I’ve always been in love with my culture and all the pieces that fit into it – the food I eat, the clothing I can wear, the languages I can speak, the religion I practice, and the values that I am enveloped by. But one of the things I would like to put a stop to would be the body-shaming.
In 2012, I stayed with my grandparents for a month in India so I could volunteer. During that month – as expected by the cultural norm of OUR FOOD IS TASTY AS HELL, EAT IT EAT IT EAT IT – I put on some weight. My grandparents wanted to spoil me, and although they didn’t necessarily cook unhealthy food, they cooked a lot of food, period. Because I’ve been taught that it’s wrong to waste food, I ate whatever they served me. My grandmother would pinch my cheeks and rub my back and say “Eat nicely, Upasna” (especially when we went out to eat) and I didn’t want to make grandma sad so I ate it. I would try my best to not eat too much, but my grandparents also kept plenty of sweets in the fridge. Routinely, I did yoga in my bedroom for fifteen to twenty minutes, so although I was getting my usual amount of “exercise,” my increase in food proportions subsequently lead to a bit of an increase in weight. CRAZY what the human body does!
I visited the school I attended for five years, before I had moved back to the U.S., to see some of my past teachers and to do the formal thing and say hello to my previous middle school peers. I ran into one of my old classmate’s mother, who said hello and made small talk that I politely took part in, until she said – “Upasna, you’ve gained a lot of weight on your arms! You look a bit chubby as compared to what I remember you as. I always tell my daughter to watch her weight so she’ll be slender. You should be careful how you eat!”
WHAT THE HECK, AUNTY?! is what I didn’t say (fun fact: In India, usually anyone older than us by a few years is referred to as aunty or uncle). What I said was: “Thanks, aunty. Take care!” and I walked away.
Another thing happened at a friend’s birthday party, which was a few days after my visit to the school. A lot of people I used to go to school with were at that party. One of my friends went to get me some food and came back with a plate full of rice, like, a lot of rice that I couldn’t possibly eat. I turned to this girl I knew, who I was acquainted with growing up (not friends because she was a total b-word) and said “haha, look how much food he put on my plate. He must think I can eat all of this!” And she said, smiling, “Of course you can eat it all, you’re fat! Don’t pretend. Hahaha just kidding.” Then she walked away. And I actually was very angry.
(Other stupid things people said/did at the party: I told this girl she was pretty, and she responded with a disgusted look and asked if I was a lesbian; this boy I used to “date” in the sixth grade WHICH WENT ON FOR LIKE TEN MONTHS pretended he didn’t know me and ran away whenever I walked into a room that he was in; I got asked if I had a boyfriend, what was his name, HOW MANY BOYFRIENDS I HAD “BEFORE HIM, HAHA SLUT – JUST KIDDING!”)
Picking on people’s weights is something that I’ve always considered a norm in India – something you must do as to describe someone or to start conversation. “Have you seen ____ lately? She’s put on quite a bit of weight!” “Wow, ____ is so fair and slender! Very pretty girl!” “She’s got a pretty face but she definitely is on the heavy side.” And yes, sometimes people (usually family – EXCEPT FOR THAT GIRL’S MOM WOW) have all the courage in the world to tell you straight to your face that you’ve put on weight. I’ve seen my mother’s friends do it to her, I’ve had aunties (blood-related, yes) tell me the same. And I noticed that women do it. A lot.
One of my friends told me the other day that in some regions in India, it is considered to be a compliment to let someone know that they’ve put on weight – in Punjab, for example, where curvaceous women are celebrated and are looked up to as the healthy example. Of course, the influence of Bollywood actresses is slowly changing people’s minds, and that other cultural norm of gossiping way too much both come together to trick people into thinking that discussing someone’s weight and body type is okay. Health reasons aside, it isn’t okay. Puppy fat exists. Belly fat exists. Thighs that touch exist. Stretch marks exist and so do hips – and anyway, you’ll look really good in sarees.
Another friend, who is from Vietnam, told me that in her culture – similar to Punjab – letting someone know that they’ve gained weight expresses your acknowledgment of their healthiness, and telling someone that they’re thin or losing weight lets them know that you care about them.
Another friend emphasized on the importance of changing the mantra from WEIGHT to WELLNESS – which I completely agree with. That’s the way it should be.
The issue is this: mentioning a person’s body type or an assumption of their weight during a conversation, or when describing them, is wrong. There is no reason to randomly bring that up! It doesn’t matter! (Like I said – you may think her arms are fat, but she looks hella good in that saree.) Dissecting one’s beauty is unnecessary, and although it may be a cultural norm, it doesn’t have to be your norm.