Fatness in Urban India: Desiring and Being Desired
This blog is the first of our series of blogs on the experience of fatness in urban India, and is written by Deeksha Tiwari.
Desires come and go within us, as they are constantly replaced by new ones. We are motivated by our desires, which give our lives meaning and purpose. We are so accustomed to desiring that we are not conscious of our desires or what drives them. If we were, we would understand that our desires are not really our own. One can have a desire for years without acknowledging it or even allowing it to come to their conscious awareness. Even if they make it to the consciousness, we can only claim very few as our own. Before we do, our desires have to comply with benchmarks like others’ perceptions of us, and values instilled in us consciously by our families or unconsciously through socializing, media, etc. In a way, the desires that we claim openly as our own are desires that this conditioning ‘allows’ us to have. Therefore, it is no surprise that the desire for fat in any form is considered forbidden.
To demonstrate; the Venetian botanist, Prospero Alpini, during his visit to Egypt, was beyond perplexed at how Egyptian ladies practised the “art of fattening” by injecting themselves with bran, sesame oil, and animal fat, among other methods. This, he explained, was a consequence of the Egyptian male’s lust and desire for the ‘fleshiest and fattest’ of women. He expressed his disapproval or rather, disgust to be precise, in the following words, “Can one desire anything more shameful than obesity acquired through the infamous vice of the flesh and of unchecked sensuality? This vice is so widespread down there that one sees most women flopped down on the ground like fat sows”.
Fat has seldom been seen as just body size and shape. It is seen as an embodiment of softness, licentiousness, laziness, corruption, greed, and several other moral flaws.
To admire or seek fatness is to transgress the unwritten yet widely accepted laws of virtue, harmony, and proportion that are the essential ideals of Western culture as a whole.
The “Fat Punchline” as portrayed in media
We rarely see fat bodies being considered sexually or romantically desirable in mainstream media. Moreover, being fat is often associated with many adjectives with negative connotations. A study found an inverse linear association between physical attractiveness and body mass index (BMI). The portrayal of fat people in the media as the non-desirable, non-sexual side character used for punchlines plays a huge role in why fatness is perceived as undesirable.
Domoff et al. studied the effects of reality television on weight bias by examining the show “The Biggest Loser”, a reality television program where participants compete to lose the most weight by following a strenuous fitness and dietary plan in order to earn $250,000. It is also among the most popularly rated shows watched by viewers between 18 and 49 years of age. The study had 59 participants (majority white females). The Biggest Loser was used as the experimental episode, and a nature reality show served as the control episode. Weight bias levels at baseline and after watching the episode (1 week later), were assessed. The study found that after being exposed to The Biggest Loser, participants reported considerably higher levels of dislike for overweight people and stronger beliefs that weight can be controlled. The study also discovered that viewers of The Biggest Loser who were not aiming to lose weight and had lower BMIs had considerably higher levels of dislike of overweight people than viewers with similar BMIs in the control condition.
As a teenager, the show ‘Friends’ was my first exposure to sitcoms and I vividly remember how unsettling the ‘fat Monica’ flashbacks were to me against the sound of the audience’s laughter. Monica’s weight loss was essentially her revenge on Chandler who found her ugly before but couldn’t keep his eyes off her after she lost all the weight. Her weight loss was the key to her happily ever after. It was the happy ending we all dream of.
Bollywood is riddled with similar instances. We all remember the cult favourite ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’. But when I think of it, the questionable portrayal of sibling tiffs between Rahul and Rohan in the first half of the movie comes to mind. Partly because I grew up being bullied by my brothers but mostly because there was no other dimension to young Rohan’s character except for being a punchline because of his weight. At least Rohan had a part to play in the second half after his “glow up” (read: weight loss).
Throughout ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’, Sweetu’s entire existence was a punchline. She was constantly berated by friends and family alike without the slightest aggravation. Her sister casually compared her to a double-decker bus and her supposed best friend, Naina casually told her that she won’t find any guy unless she loses weight.
