On the Farcical Notion of “Health”

Last few weeks have been eventful for anyone (in India) who has ever been concerned about rampant fat-shaming and body image issues. Let me enumerate the highlights:

 

  1. A “fat” customer who visited a designer store in Mumbai received unwarranted advice from the salesman to hit the gym instead of asking for plus size ghaghras. She didn’t let that bring her down, and refused to accept such treatment. Her friend took this up on Facebook, she received a whole lot of support from the online community, and eventually the store manager apologised for the disaster.

  2. Parineeti Chopra, a fine actor and one of the few celebrities I have seen speak openly about periods, launched a weight loss campaign on Twitter. Titled “Built That Way”, it features her in athletic wear, doing squats in stilettoes with quotes about her “journey” to this new avatar. It doesn’t really talk about any fitness tips or a workout regime. It does, however, emphasise on this – “Four years ago, a chubby, childish girl was introduced to the world. Four years later, I am closer to where I want to be.

There is little I can say about this drama that hasn’t been articulated here.

I came across that article when a friend shared it on Facebook. And because I was so glad I wasn’t the only one who thought this “Built This Way” business would do more harm than good, I shared it along with my two pennies worth on the matter.

This is what I posted along with the link: “Thank you, Parineeti, for reinforcing the most harmful stereotype for women already struggling with body image issues. As if there wasn’t enough of this shit in the market already, you are here to jump the bandwagon. Thin = Pretty = Confident = Worthy. Brilliant.”

I didn’t quite expect a lot of thoughts on it because I have noticed not many on my FB circle are interested in this issue. I did get a few nods but then, unsurprisingly, there was that one crusader of good health who had to make an appearance to talk about how there is nothing wrong with being “fit” and “healthy”.

Let me not get into why that argument makes no sense here. It’s faulty on so many levels that I just… never mind. I’ll just mention that Parineeti says nearly nothing about fitness. She feels accomplished about not being “chubby” anymore, and describes herself as a “work-in-progress” on her way to “look better”.

That aside, such conversations always set in motion a never-ending chain of thoughts in my head. I’m going to try and enumerate some of them, just so I can get it out of my system.

  1. Since when did we start equating size with health? I don’t deny that it can (sometimes) be an indicator, but it’s silly to generalize that. Firstly, can one really say that every “thin” or “skinny” person is healthy or has “good” eating habits or leads an active lifestyle? Or that someone overweight is always on his/her couch with a bag of fries? You cannot look at someone and draw inferences about their life – their habits, their lifestyles, their “laziness”, their “unwillingness” to control their diet, their “irresponsible” attitude towards their bodies. We are made to believe that “fatness” is a problem, that one is to be blamed for his/her “problem” and that this problem needs to be fixed.

    Is it not possible that someone is happy about how they look regardless of what you think is “pretty”? Or that someone has made a choice to enjoy culinary delights rather than fret over calories? Don’t we all have that one friend who can eat and eat and yet never put on any weight? Wide hips could be genetic. A bulging belly could be a battle scar for someone who has been fighting with PCOS for years.  No one has a right to judge another, let alone just looking at their body type. You can’t read character into a person’s weighing scale.  

    If someone is big, they must be lazy. If someone is thin, they are sickly. One can never really get it right, isn’t it? “Normal” is that imaginary utopia we are all told to strive for, and we allow ourselves to be driven by that illusion.

    I know I have felt uncomfortable telling the saleswoman that I’ll need an XL size. I know my “thin” friend has been asked to buy push-up bras by just about everyone she knows. My other “lanky” friend has been advised to take protein supplements and hit the gym so he can look “masculine”.

    A person suffering from anorexia is reprimanded for eating very little. But an overweight person is encouraged to follow such extreme diets. At the end of the day, starving oneself is unhealthy. But who cares about that, right?

    It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that weight is simply a number.  And that life is beyond that number. We are beyond a number. It says nothing about us, our choices, or our stories.

  2. Let’s talk about “health”. What is health? What does it look like? What do we know about it?

    When I really think about it, it seems to me that “health” has come to be a societal construct as a result of production, media and marketing. In short, a product of Capitalism.

    A standardized body size is conducive to mass production. It has come to a point where we no longer want clothes to fit us. Instead, we want us to fit into clothes. So you have an expected chest-waist-hip-thigh size with respect to your height. The only time I’ve managed to buy a pair of jeans without having to get the length altered is when I shop in the “Petite” section in some of the stores in the US.  The point is, anything outside of this prescribed body size is considered abnormal – something wrong that has to be changed.

