I am FAT. Yes, you heard that right. FAT. No, not curvy or busty or voluptuous or plus-sized. None of that. FAT! I have a 34-inch waist, I have a paunch, chubby cheeks, and a round face. I don’t have scrawny and twiggy legs like those Victoria’s Secret models or that childhood ‘friend’ whom everyone thought was exquisite and elegant. By the time she was 13, she had eaten little, avoided butter, chocolates, ice cream, sweets – basically, anything that was tasty – knew the difference between a lip gloss and a lipstick and knew her correct bra size too unlike me, who was gorging on every sweet dish in sight, professing her love for rice in every meal, forming an eternal connection with Bhapa Ilish (a spicy Bengali dish made with lots of mustard oil, green chilies, and a paste of mustard seed), and groaning about wearing a bra.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame my eating habits for me being fat, and I don’t recall ever being skinny and lean while I was growing up. I only remember being happy and content – eager to explore the world around me and embrace every opportunity that came my way. I never felt inadequate, nor did I feel the need to explain to every Tom, Dick and Harry why I am fat!
That came only later – when my swollen feet heaved towards my sweet 16. That is when my mother, for the first time uttered the golden words; “look at you, stop eating chocolates and start exercising.” That is also when I sensed the hushed whispers in the room – of pity, disappointment, and discontent from the various aunties who looked at me as ‘a project that had failed miserably’. And then came the unnecessary stack of suggestions on how to lose weight! “Run for 45 minutes, wear your panties above your naval, don’t drink water while you eat, climb up the stairs 20 times a day etc…etc. Somehow, I realized that my being OK with my own body was not enough. Because the people around me were definitely not. I was never sure what their problem was – that I was fat or that I was fat and nonchalant or that I was fat nonchalant and happy. Here I was a 16-year-old ambitious teenager from a well-educated Bengali family – studying in a school that teaches you feminism right from kindergarten, part of social gatherings where everyone was an achiever in their own ways and surrounded by supportive friends – who had suddenly started doubting herself, had gradually started losing her confidence and self-worth and, most importantly, started hating her own body. When I looked in the mirror, for the very first time I saw my paunch, bulging out of my denim top. I touched those chubby cheeks and saw my misshapen arms. And I hated them. I despised my body; I loathed what I saw in the mirror. I wished I was someone else, someone thinner and prettier, maybe?
More importantly, I started fearing the word ‘fat’, saw it as an unseen attacker, gradually feeding on my fear and insecurities. A task I particularly dreaded was shopping for jeans; after a point, I ultimately gave up wearing one. I couldn’t escape the judgemental eyes and unnecessary sniggers from the salespeople when they had to search for a 32”-waist. Once I was flatly told that ‘skinny jeans are not made for fat people.’ ‘Alright, I am sure there is something else that could fit me,’ I asked. ‘Actually, we don’t make anything above 28” waist. Maybe bell bottoms?’ No, I want skinny jeans! In other words, a multinational clothing company, who had no idea who I was, who had no knowledge of my fashion sense, nor had any thoughts about my lifestyle, decided unilaterally what I was allowed to wear and whatnot.
Similarly, other apparel companies too had decided my fate – no body-hugging kurtas, no front open shirts and plunging necklines, no sleeveless blouses, no mini-skirts, and definitely no crop tops. I was getting inundated by marketing that blatantly declared fat people as ‘the outsiders.’ When did fat people become ‘the freak’? ‘Are you ready for a beach body?’ ‘Dimples are cute on your cheeks, not on your thighs,’ or ‘love without handles.’ The fact of the matter is that everyone has dimples on their thighs – me, you, and even the people behind the advertisements that shame women about their age and body type.
It didn’t stop there. When adulthood approached, offensive fat-shaming jokes became part of my social gatherings, coupled again with redundant suggestions on how to lose weight. Do you think I don’t know that I am fat? Yes, I know it pretty well. I knew it from the time I could spell fat. But what I didn’t realize was that my success was contingent upon the smallness of my waist. In any fat-shaming, the perennial comebacks are mostly that it is not ‘natural’ to be.
