I was scrawny as a baby, scrawny as a toddler and scrawny as a youth.
As a young girl, you could see the outline of my clavicle; my elbows stuck out and my wrist bones protruded. Throughout my school years, I was self-conscious of my spindly legs.
There was much speculation about my skinniness, particularly from outsiders. Was my Mom not feeding me enough? (She was a wonderful cook.) Was my father not earning enough? (He was a highly educated engineer with a very good job.) Was there something wrong with me? I seemed bright, happy, healthy, and yet …
For a long time in India, fat has meant good. For centuries the ideal Indian woman and child have been Rubenesque, with no visible bone structure. Statues of goddesses are well-rounded. Baby pictures of the god Krishna are cuddly. Even in the 1970’s the actress Sridevi, affectionately known as “Thunder Thighs,” used to say she would force herself to overeat in order to “maintain her figure” — the ample one her fans knew and adored.
Being fat is a sign of having made it, like having a Birkin bag. Being fat means you are rich enough to afford a lot of food and to avoid physical labor. Being fat means you’re well-loved and cared for, and perhaps all this ultimately links fatness to happiness. And conversely, being thin has meant being impoverished — economically, socially, cosmetically.
Now we are in the midst of a historical change in connotation: Being fat no longer means that you are prosperous, but rather that you don’t have the time, money or wherewithal to keep yourself in shape.
This change may be a result of globalization — a change in our perception of beauty to conform to a more Westernized image. Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar are just two of a growing list of international fashion magazines that publish Indian editions, all promoting the fashion ideal of thinness.
In most of the Indian movie industry, the deliciously plump actors and actresses of the 70’s and 80’s have been replaced by buff men and slender women. Kareena Kapoor is often pictured in the press with oohs and aahs, and only a lingering trace of condemnation — for being a size zero; she is one of Bollywood’s most sought-after actresses.
Over the past few years a number of slimming spas have cropped up, replete with “before and after” advertisements and special offers. And for those who don’t want to undergo the agonies of dieting and exercise, liposuction clinics are also on the rise.
It also may be the realization that obesity is a health problem. Over the past few years, a string of studies have consistently warned of rising obesity rates in India. While the poor continue to be plagued by malnutrition and anemia, the burgeoning middle class is suddenly able to afford a much better lifestyle. They no longer have to walk, cycle, or even take public transport to school, work or the market. They can eat as much as they wish — including Western junk food. The problem is concentrated in particular sections of the population and for different reasons: among private school children whose affluent parents want to give them everything money can buy; among young professionals with no time for exercise; and among middle-aged women who can now afford to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Last week was National Nutrition Week in India, where obesity joined malnutrition as a topic of discussion. Next week the United Nations General Assembly is meeting to focus on the obesity epidemic and how it’s fueling other chronic illnesses, like cardiac disease, diabetes and cancer.
Now, if only we can fully make the change in connotation — and completely break the bonds between being fat and being prosperous, between being fat and being beautiful, between being fat and being loved — we could take the necessary steps toward a healthier future.
By controlling obesity, we could not only prevent many of the diseases associated with it, we could also redirect our resources toward eradicating malnutrition and anemia. Along the way we may even generate new business opportunities — including a substantial fitness industry.
When an acquaintance complemented me recently upon my appearance — I was dressed in a sleeveless top and skirt — she gave me the Indian equivalent of “You’re looking good Girlfriend! Have you been working out?”
I smiled and casually displayed a skinny — I mean shapely — leg.
By Ranjani Iyer Mohanty, a writer and business/academic editor.