    What does size really have to do with health anyway? What does anyone mean when they say “healthy”? To me it encompasses a lot of things – but the starting point and the end result has to be one – happiness.

    Instead, what I am sold is a tangible, physical ideal of health. To look a certain way rather than feel it.  To be honest, I feel that the general discourse on health is deeply flawed.

    The media is asking me to aspire to be a certain way they call “healthy” so that I am what can be called “attractive” or “desirable”. Men are expected to be “masculine”, dominating, “macho”. I am reduced to an object that pleases the eye alone; something that’s palatable. I am expected to have priorities as prescribed by the media – which probably starts with the color of my face and ends with how far my legs can resemble Beyoncé’s.

    I remember reading about Aishwarya Rai’s weight gain right after her delivery. These were stories that mocked her chubby arms and her plump cheeks, not one of them sparing a thought to the fact she was probably breastfeeding at the time. And what her body said about her was not that she was fat, but that she was healthy, and that she was a mother.

    If the health industry (including everything right from gyms to supplements to “health” magazines) gave a damn about my health, my mental health would not be so categorically neglected. Health is now a commodity sold to me that’s supposed to transform me. Right all that is wrong with me.

    I am told that if I somehow manage to achieve that idealistic body, I will be rewarded with happiness and love and confidence. This is pretty much the crux Parineeti’s “Built That Way”. Unfortunately, I believed that for the longest time and treated myself cruelly. Not any more.

    I know now that what the media tells me is bullshit. What they are trying to sell me an illusion. But I worry about those who can’t make that differentiation – children, teenagers. I see my young cousin cursing her genes for her wide hips. My friend’s sister worry about her breast size at 13. And it scares me. I can tell them what I know, but I wonder if the media will let me succeed at drilling that point into their heads? Because they are constantly bombarded with images and objects and temptations that will make them believe that they are imperfect and need fixing. In the summer holidays, they will have relatives comment on their weight gain or the unwanted tan or the zits.

    I try and tell my cousins to come to me or call me every time they are unhappy with what they see in the mirror. I hope they will not put themselves through what I did when I was their age.

  3. How does one define “fatness”? And why has that come to mean a bad thing? At what point do you draw a line between “curvy” and “fat” – and tell people which one is desirable and which isn’t?

    We demean the diversity of body types by slotting them into categories with names like apple and pear. Every body is different, and each one of them is to be celebrated. Not desecrated. And body type or shape is not a one-stop indication of one’s health. There is health in every size – both physical and mental.

    That aside, is “fatness” or “thinness” the only thing that defines a person? Let me for a second think of someone who is morbidly obese. Let me also presume that this obesity is a result of his/her lifestyle choices, and that this person has treated food as entertainment and indulged too much with little to no exercise.

    What then? Does this give me a right to be mean to them? Does it say that that person is a bad human being? Does that make it okay to say hurtful things to this person? Absolutely not. Kindness to others cannot come with terms and conditions. You just be kind – to everyone. Is that so difficult to understand?

    There are always those who try and explain their comments on fatness by saying that their words reflect their “concern” for such a person’s health. That there is nothing wrong with asking someone to get fit.

    Firstly, no body owes it to anyone to look pretty or be fit. Secondly, the media, and in turn the society, is already telling this person to “get fit” (read get thin), so your advice is really unnecessary. And lastly, my “fatness” does not reflect my attitude to life or my health.

  4. The media tells us that our worthiness as a person is linked directly to how we look. That prettiness is synonymous with worth, love, confidence and happiness. And we are told this so often that we have nearly no option but to believe this to be the reality.

    There are several industries that feed on us hating ourselves. Because, if, god forbid, we actually begin to love ourselves, they won’t be able to sell us a thing. No lightening creams, no plastic surgeries, no health supplements, no magic pills, no super-expensive gym memberships, no breast enhancements. Even glamour magazines would lose their appeal.

    They earn their bread when we are convinced about having to starve ourselves. So a person is objectified, commodified and sexualized till that is how we also begin to see ourselves. As objects that need to be perfected in order to be accepted.

    Here’s the thing. The media is lying to us. It’s a tool for marketing and it’s doing someone else’s bidding. And as difficult as it is, we need to remember this. We need to be kind to ourselves and to others.

