During the initial years of my life, I was very thin. According to people, this made me a not so ‘cute’ baby. Then, while growing up, I started gaining weight and was labelled ‘that fat girl’.
I dreaded physical education (PE) periods, when everyone would make fun of me, but most especially that one day when the PE teachers would record our height and weight. Many students would want to know my weight and would then giggle and make fun of me. At the beginning of every academic session, I would think of ways to be absent on that dreadful day. I would peek into the sports room to check whether the weighing scale was kept outside. The sight of the machine was always terrifying, and also a sign to stay absent for a few days. Still, I would more or less forget all about the teasing.
But things changed in Class 7 when one day a classmate called me ‘pregnant’. He then looked at other boys around him, expecting them to laugh at his comment – which is exactly what they did. I felt a lump in my throat.
So, I stood there with people laughing at me while my brain neatly registered some ‘facts’ – that being fat is not beautiful. That I am not beautiful.
Schools should be the most reformative spaces in the world. Despite this power, they turn out to be a manifestation of our society’s mindset. Growing up, we only hear stories of a handsome prince and a beautiful, slim and fair princess. These notions of beauty are programmed in our brains. We grow up believing every notion, propelling schools to be a place of systematic bullying towards anyone who does not conform to these standards.
Every time I felt sick, I would persuade my mother to not take me to a doctor. I hated clinics and hospitals because of weighing scales, and the fact that the first thing any doctor tells an overweight patient is to lose weight.
Thin bride and fat bride
One lesson you learn growing up in most cultures is how certain women are not considered suitable spouses for men. These women are primarily fat, dark or taller than their male counterparts. The leading evidence for this comes from matrimonial advertisements in supplements that demand a ‘slim’ life partner or use words like ‘beautiful/handsome’.
I received the same dose of societal wisdom.
‘No one will marry you unless you lose weight’ was a lesson that I learned as a 14-year-old. Everything piled up and I believed all of it. The stigma entered through my PE periods and then settled into every aspect of my life. This is when I started trying to become invisible in most spaces.
I almost stopped taking photos of myself. For some years, I avoided looking at my complete self in the mirror. And as I lost all my confidence, I refrained from actively participating in a room full of people in college.
The pandemic made everything unbearable and I started counselling. After spending hours reflecting and journaling, I started feeling more comfortable in my skin. This was possible after learning one important thing; that “this is all acquired”. The hate that I have for my body comes from others. But you can change your belief and everything changes completely. How?
Do you know about cultures that want their brides to be fat? Leblouh is the practice of force-feeding girls of age five to 19. This is prevalent in certain countries where obesity is regarded as a desirable trait. Many cases reported from Mauritania reveal how fat camps are organised for young girls where they are forced into a diet of up to 16,000 calories a day.
This obese preference originated centuries ago among the Moors, nomadic Muslims of Arabic and Berber tribes. To the ancient Moors, a fat wife was a symbol of his honour, his capability as it was a mark of his wealth. These well-fed women meant he had enough resources to feed her generously while others perished in the drought-prone terrain.
While some might consider this as celebrating females of a larger size, it’s really not. Young girls are force-fed to become ‘desirable’ women only to be prepared for marriage. Moreover, the practice also has severe health implications.
A society like the one mentioned above matches my younger self’s dreamland. But when I read about it at 19, I realised why it was nothing like it. My young self dreamed of a place where she could be herself and most importantly, she could be unapologetic. At 19, I realised our society allows no room for ‘self’, especially if you are a ‘her’. In the name of beauty standards, the patriarchy demands that we run a marathon to tick all the boxes part of the ‘ideal beauty list’. It joins hands with capitalism and lets it run million dollars industries selling fairness cream, diet charts and more.
But all I can think about is that small girl who dreamed of a land where fat people were accepted. So, I now refuse to be reduced to a checklist or someone’s ‘honour’ or someone idea of what is desirable.
I have been at a war with my body even while my body was fighting for me. I have known definitions of beauty even when I did not understand what ‘beauty’ meant. But now that I know what it means, I refuse to be governed by such ‘rules’. There may be nothing ‘ideal’ in my beauty, but I will no longer make room in my mind for false notions fed by society because it is ‘my body’.
Devanshi Batra is a cat lover who studies English Literature at Lady Shri Ram College. She always has a long TBR and an even longer travel bucket list.