In a society where those who don’t conform to a thin-is-good stereotype are often subject to ridicule and exclusion, how does one calibrate the space between the politically correct and the medically correct? As the world marked Anti-Obesity Day over the weekend, Yogesh Pawar examined the issues around body shaming and the ‘plus-size’ industry.
She is a go-to designer-stylist for the who’s who of the small screen. Awards for designing clothes for top mytho-historicals on the shelves behind stretch for as long as the eyes can see. Yet Neerja Nainakwal (name changed on request) is known for her reticence.
Almost never seen at launch / success parties, the only time she steps out is when she is working at her boutique studio or when she goes out for fittings / look-tests. “The latter is work-related and unavoidable, but I often try and get clients to drop by my Malad studio instead of going out,” she admits.
This isn’t about some faux, snooty, avoidance used by many in the entertainment industry to propel curiosity about themselves giggles Nainakwal, “I wish. I’m no diva to ration out or peddle information about what I eat or wear. In fact when it comes to these two things I’m extra zealous in guarding details since that too can inspire jokes.”
Pointing to her signature, black, self-designed, ankle-length kaftan-tops she pairs with full-length tights she says, “There is a reason I’m covered fully like this. I’ve battled being ridiculed over my weight since I was 14.” Admitting she was never reed thin, she began putting on weight after she menarched. “Most girls that age face stares as their breasts begin growing. But in my case, I felt that everyone from my friends, classmates, teachers and cousins too was always looked me up and down. It made me awkward. I’d walk hunched, head down with my satchel in front to keep stares away.”
She recalls a Geography class when a student had asked the teacher if cannibalism was prevalent anywhere in the world. “While brushing it off, as extremely rare and forced by circumstances, our teacher Ratna Kalani mischievously added, ‘Things would of course be very different if you sent our Neerja there since there’d be so much more to eat.’ As the class came down with laughter I covered my face and wept. Even later when those sitting around me saw this, it only encouraged more jeers and grins.”
Almost trembling with rage, at the memory of the two-decade-old offensive episode, the single mom says: “Today if my daughter complained of a weirdo teacher like that I’d go to any lengths to fix her, even clobbering her and facing prison if nothing worked.” But that wasn’t how Neerja’s parents reacted. “My mom who didn’t know any better, felt my calves and thighs drew attention and got the school’s permission for me to wear a loose white salwar under my pinafore alongwith a white dupatta over my shoulders to cover up my breasts.”
An average student, she rarely participated in any extra-curricular activities. “I’d stay home and picked up sewing from helping my mom at her machine which she used for tailoring blouses, salwar-kameezes and fall-beading work,” says this history major and self-taught designer who is today the toast of the tv industry. She says she has learnt to take nasty personal jibes in her stride and often now dishes it out as hard as she gets. “But the way my confidence took a beating in my formative years has left a permanent psychological scar. I avoid being in new unfamiliar places as much as I can. And even the thought of wearing anything that gives away my body contours makes me break into a sweat.”
Men battling the bulge say they don’t have it easy either. “Women being body-shamed, still sparks some obligatory outrage but look around at the images of the spornosexuals floating around. Gym-toned, eight-packed lean-mean men seem to jump at you from every hoarding, advertisement, music video and even Bollywood. They even parade bare-torsoed as Gods or men who want to make up for the attention-deficit in saas-bahu tv soaps with their pumped up pecs,” says Pradipta Bhattacharjee the Kolkatan-turned-Delhiite. “Though I’m a copywriter and can walk into office in XL floral print shirts and baggy jeans, the judging never stops. You know I have a colleague who calls the cavities between my shirt buttons through which my belly button can be seen sometimes as Windows 2016! In the beginning though I grinned patronisingly, I think it was a mistake. Because she’s now begun calling me that all the time.”
The 30-year-old remembers working on a catchline for hours few days ago. “I’d walked in early at 9.30 am after only a bowl of cornflakes and milk. By 6.45 pm no amount of black tea/coffee was suppressing my hunger. I ordered a pizza from a joint near our Noida office which delivers the fastest. Barely had I bitten into the first slice when the jibes and titters from those passing by began. A colleague put a picture of me as a meme calling me the man most harried by demonetisation. It got to a point when I just put the pizza away despite being famished.”
A study published in Lancet two years ago had alerted how India is the third most obese country after the US and China. Director Centre for Bariatric surgery, Wockhardt hospitals, Dr Ramen Goel said he won’t be surprised if India surpasses China to take second place soon. “We have 30% of the country’s poor suffering malnutrition and another 60% who are overweight/obese. Unlike the developed world, it seems strange that even those who have means in India are eating all the wrong things, suffering from undernutrition and ruining their health,” he pointed out and added, “We’re also seeing a steep climb in the number of children showing signs of obesity.”
