The Performance Of Fatness

This blog is the third of our series of blogs on the experience of fatness in urban India, and is written by Deeksha Tiwari.

Content warning: mention of disordered eating, anti-fat bias

Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, i.e., that gender is a social role performed by individuals and validated and approved by society, provided a fresh lens for perceiving gender. While their theory specifically discusses gender, it has a certain universality to it that can be applied to a plethora of other identities including the fat identity. According to anthropologist Victor Turner, repeated performances are necessary for social action. This repetition serves as both a reenactment and a re-experiencing of a set of socially established meanings; it is the routine and ritualized way in which they are legitimized. 

Being fat in today’s world is like living under a microscope since every action is scrutinized with the binary lens of ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. In addition to being monitored by non-fat people, fat bodies undergo scrutiny by themselves and other fat people as a result of the internalization of this scrutiny. 

For a fat person, there seem to be only two roles to play: a ‘good’ fat person or a ‘bad’ one.  

Being a ‘good’ fat person involves following an elaborate list of dos and don’ts. There are rules to be followed and mannerisms to be observed. In a way, it is quite similar to being in a play. Every waking moment has to be a performance, carefully portrayed within the boundaries of the script, which in this case is the list of dos and don’ts. And just like a play, there are critics, voicing their approval or disapproval, waiting for you to ‘slip up’ so they can tell you the many ways you are not living right. Unlike plays though, the critics of fat people’s lives are mostly unwarranted and quite often unqualified.

This performance of fatness is indoctrinated through different mediums until it becomes second nature. From stereotypical media portrayals to the constant policing of fat bodies done by families and friends, it is made clear that the only somewhat acceptable way to exist as a fat person is to always play the part of the ‘good’ one. Gemma Gibson describes this performance as a “rhetoric of innocence which seeks to absolve fat people of the ‘blame’ for their fat bodies.” So as long as you play the part of the apologetic and guilty fat person doing everything in your power to change your body, you remain innocent of your fatness. Naturally, a fat person that refuses to put on this performance becomes the ‘bad’ one.

How to be a ‘good’ fat person – scrutinizing fat bodies using the ‘health’ lens 

To play the part of a ‘good’ fat person, you must have certain qualities. The foremost requirement is that you live a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. Now, the term healthy has very different and ambiguous connotations for fat people than it has for non-fat people. For a non-fat person, it mostly means eating nutritious meals and getting some exercise and movement for your body. Even then this is very negotiable as most non-fat people go about living their lives as they please without raising any concerns. For a fat person though, it seems as if being ‘healthy’ is not an option. It is something that is expected of them owing to their fatness. Being ‘healthy’ for fat people includes doing anything and everything (not excluding starving yourself) to not be fat.

This obsessive need to assess the health of bodies, especially fat bodies, and then deduce their worth is extremely dehumanizing. The Body Mass Index (BMI) continues to be a widely used metric by health professionals and people to assess the health of individuals despite having been found to be incredibly inaccurate. As per this assessment, fat automatically equals unhealthy. According to researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, BMI is an unreliable indicator of body fat content because it ignores factors like muscle mass, bone density, overall body composition, and differences between racial and gender groups. An alternative was proposed by Dr. Margaret Ashwell, to assess and predict health risks like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. She suggested that the waist-to-height ratio is a better predictor of these than BMI.

On the flip side, there is the idea that people of all sizes can be in good health, even fat people. In this case, health indicators like blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, etc. are mainly used to assess the level of health. Going by this metric of evaluation, if you’re not fat but unhealthy, you’ll be told that you can do better, but it won’t likely result in discrimination and marginalization. Consequently, if you are fat but otherwise healthy, you are somewhat acceptable but still not immune to bias and prejudice around fat bodies. But what if you are fat and unhealthy? Is being unhealthy such a monumental failure that you no longer deserve respect or rights? 

Does fatness glorify obesity?

News flash: Just existing as a fat person is not promoting or glorifying ANYTHING. 

If you are not a fat person, there are very high chances that you can get away with eating a pizza without people telling you that it is unhealthy or that you are ‘promoting obesity.’ A fat person in the same scenario, however, has a much higher chance of being accused of ‘promoting unhealthy lifestyles’ and even being told that they do not deserve to live at all.