To a teenager watching these not-so-subtle portrayals of fat bodies as nothing but objects of ridicule, the message couldn’t be clearer. It was very straightforward: If you wish to be attractive, to be noticed by someone and want to have a shot at romance, or even if you just wish to be treated with respect and not be constantly made fun of, don’t be fat. With such portrayal in the media, it isn’t a surprise that fat people often have no access to their desires. They are not just told that they are undesirable, but also that they’re unworthy of desiring anything or anyone else.
This portrayal of fat as a weakness of one’s moral character and social worth is incredibly harmful to fat people and the ways in which they perceive, understand, and engage with their bodies. There are ample instances of power imbalances in fat sexuality, based on the idea that fat bodies are so unlovable that they will settle for whatever morsel of attention is thrown toward them. Connected to the very social nature of desire and romance, often thin people’s sexual relationships with fat people are treated with a high degree of shame and secrecy.
The fetishization of Fatness
The meticulous conditioning that dictates that fat is not desirable does not extinguish the desirability of fat bodies, it just creates a taboo around it. Naturally, anyone who wishes to act on a taboo desire has to do so in secrecy to avoid the disapproval of those around them. This effectively reduces any form of fat desire into a forbidden fetish restricted to the bedroom. It has become almost impossible to talk about sexual intimacy as a fat person without the term “fat fetish” popping up like a dark cloud over our heads. It is either an intrusive thought in our heads or a remark made by someone “concerned” for our well-being. It is a confusing reality for fat people looking for any sort of relationship. While fetishes in general do not provoke such drastic reactions, when brought up concerning fatness, it has certain negative connotations.
Fat bodies being considered sexy and desirable in certain media might seem to empower at first, but this representation is mostly limited to fetish and pornography. Fat bodies are still excluded from romantic relationships, branded merely as objects of lust; unworthy of love and affection. Fat bodies, having been marginalised from discourses of beauty and desirability tend to settle for fetishism to explore or exhibit their sexuality.
While these experiences are traumatising and not uncommon, there is always a flip side. There is a possibility of a very natural and healthy attraction towards fat bodies without it being some pathological fetish.
People are quick to infer that anyone dating a person larger than themselves could only be doing so because of some fetish for fat bodies. Because someone who has the privilege that being pretty and thin entails, couldn’t possibly love someone fat unless they were a “chubby chaser”. These relationships are often dismissed as casual and purely sexual because people can’t seem to perceive a thin person wanting to have anything to do with a fat person unless it is a kink that remains hidden away in the bedroom.
Why is there no guilt/shame in being attracted to tall people, individuals with abs, biceps, chiselled jawlines, etc.? If a person lacks these qualities, it may not be a deal-breaker even if they may be positives. Similar to how a fat body may completely seduce some people, there may be other factors at play.
Fat people have long been alienated from their sexualities and navigating the same, both as an individual and with other fat people, can be a nerve-wracking experience. When we run on the assumption that any attraction to fat people stems from a pathological desire, we send a message that only thin people are deserving of and can experience affection that is not “adulterated” by fetish. The lack of a language to describe fat sexuality and desire beyond the language of fetish only adds to the stigma.
This is why it is increasingly important to bring visibility to and shape narratives of healthy, safe desire for and amongst fat bodies – to build counter-narratives that centre fat folks as active sexual and r0mantic agents with complex experiences and voices.
Thank you for reading this blog, which is the first of our series of blogs on the experience of fatness in urban India. This blog series is a part of our upcoming research study on Fatness in Urban India, focusing on building counter-power narratives on the experience of fatness in Mumbai; as well as developing an evidence base for documentation of the discrimination and oppression faced by fat people in urban India, with a focus on:
(1) built environments
(2) health and medical infrastructure
(3) careers – educational institutions and workplaces
(4) intimacies and interpersonal relationships
Further, we hope to document the ways in which fat people embody different physical-emotional conditions. Finally, we hope to use this research study to co-create recommendations for changing norms, policies and infrastructure to meet the needs of fat people in urban India.
To become a part of this study, please consider participating in our data collection process by giving us 30-45 minutes of your time in an interview. To learn more about the process, check if you are eligible and to sign up, please visit: bit.ly/OFC_Fatness_Study.
Breaking Down the Roots of Anti-Fat Bias
The Performance Of Fatness
The Joy of Movement – Conditions Applied