Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Women’s Accounts of Fat Shaming

This week: A rebuttal to fat-shamers, how weight shapes the way we’re treated by others and the frustration of being over-stuffed by doting parents.

Name-Place-Animal-Thing is The Wire’s culture newsletter. If you’re interested in seeing more material like this, subscribe here

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

What’s so funny about being ‘fat’?

Why do we make fun of fat people? According to Supriya Joshi, a creative writer for AIB and a stand-up comedian, “Because that’s what you do with things you don’t understand – you either respond with hate, or you respond by making fun of them.”

Joshi’s tweet was part of a larger thread about how she’s constantly shamed for her weight. People create vile memes making fun of her body, leave hurtful comments on her Instagram posts. Basically, every time Joshi makes her presence felt in a public way, several people turn up to shoo her away. Here is a part of the thread:

Joshi touches on a number of issues here that have clearly struck a chord with her followers. Fat shaming is ubiquitous in our culture, we endearingly call our friends ‘moti’, family members regularly start conversations by commenting on our weight and employ euphemisms like ‘healthy’ to tell us we’re past the acceptable level of chub. But as Joshi flatly points out, the conversation she’s trying to have isn’t about the medical problems associated with obesity, it’s about the societal standards that tell us fat people are inferior.

What starts out as a lack of media representation is actually far more insidious – clothing stores don’t carry products beyond a certain size, chairs are often built for slight people and cannot withstand the weight of someone who might qualify as medically obese; medical terms themselves are horribly mean with weight categories like ‘morbidly obese’ and ‘super morbidly obese’.

Supriya Joshi (in the middle) is one of a small group of women speaking out against blatant fat shaming . Credit: Supriya Joshi’s Twitter handle

And this is all in addition to the fact that societal standards dictate that fat people cannot be attractive, they can never be seen as romantic and sexual interests, as if their weight makes them somehow less human. In public spaces like malls or markets, people make no effort to disguise their stares, as if they’re staring at an object.

If you’re still here, want to subscribe and get this column delivered straight to your inbox every week?

§

‘Being both invisible and too visible’

Author Lindy West. Credit: Facebook

Joshi’s is the latest in a growing list of books and commentary about how people feel in the face of such dehumanising treatment.

In an episode of ‘This American Life’, author Lindy West spoke to host Ira Glass at length about learning to accept her weight and body as it is.

The very first thing West spelled out was the unsaid expectation that plagues all overweight people – that they should be ashamed of themselves for being the weight and size they are. In her words, “People assume you’re supposed to be thin, so every day that you’re fat feels like a failure.” ‘Fat people’ are supposed to be sad and apologetic, and if they’re not, if they somehow muster up the courage to exist bravely and boldly in this world, people react almost immediately.

West recounted not wanting to acknowledge that she was fat even though it was apparent to everyone, especially herself. She said she had this notion that somehow people wouldn’t notice if she didn’t say anything. Her life was a constant mediation between being too visible and being invisible.

This is the dynamic at play when Joshi makes her presence known through Instagram lives and pictures on social media, people react meanly in an effort to push her back into non-existence. Why? Because they’re fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea that a woman who looks like Joshi is expressing confidence in herself, especially her appearance.

West also recounted to Glass how strangers on the street would feel comfortable giving her advice about nutrition or judge openly if they saw items like ice-cream in her grocery cart. Some went as far as taking food out of her shopping cart without her permission, as if they were doing her a favour.

After years of struggling with all this, West simply decided to accept that she was likely to be fat forever and relieved herself of the expectation of becoming thin. “It just had never occurred to me that you could just decide that you were allowed to be happy and live,” she told Glass.

But some others, like Elna Baker, a produce on ‘This American Life’ who also spoke to Glass, recounted the struggles that come with drastic weight changes. While West chose to accept her body and found fulfilment, Baker went on an extreme weight loss plan to essentially become a whole new person. Only trouble is, she doesn’t really like who she is now.