  5. Fitness. Stamina. Energy. These are wonderful things. Why taint them with this negative, insensitive discourse about it?  Why not encourage positive thoughts about fitness – one that makes one feel happy and love themselves, rather than get sucked into an endless vortex of self-loathing and diffidence? To encourage people to embrace a lifestyle that brings peace and harmony to the body and the mind.

    Fuck the media. Fuck size zero. Fuck apples and pears and guavas. It took me a long time, but I have gradually conditioned myself to not let these things affect me. There are bad days, of course. I don’t like to dance because I once saw a picture of myself dancing and thought it was ugly. There are days when I lie to the saleswoman about my waist size, because I am too embarrassed about it. But these have now become exceptions, and not how I feel about myself all the time. Parineeti might disagree, but I don’t care. Chubby is not something that needs correcting. Chubby and pretty are not mutually exclusive. I am chubby and proud.

 

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On Gym and Gymming

The tagline under my blog title says “An Orange in Pluto”. Pluto was my favourite planet until these fickle astronomers betrayed me and said it’s not a planet at all. I choose to ignore that.

I feel like an orange in Pluto – as out of place as that – in many places. The gym is one of those places.

  1. Physically, I am broader, shorter and heavier than most of them on the floor.
  2. I am NOT a fan of David Guetta. Everyone else seems to think he is god and his music an essential element of workout.
  3. The gym is not for short people. I need help to reach a lot of the equipment. I feel like a kid.
  4. I find it hard to understand why there are so many gym-crazed school kids these days. Call me old fashioned, but I think the playground should be their place – to play and talk and have fun. Not the gym floor where they have old men staring at their teenaged butts.
  5. I feel weird around most women on the floor. I do enjoy gossip, but just the kind where you exchange meaty bits of information and indulge in some harmless bitching about celebrities. Not this weird shopping- gossip that is basically a veiled competition titled “Biggest Spender Wins.” I have nothing against luxury or indulgence, but this constant fight about who’s track-pants are fancier is irritating. Especially when this money is doing nothing to stop the pants from getting into their butt cracks.
  6. Most people seem to be comfortable in clothes that are as tight-fitting as they can get. Regardless of what is the size that is “fitting.” I like air. My shirts are a size bigger than I need.
  7. Too many people admiring their own pectorals/abs/breasts. I couldn’t do it in public even when I didn’t have the extra pounds.
  8. I feel like I am the only one who wants to hide the bra straps under my shirt.
  9. Sweaty underarm hair is GROSS. How do you tell that to people? Especially the men who MUST wear sleeveless vests to show off their biceps?
  10. Old men with very-tight, super-short shorts. Leaves little to the imagination. Enough said.

They’re not all bad. Even those mentioned above aren’t really bad; they just have quirks I cannot wrap my mind around. I am sure they refer to me as “That-girl-who-won’t-remove-her-spectacles”. I have some friends at the gym and they are nice enough. But I still feel it’s not a place where I belong. I enjoy the workout but – you know, I am an orange working out in Pluto.

Also, everybody is super excited and has taken up the job of motivating each other. We even have a PCOS gang and we discuss frustrations over slow weight loss and compete over the most imbalanced hormones in the changing room from time to time. Whoever has the worst story to offer is the best motivator for others. It’s like when you find out there is at least one more person behind you in the race.

The ladies’ changing room is an entertaining place. I use it for changing and exchanging gossip (Of course!) I have learned that it can also be used as –

  1. Place to take selfies. And if you can somehow get a broader-waisted-woman in the background, it’s perfect to be WhatsApp-ed to everyone.
  2. Exchange information on gynaecologists and nutritionists and lipstick shades and sales at the mall.
  3. Discuss the firmness and roundness of breasts. [It seems if you can soak your breasts in a tub of ice water for 10 minutes each night, your breasts will resemble Scarlett Johansson’s even when you turn 60. I am WAY too lazy to do that.]
  4. Discuss the perverseness or attractiveness of men
  5. Find out where to get the best Louis Vuitton duplicates.

I keep telling myself I am at the gym as a way of moving toward a “healthy” lifestyle. I have to keep reminding myself this little fact. Because the gym can be both maddeningly absurd and heartbreakingly intimidating at times. There is also this genius who decided to open a pizza place on the third floor of the building where my gym is. Asshole.