Fat people simply existing outside the role of the good fat person is always seen as glorifying being unhealthy and is met with severe backlash. Remember the photo of American singer, rapper and flutist, Lizzo, in a bikini that went viral? All the unwarranted comments (mostly hateful) calling her gross, unhealthy and accusing her of “eating herself to death” and promoting/glorifying obesity was in response to her just existing unbothered on a beach as a fat person in a bikini. It is also pertinent to note that the hate and backlash that Lizzo received were aggravated by racism. In an interview, Sabrina Strings, author of “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” said that health concerns are not the source of fatphobia. As per her research, fatphobia in the West was rooted in Protestantism and the Transatlantic slave trade. Black people were believed to be “sensuous and thus prone to sexual and oral excesses.” Protestantism promoted moderation in all pleasures and as a result by the early 19th century, obesity was seen as a sign of immorality and racial inferiority, especially in the United States.

Another interesting thing to note is that Lizzo wasn’t even the one to post those photos. Page six just posted the pictures on their Twitter account with the caption “Lizzo rocks tiny red bikini beachside during Brazilian vacation” and all hell broke loose.

Fig: An example of one of the several hate comments under the photo, which individually, has garnered close to 3,000 likes.

Anti-fat bias and popular culture

Another significant characteristic of a good fat person, is their willingness to happily accept any and all comments, criticisms, and opinions regarding their bodies at any given point in time. It is irrelevant if these are opinions shrouded as health concerns, constructive criticism, or straight-up hateful comments telling you you’re worthless. As a good fat person, you have a responsibility to take it all as feedback. 

A ‘good’ fat person must also have a sense of humor about being fat to take jokes about their bodies in ‘good spirit’. We have often seen fat people being the butt of the joke, like in FRIENDS with ‘fat Monica’ or more recently in Avengers, with fat Thor. In the media, writers can do better than using the old, “I used to be fat, ugly, and sad,” storyline like they did for Monica on FRIENDS or Schmidt on New Girl. The shift from the ‘ugly and sad fat person’ happened to result in the ‘fat sidekick with too much personality to make up for their looks,’ like fat Amy from Pitch Perfect. In all these iterations, fat people are just expected to be laughed at and laugh with the person making the joke. A study in 2010 shows that fat people feel pressure to be charismatic and funny to compensate for their ‘failed’ bodies. Like Amy from Pitch-Perfect, some fat people feel like they have to use humor to make fun of themselves and their bodies to prevent others from doing so.

Surveillance of Fat Bodies

Fat bodies are discussed and monitored from a young age. In some schools, children are publicly weighed during their physical education period and depending on the weight, are asked to ‘take action’ (lose weight) accordingly. This creates an early awareness that weight is a ‘problem’ and needs to be fixed. 

Non-fat people feel like they have the authority to monitor fat people and it is disguised under concern. The holiday season can be a minefield of uncomfortable feelings and awkward interactions as it is filled with diet culture, food guilt, and anti-fat bias. It’s a lot harder to eat, drink, and be joyful when dealing with people commenting negatively about weight or food choices. On the one hand, we become obsessed with food and at the same time, social attitudes towards calorie counting and weight loss are at an absolute high. The idea that fat people, in particular, should be especially careful not to consume ‘too much’ food is usually at an all-time high.

Fat people also try to compensate for negative stereotypes by working harder to make a good impression at work.  In a study by Amsterdam and Eck conducted on people who self-identify as fat, they found that fat people had to work the extra mile for their work to be seen as more legitimate. Many fat people feel the need to overcompensate for the stereotype of the ‘dumb, lazy and unkempt fat person’. By putting extra effort into their work performance and appearance, fat people try to show others that fat people are indeed capable of delivering outstanding output and can look professional. This can be via spending extra time on their appearance, working extra, and performing harder for lesser rewards. 

Another way that fat bodies are monitored is via social media. According to the  Vice President of the Adult Performers Actors Guild (APAG), “Instagram has an algorithm that detects and flags photos featuring over “60% skin.” The intention may have been to censor images that are inappropriate but the algorithm negatively impacts larger-bodied Instagram users. It inadvertently monitors fat bodies and makes them inaccessible. Refinery29 and Getty Images launched their 67% Project in 2017, which acknowledged that although 67% of women are plus-size, they make up less than 2% of the images we see. 