Baker experienced the world very differently before she lost weight. Romantic interests, job prospects, people walking down the street, grocery store cashiers – they all seemed to drastically change their behaviour once Baker became thin. This essentially confirmed her worst fear, that the world really is that superficial and that a lack of intimate relationships in her life had stemmed from her appearance, despite everything we spout about personality and inner beauty.

The thing that seems to bother her most is how little it takes for men to be attracted to her now. In her words, right after she lost weight and discovered men’s newfound interest in her, Baker thought, “When guys came onto me it didn’t feel like it was about me, I could be anyone. It made it hard to trust people.”

Later Baker said, “it took so much more kindness and ingenuity to be a person in the world when I was fat, all this took was not eating.”

It’s sobering to realise just how inherent our biases can be. Imagine Baker growing up with family members and friends reassuring her that she was wonderful as she was, contrasted with guys who would flirt with her, even kiss her but follow that up with, “Don’t tell anyone this happened.” Who do you listen to and what do you believe? Clearly, for Baker, the answers she’s found after losing weight are disheartening.

If you’re still here, want to subscribe and get this column delivered straight to your inbox every week?

§

‘Woman with a Bird’ by Fernando Botero. Credit: Irina/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

‘I feel like I was set up for fitness failure’

In this piece, Ruku Taneja looks at some of the double standards that emerge at home with our families when it comes to food and weight. She recounts the food of her childhood that has shaped her eating habits as an adult and the fact that nutritional value or ‘eating healthy’ were almost entirely absent from her family’s dietary rhetoric.

“My definition of “good food” was butter chicken, and sometimes still is. Is this the case with you too, dear? Do you reach for the menu at a bar and automatically choose chilli paneer with your Blenders Pride? If yes, then welcome to the desi fat club. Yes, mum and dad, I wish you hadn’t encouraged our “who can eat the most food” battle royales at home. Maybe, just maybe, you should have focused on the nutritional value of what I was eating when I was 6, 8 and 13. Aunty Saroj, you are not innocent either. You knew that I didn’t look “weak” but you still made me eat all those aloo parathas.”

Taneja’s anger is focused on her Punjabi parents but it’s easy to imagine similar scenes playing out in several homes across the country. Culturally, we’re taught to express our love for children through delicious food or their favourite dishes. The richness of the butter chicken or the makkhan on a paratha almost directly correlates to the amount of love the provider has for the eater. And it’s difficult if not impossible to change a lifetime of dietary preferences. How good can you be on a diet? How long can you diet? How much deprivation can you subject yourself to?

As Taneja points out, that’s exactly what is expected of her as an adult. Now that she is the ‘fat’ one in the family, they all want her to lose weight. But the real reason Taneja is bothered is because of the blame that seems to sit squarely on her shoulders even though she knows it’s a much larger problem, created by several people, including the parents she presumably loves.

She asks, “So what now? I don’t think there is a magic potion to go back in time and set up healthy eating habits but it’s never too late to stop being a d*ckhead.”

All the women who step up and talk about their struggles with their weight all stress the same fundamental point – we need to stop thinking of weight as a reversible ‘situation’ and putting the burden of that reversal solely on the ‘fat’ person’s shoulders. A better way to go about it is to exercise empathy and respect, which should be obvious enough to not need to be spelled out but here we are.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at nehmat@thewire.in
If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, consider subscribing to Name-Place-Animal-Thing.

  • rantman

    With all due respect to Supriya Joshi, if I was termed `morbidly obese’ by my doctor, I’d be more concerned about what that means for my life expectancy and quality of life, rather than how mean it sounds. I do not condone being mean or derogatory to people because of their size, but am also set against accepting it as the new normal. If you are obese, then you *have* failed on the health front. That failure is real, not concocted by social trends. Consequences in terms of medical expenses and psychological impact on you and your family are real and not a twitter fad. And the failure is reversible, for most people.

    On the flip side, the absence of obesity does not necessarily indicate good health. Its just that obesity is an obvious sign of bad health, other indications might be more subtle. While it is definitely superficial douchery to pass judgement on people for obesity, that is not IMHO, a sufficient reason to disregard it.