And then there is me, who is panting on the treadmill, worrying about the panty-line, cursing my way through the bench press, happy with oversized Spiderman T-shirts and forever tempted by the smell of melting cheese.

On living with PCOS

I am not going to talk about the technical details of PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome). A friend of mine once described it as the “21st century’s gift to womankind.” I think that is the best definition out there. In short, it’s a condition which affects women for no good reason, is usually exacerbated by stress and leads to insulin resistance, which in turn can cause annoying, embarrassing and agonizing issues like weight gain, trouble losing weight, irregular periods, early onset diabetes (Type 2), fertility issues, facial hair etc. It’s what some would call a pain in the ass.

The doctors have a sophisticated way of consoling the PCOS gang of women. They’ll typically say things like –

  1. There’s no treatment, but it can be managed
  2. Exercise regularly and manage your diet. That’ll solve most of it.
  3. Stay away from all things white – white rice, white bread, sugar. (White men are okay. It is a truth universally acknowledged that nothing and no-one in this universe has anything against white men)
  4. Lose weight

For women who have PCOS, losing weight far more difficult than it is for others. (Unless they have other gifts, such as thyroid issues which make things much worse) You can work out for months and still lose no more than a kilo. One slice of buttered bread may be enough to ruin weeks of workout. And if you’re prone to stress or anxiety, then your everyday life is like mountaineering.

It’s okay. Shit happens. Everyone is dealing with problems of their own and PCOS is one that’s becoming more and more common on the list of problems for young women.

Now here’s the issue(s) –

  1. It’s difficult to talk about. When you say you have PCOS you are also admitting to potentially serious fertility issues, perennial problems with weight and the need for an upper lip wax every now and then.
  2. It’s not life threatening, so people don’t take it very seriously
  3. “Stress” is invisible. When there is no “physical” cause, the problem is easily attributed to some wrong action (or inaction) on the patient’s end. That increases stress. Stress worsens the problem. Vicious cycle.
  4. Stress is also perceived as relative. A teenage girl’s boyfriend problems may be seen as less important than say a major career issue that troubled an elder woman. But to that girl, her problem is just as real and grave. And the stress will mess with her hormones just as it does for the other woman.
  5. Fat girls are almost never offered the benefit of doubt. They have a personal journey to cover in coming to terms with body image, but society will mostly not give them a chance. This may even be okay for slightly older women to deal with, but makes things especially hard for teenaged girls battling PCOS.

I hate thinking about my teens. It wasn’t fun, and I didn’t look forward to my days. It was less because of my weight and more because I felt that I was somehow responsible for my misery. That perhaps I ate like a pig and sat around like a rhino.

I cannot believe I put myself through that.

I’m over that. It is thanks to my family and some wonderful friends and a great deal of selective reading on the internet. One of the first posts of Humans Of New York I noticed was the portrait of this brave young lady and her online movement for body acceptance. Here is the link to her story.

The struggle is different for each individual and the solutions will depend on that. But I do believe the first step is acceptance. Of many things –

  1. Accepting the problem
  2. Knowing that it isn’t your fault, no matter what your parents or the bullies in school say
  3. It isn’t a problem with a permanent solution. You’ll have to live with it and deal with it on a daily basis
  4. You will have to exercise even if you much prefer staying in bed and reading all day. And sugar is the hot-but-bad guy. One night stands ONLY. Nothing long term.
  5. PCOS isnot the end of the world.
  6. It doesn’t have anything to do with your worth as a person or your happiness.

Also – if a man can’t deal with the occasional bit of hair on your chin, he can go to hell. In sickness and in health, right ?

The very last thing I wish to do on this blog is preach. But this subject is just something I feel very strongly about, and I’ve realized it’s pointless waiting for acceptance from the outside. The only way is for it to come from within. It makes you not give a damn about what others think. That’s an awesome feeling.

I still care about what others think. Of course I do. We all do. I just don’t care what they think of how I look or weigh.(Well, at least most of the time) I love myself enough to say no to sugar not because it will make me fat, but because I want to live a full life without diabetes for as long as possible. (Again, most of the time. There are days when I just sulk. Or gobble a brownie and THEN sulk.)

No one deserves to have PCOS. And no one should have to feel ashamed about having it.

Hashtag PCOS. Because I am that well versed with Twitter.

PS – Just to clarify, I have nothing against “healthy” habits. I do think there has to be a positive motivation behind it, not self loathing and peer pressure.

PPS – I really do love lists