All this external monitoring can lead to fat people developing the habit of self-monitoring as a coping mechanism so as to not be judged or commented on by people externally. Self-monitoring is a very common practice that has been made a part of the fat culture as a weight loss method. When fat people self-monitor, the one quality that they have to show is restraint. Whether it be in their personality, food choices, or clothing and lifestyle choices. Any and all decisions have to be influenced by the need to get thin and be ‘healthy’. Studies show that self-monitoring, when born from a place of shame and judgment, negatively impacts the individual.  

The irony is that most of the time, being a ‘good’ fat person also isn’t enough. It’s as if our existence until then has been a waste of space because we’ve been taking up so much of it. We are constantly made to explain ourselves and our lifestyle choices. The more fat people give of themselves, the more society wants to take. This give and take is never-ending. The reality is that the more we compromise on being ourselves and not performing, the more rules-explicit and implicit, trends, advice, concern, and unsolicited help, are going to be aimed at us. 

These demands reveal much more about our society’s expectations of, projections of, and entitlement to fat bodies than they reveal about fat people ourselves. These demands are overwhelmingly created in a vacuum, away from the actual lived experiences of fat people, or any of our stated needs. Too often, fat people shoulder the burden of navigating these many, complicated, conflicting demands. It is therefore important for fat people to have communities and spaces where they can feel like they can freely be themselves without feeling like they have to perform and be a certain kind of fat. These communities can not only offer the much-needed solidarity but also a space for fat joy, fat love, fat pleasure and the entire gamut of fat experiences.


Thank you for reading this blog, which is the third 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:

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice

Cityscapes I The Need for Gendered Urban Planning


World over, there is immense urbanisation and cities are becoming increasingly complex. In the case of cities becoming even more of a focal point of development and growth, it is important to refocus on issues of urban planning. We have an inadequate number of urban planners world over, especially in India, where we have only 1 urban planner for 4,00,000 persons. We see that there isn’t enough conversation around urban planning and that cities continue to be seen as sites of exploitation rather than as possible sites of inclusive and sustainable development. The challenge is such that the Sustainable Development Goals list ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ as one of its seventeen goals. This column, Cityscapes, intends to examine various aspects of urban planning and sustainable cities and communities.

Gender sensitive urban planning. Unitarian Universalist Association.

Planning without accounting for gender issues cannot allow for effective social inclusion and socio-economic transformation. The lack of such planning can and does lead to reduced mobility of women and persons of other genders, reduced independence and autonomy, restriction from the use of certain services and from equal access to education and employment. It also doesn’t allow for women to benefit from public spaces and green spaces as freely, owing to concerns of sexual violence and harassment.

The needs of different genders can be starkly different and the way cities are currently designed and envisioned only account for male interactions and experiences in and of a city. However, gender inclusive planning is increasingly becoming a more important feature of municipal planning and budgeting.

How we currently plan our cities

Cities and how they are planned do not necessarily come to mind when we think of issues of gender justice. In an urban space various facets of gender inequality intersect to create a larger systemic problem: there exist underlying power dynamics between genders; unequal division of labour, overburdening of women when urban utilities aren’t provided for adequately; vastly different patterns of ownership of, and access to, housing, medical facilities, connectivity, transport, and public spaces, and space in general.

How and why women access spaces differently

Women access spaces in urban areas quite differently from men. From the mode of transport they use to the route they take is varied from that of men. Women take more buses and they also take more complex routes of travel everyday – owing to the multiple functions they fulfil. All women have a higher onus of child and family care, resultantly they need to access facilities for such care and other services more frequently. The book, Why Loiter, by Shilpa Phadke and others, also encapsulates how women always seem to access public spaces with a purpose and never to just ‘loiter’. Their access of spaces outside of their home is more purpose-driven.

Pandemic sexual violence and street harassment are key reasons that guide women’s patterns of usage of public spaces. Financial autonomy and ownership of assets (for example, a car or bike) also determines what spaces they can access without the presence of a male family member. The driving factors behind the use of and access to spaces by women is also often compulsion and not choice. Women heading households in urban poor families are majorly found to be doing so because of lack of land and property ownership for women in rural areas. Their use of these living spaces is determined by systemic barriers of unequal property and inheritance rights.

