "fat" I had become; and when I walked into stores to buy sarees or lenghas, store owners told my mom it wouldn't look good on me or fit. It was blunt, but it was normal.

It was the first time the attention directed at my body hurt me. I started noticing the weight of my friends, and like a jerk, I thought skinnier was more attractive. I began carefully looking at the bodies of my favourite singers at the time, like Britney Spears or members of the Spice Girls, and I told myself, at age 13, I had to be skinny again.

During my time in India, I ended up getting really sick, so sick that I lost about 20 pounds. At that time, I was grateful, even though I spent weeks puking and feeling like shit. It was stupid, but I thought being sick was the best thing that could've happened to my body.

I came back to Toronto with a new body and a new mindset -- this was the new me and I would never be mocked for the size of my body again.

But as years went on, I had fully outgrown my teenage frame, my body looked like a woman's body and I was a lot more aware of my self-esteem. I got more familiar with the Canadian way of talking about weight and although women are judged, shamed and ridiculed for not looking a certain way all the time, I had learned weight was not something you brought up in conversation, and describing people as "fat" or "huge" were just plain mean.

arti patel

Arti in grade 8.

Accepting my body was a process, there was no easy fix, and even today I don't always feel perfectly content when I look in the mirror. It took a stupid liquid diet, a ton of reading on body image and a lot of body-positive friends to change my views on what I considered beautiful. I had great high school teacher who really opened my mind up about unrealistic beauty standards and fat shaming and I stopped thinking about weight, listening to rude brown aunties and was just comfortable in my own skin.

But at home, however, weight is still talked about the same, but the reasons I had to lose weight or maintain it was starting to change. Losing weight or staying skinny or having fairer skin, wasn't about body confidence, but rather about finding a husband.

When I tell some of my friends how my mom, for example, obsesses over the "perfect body," a lot of them wonder why I don't just tell her off.

I remember toxic conversations when brown aunties would talk about how "fat" women have to settle for uglier men and if I wasn't careful, I would end up with an older man. Skinny wasn't only beautiful, it was more likely to end in a marriage, too.

I am 27 today, single and the heaviest I've ever been at a size 10. I don't consider myself "fat" or "plus-size," I actually hate using these words to describe a person's body, unless people are comfortable or own these labels.

arti patel

Arti in 2016.

When I tell some of my friends how my mom, for example, obsesses over the "perfect body," a lot of them wonder why I don't just tell her off. I am not a very upfront person and for most of my life, I just took it. I knew this was just the typical South Asian way of thinking and although it was frustrating at times, I knew I couldn't change people's values, but the best thing I could do was be comfortable and confident with myself.

I recently got into going on long walks in my neighbourhood with a friend and a few weeks ago, after taking a three-hour walk I had come home and collapsed on the floor of my room in exhaustion. I was wearing tight gym clothes and was sweaty, yet how I looked was not important.

I was still sitting on the floor when my mom came into my room and the first comment she made was about my weight. She said that personal training was a waste of money (I had a trainer last summer for six months) and that I wasn't losing any weight.

I stared at her, breathing heavily from this insane 10,000 step walk I just conquered, and told her off, for the first time, since I was a kid. I told her to get out of my room, to stop talking about my weight and to never mention how I looked or the gym ever again. My friends laughed when I told them about the incident, telling me it was the nicest way of telling someone off, but that's just me.

My mother didn't say anything, but I knew she felt terrible. It has only been a few weeks and although we don't talk about it or feelings (again, this is typical in South Asian cultures), I noticed she has tried harder to not make comments about my body. Even if she slips sometimes, I know she isn't trying to hurt me, or ever really was.

I have come to realize that the ideal South Asian body type does not exist. It doesn't matter what size you are, someone in the community will try to find a way to bring you down. But here's the thing, there is nothing wrong with being fat, skinny or whatever other label you identify with.

When I see my young nieces, I sometimes wonder how they feel about their bodies when older aunties are around them. The way some South Asians talk about weight isn't going to change anytime soon, but the best thing any of us who've felt frustrated, embarrassed, or yes, even "fat," can do is to not let their words get to us.

It's easier said than done, especially when the voices are loud and constant, but acceptance must begin with ourselves.

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by The Huffington Post Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories -- join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at bornandraised@huffingtonpost.com.

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