Blaming fizzy beverages, junk food, alcohol and a sedentary lifestyle for the way one of every five Indians are now obese/overweight, he added, “Current lifestyles are forcing more and more people to reel under excess body weight and blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular ailments and osteoarthritis are on the rise. Even those in their late 20s and early 30s complain of joint disorders and knee pain.” He warned of how this problem could break the back of the country’s economy if ignored. “We need to radically chase a fitness and good nutrition campaign across the country. The authorities should also enforce stricter food labelling so that consumers can make informed choices.”
Psychiatrist Dr Pavan Sonar say that eating disorders and obesity can both be caused by a mental health problem or trigger it. “The overweight tend have more calories than needed by their bodies, so being overweight in that sense is a behavioural disorder linked to dysfunctional eating. In psychiatry we already look at other eating disorders like anorexia, binge-eating, bulimia. Obesity is only a progression.”
According to him, obesity, like any other psychiatric disorder, is a joint dysfunction of anatomy, environmental factors, genetics and physiology, and that makes the brain incorrectly process information on hunger and satiety not stopping the body from taking in more. “Once overweight, some individuals get caught in a vicious cycle of coping with poor self esteem and criticism by eating which only worsens the problem.” He felt a fitness training regimen and counselling could go hand-in-hand to help such people.
Overall given how patriarchy likes to (almost always unsolicitedly) define how women should conduct themselves, dress or look like, the stereotype of what is “good looking for the male gaze,” often sees women facing the worst of body shaming, observes sociologist and cultural historian Meghana Kashyap. “Nasty cutting remarks can begin even when a woman’s body mass index is slightly in the overweight range. Men, in that sense have it easier since the jokes and shaming starts only when they are obviously what the world sees as obese. Not surprisingly plus-size women face thrice as much shaming and discrimination as men of equal obesity. Since it starts early, it can leave an indelible (and in several cases debilitatingly so), mark on the persona. Such women can then face poor self esteem issues which do lingering damage to them long after the teasing and nasty personal comments have stopped.”
She cites the instance of the entertainment and advertising industry which feeds the stereotype of the “ideal body” of a woman. “In June this year when London mayor Sadiq Khan announced he was going to ban all body shaming ads on the city’s transport networks, some even took to thinly-veiled Islamophobia to target him saying his stand was coming from a culture of hijabs. That kind of the proverbial cutting of the nose to spite the face by the ‘politically correct’ brigade can actually take the gender narrative not only for the plus-sized, but women across the board, several decades back.”
While echoing Kashyap, others like gender studies experts like professor Lakshmi Lingam of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences however sound a note of caution. “As we talk of body shaming lets not throw away the body with the shaming. There is in fact greater need to discuss body and bodily functions in a more informed and engaging manner in India where bad/poor diets and sedentary lifestyles are contributing to the widespread incidence of heart disease and diabetes. We can only ignore the medically proven ill effects of being overweight at our own peril.” She underlines, “This is about callibrating the space between the politically and medically correct. This can be different on a case-to-case basis.”
Gay rights activist Pallav Patankar too admits that it should be a case of ‘different strokes for different folks,’ with no scope for hatred / being judgemental. He was reacting to being asked how an ‘extremely exclusion and otherisation sensitive’ LGBTQI community is itself not averse doing the same to the overweight. “Lets not forget that the LGBTQI community also comes from the general population with the same prejudices and biases. Unlike those working in the field of activism with an exposure to the human rights’ narrative, the person out on a dating app or even social media sites is merely looking for instant sex and articulates her/his festish for a certain body type,” he pointed out and added, “While it is shocking to see people say ‘fatties and chubs stay away’ on their profiles on sites like planetromeo or grindr, you also see those who actively seek only the overweight because this is their preference.”
The biz opportunity
While on preferences, the overweight have their own. Choices which the world of business has been quick to catch on in their race to make profits pluz-size. Bangalore based media planner Venkatesh Giridhar who admits to having given up his own battle with the bulge says: “If you take newspapers from Brexit onwards and analyse, guess what has been taking more space than Brexit, Donald Trump and Demonetisation put together? It is content targeting the fat and the overweight. Both advertorial and editorial together spend at least 58-60% of their space on this alone.”
According to him, fear mongering and playing on looks is how most of such content is driven. “Much of it so far out there, alarmist, offensive and full of falsehoods that its shocking to see it in print in the first place. But it continues to happen because there are so many gullible ready to lap it up,” he remarks and adds, “I don’t even want to go into the tv advertorials offering solutions to the overweight because the extent of ridiculous unscientific claims often descends into bathos.” Whether it is dietary supplements, hunger suppressing medication or surgical intervention, such content, he informs has an annual turnover of Rs 1,200 crores! “Not surprising then that everybody is vying for a slice of this pie.”
Now that’s a fat lot to worry about!