Over the ages, the human body has remained much the same – a head, four limbs (generally), and a torso is our rough shape. However, conception of the ideal body has varied wildly through history. Between 1500-1900, corpulence was in, and one only need examine the voluptuous women depicted in baroque paintings to understand that the benchmark for beauty has shifted significantly.
Early Hollywood and Bollywood (1950s-1980s) show curvaceous women with slim waists – the hourglass figure. In the 1990s, the surprising trend of skinny, slender, and pale women arose, titled ‘heroin’ chic. Over the past several decades, trends have increasingly moved away from substantial figures and ‘healthy’ bodies. As the sanctimonious ‘Sima aunty’ from reality web show Indian Matchmaking emphasised, slim and tall is desirable.
With the advent of social media, we are inundated with images of willowy, tall, graceful women without an ounce of fat on them. When we look at ourselves in the mirror and see a reflection that is very distant from this almost androgynous ideal, we feel a deep shame about our bodies. There has never been a worse time to be curvy, or overweight, or even normal weight. Regardless of whether you are fat or skinny, it is important to combat fatphobia to erase harmful expectations.
Introspect and understand your own revulsion
If you are in denial about being fatphobic, you can’t combat it. Examine your own feelings about your body and those of others. What thoughts cross your mind when you see a fat person? Are they different from those when you see a thin person? What attributes of yourself and other people do you find attractive? What do you find repulsive? Our inner landscape of body-shaming being projected onto the outside world is one of the main reasons for fatphobia, and this understanding is therefore vital.
A lot of fatphobia is not overt; it is buried in our unconscious mind and should therefore be actively extracted and confronted.
Understand why fatphobia is harmful
The concept of an ‘ideal’ body might not seem harmful in isolation. It’s the repercussions of deviating from this ideal that are toxic. If everybody is expected to look a particular way, each person that doesn’t, feels inferior and lacking. It is psychologically distressing and a trigger for severe mental illnesses.
Body-shaming and fatphobia are omnipresent. Almost all of us bear feelings of revulsion and shame in relation to obesity and even normal bodies. If we are overweight, we hate ourselves. If we are skinny, we hate others (and sometimes ourselves). Lower abdominal fat, chubby arms, fleshy backs, thick thighs, and every little part of us that might be the slightest bit excessive becomes disgusting. Obese people are completely alienated from the language of sexuality and desire, and are commonly fetishized. This is not only problematic in a personal context, it is also a bias that needs to be combated professionally. Fat people are automatically assumed to be slower, lazy, and inefficient, and have to fight this perception to be considered at par with their skinny counterparts.
Understand the double standards
Recently, a friend of mine expressed anger over a plus sized model, Tess Holiday, gracing the cover of a fashion magazine. He was furious that a magazine was promoting and glamourising obesity, and that it might inspire people to follow suit. He was representative of a large number of people that saw the magazine cover, and couched their revulsion and shock at a ‘fat’ body as a health concern. Women with hollowed out cheekbones and protruding ribs, some healthy and some anorexic, are almost always on the covers of fashion magazines, and nobody bats an eyelid. Obesity is real and obese people constitute part of our population – why should they not be represented? Being overweight myself, I definitely did not feel inspired to eat the next burger. Even if I was, does that mean obese people simply should be cut out of the sphere of influencers?
Initiate or participate in a dialogue
Through this discussion about Tess Holiday, I was able to get my friend to admit his fat-hate. I was able to come to terms with my own fatphobia. Speaking with people that exhibit fatphobia helps both parties counter their biases. Use dialogue to build body-positivity and inclusivity for all shapes and figures. That’s far more productive than counter shaming, and actively promotes mental health.
Fat jokes are almost always tasteless. There is no wit to it, the joke is that somebody is fat. It stigmatises obesity and being overweight but if anybody objects, they are seen as being bad sports. It is very important to shut this down and be sensitive to the feelings of all listeners. The problem is the same with skinny-shaming – there is no type of body that is inherently a joke. It’s an attack on a person’s physique and can damage mental health, and humour can’t be an excuse for this.
Do not give unsolicited advice
Approaching a person who is overweight to encourage them to lose weight or to provide tips on how to lose weight is not helpful. If you are asked for advice, feel free to dispense it sensitively. But initiating this conversation makes the concerned person self-conscious. It also indicates that you see their obesity in a negative light and as something that needs to be fixed. If you are truly concerned about the person, be supportive and considerate because being overweight is enough of a cross to bear.
It is surprising and tragic that the concept of an ‘ideal’ body can be so toxic, exclusionary, and damaging. Body-image related depression and anxiety are on the rise, especially among young adults. It is extremely important that media diversifies images that we are subjected to in order to ensure inclusivity and thereby reduce discrimination.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)