Overweight or obese and that they are offering a helping hand out of concern. As a fat girl, let me just say, Who the hell asked for your help? And even if I concede that your intention was indeed right, then why are you shaming me? Why are you making me sound like a failure? Why are you pitying me? Why is my body any of your business?
Feeling ashamed of how we ‘look’ has become so routine that we might even find it odd that someone can be perfectly content with the way they look. There is a difference between genuinely caring for someone’s health and shaming an individual outright. The worst comes in the form of advertisement and social banter, which relentlessly bombard you with the messaging that thinner is equal to attractive, and fat is equivalent to annoying.
I have been body-shamed on social media and in public, repeatedly told that my body is terrible and ugly and that I should always cover it up. These instances had a real impact on my life. I had severe doubts about my existence, I hated my personality, and had reservations about everything that I was doing. There was not a single day when I didn’t wake up to a wet pillow. All I remember feeling was a shame – ashamed of being happy, ashamed of celebrating, ashamed of voicing my opinion, ashamed of expressing my choices, ashamed of my smile, my armpit hair, my large pores and wrinkles, my accomplishments, and my triumphs. I was just embarrassed!
The fact that it is reasonable to first make fun of people based on weight and body type and then to tell them to take things ‘lightly’ or ‘not to take things personally,’ tends to create chronic trauma that is compounded by our inability to recognize it as such, so much so that it can even result in a mental breakdown. It is not that men are not body shamed as well, that it is not uncommon among them either.
But, I must say that the body-shaming of women has been such a time-honored tradition that it has been normalized to nothingness. That is why no one ever seems to think twice about passing a hurtful remark on the weight of a woman, that is why women who are so ashamed rarely think it wrong, that is why most women end up blaming themselves for what others have said to them. But it is wrong. And it needs to be called out as wrong and be recognized as wrong.
That is because, despite many body positivity movements and celebrities coming out and supporting all body types, the fact remains that body shaming works. And what is worse, it is so insidious that it could creep into every crevice of your daily life without you even recognizing it. It is what allows corporations to use fat-shaming as an idea to promote their product because it is the most comprehensible idea in the world. It is from here that absurd myths like ‘fat women and bad sex’ originates. The assumption that lingerie can look good only on slim, petite, and athletic women is based on impossible body standards that movies and fashion magazines decide to promote. When did ‘fat’ become such a fearful and negative word? When did we determine our parameters of success can only be based on our body? When did we come up with euphemisms like ‘curvaceous’ or ‘curvy’ to put a patina of political correctness over this class that has been created? Why is it anyone’s concern about what I eat or why am I fat?
I don’t need to call myself a curvaceous woman. I am perfectly happy being a fat one. But yes, I do agree that there were times when I questioned my self-worth. I have been given nicknames by friends like ‘mota’ (fat in Bangla), judged for my choice of clothing, gasped at about the men who dated me, and laughed at for wearing a swimsuit. I have succumbed to depression, isolated myself, and cried silently. But I fought back. I retaliated to every cynical jibe that came my way, calling them out for what they were – unacceptable. I won again the love that I had for myself, and I most definitely wore a swimsuit. It did take time, a long, long time, but I managed to do it.
So, if you are still wondering where I stand today with my 34” waist. Well, I am a strong, independent, and a free-spirited woman, I have traveled far and wide exploring different cultures of the world. I love dogs and can go to any lengths for them. I have a Ph.D. in Development Studies and have been a successful theatre artist for 10 years, acting in almost two dozen plays and directing two. I have been widely acknowledged for my craft and stage presence and a play that I have written, my very first is about to go into production, I have love and compassion in me and I am the most non-judgemental person I have ever met. I have written scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals and in edited books. I don’t shy away from voicing my opinion and helping out people, however, I can. I have a loving family and friends who adore me and look up to me. And lastly, I am happily married to a man who loves me just the way I am. Do you think I still care?
Shatarupa Bhattacharyya is a theatre artist, social scientist, and dog lover. She is a storyteller of the margins – of women in her art and of festivals in her scholarship.