These are some among multiple patterns of how women access spaces differently in cities.

What would a city planned to meet these needs look like?

This is an introductory exploration of what a city designed to meet these needs would look like and what practices it would follow — these needs would vary with different intersecting identities and would evolve with time and locations. Some examples would be:

  1. The city would provide for transport services along routes and locations frequented by non-male persons as well, last mile connectivity would include connecting routes used non-male persons — which would mean going beyond traditional understanding of major commute routes as routes taken for work or male focused leisure purposes. This would also mean changing the way public transport is scheduled and how modes of mobility like walking and cycling would have to account for safety measures for non-male persons to access them freely.
  2. Safety measures would be more hyper localized and designed in keeping with the needs of non-male persons – this could include better lighting and patrolling on routes frequented for family care work and everyday errands in localities to the presence of emergency phones and alarm systems in public spaces;
  3. Housing design would include the safety and design needs of non-male persons, from better security systems, gender neutral washrooms, public safety alarm mechanisms, to the presence of childcare services – this aspect can be integrated into each design feature.
  4. Family care and child care would have evolved to being provided by the state, ensuring women have as much freedom to participate in the economic workforce as they like. This example of Quebec, highlighting the role of affordable childcare provisions by the state in keeping young mothers in the workforce – is indicative of this, albeit with limitations.
  5. Zoning, i.e. how areas of a city are designated for specific purposes, would ensure mixed usage to allow for women to have access to services and leisure activities in affordable and safe locations near where they live — without meaning that the cost of such housing would disallow single women access.

What steps can we take towards this?

  1. Data collection and disaggregation that accounts for gender specific needs and ensures correction of gender biases in data collection. This would also mean impact assessment that focuses on gendered impact for all governmental action;
  2. Accounting for these gender specific needs in the budget, not only as a separate section of the budget but by mainstreaming it into the entire budget – for example taking gender into account when thinking of policies related to health, housing, education, lighting, transport, etc.
  3. Encouraging political participation by non male persons, by way of reservations or otherwise;
  4. Encouraging non male citizenship participation: as voters, voting blocs, members of various citizen groups and so on;
  5. More non male urban planners would help bring varied lived experiences, changing how cities are planned.

Unfortunately, a major drawback here is that gender inclusive planning invariably means planning for women even today. It primarily consists of accounting for needs of women in urban planning and barely focuses on the needs of persons that do not identify as male or female or are non cisgender.

It is imperative that, to create cities that are sustainable and inclusive, we understand the role gender plays in the everyday life of an individual — from their learned norms, roles and responsibilities — to the functions they then carry out in their personal lives and the spaces they occupy, as a result of these learnt behaviours. While deconstructing these social norms is important, it is equally important to create spaces that account for the needs of different genders to ensure that all persons are able to derive the same use and enjoyment of, and access to, cities and their benefits — notwithstanding their gender.

Vandita Morarka is the Founder CEO of One Future Collective.

Featured image: RSAA

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice

Living Walls — A Solution to Reclaim Our Spaces


Working towards greener and cleaner tomorrows.


One can walk under a cacophony of trees in certain areas of Mumbai, but I believe that this will only be for a few more years. I lived in a quiet area consisting mainly of 3 to 4 storeyed buildings before the beginning of uncontrolled development in the city. There was a time when I would stare up from a distance and see the clear blue sky, or yellow gulmohars in the distance. Now, all that is left are cranes and skyscrapers. Apart from the fact that the disorganized popping up of buildings is ruining whatever aesthetic value the city has left, the other major consequence of this development is the reduction in green spaces in Mumbai and other urban cities. However, with the current increase in the rate of population, especially in a city like Bombay, the urban sprawl cannot be escaped.

Now that urbanization has and continues to take up most of the space around us, green walls i.e. living walls seem to be a solution for the coexistence of green spaces in the city and the need for development with the growing population. Green walls, revolutionized by a French Botanist called Patrick Blanc, are plants grown on walls and other structures through scientific methods. Currently, they are the best bet in boosting limited spaces. Green walls make reforestation and green living possible within the confines of an urban city.

It is a well-researched fact that trees and plants are good for a person’s psychological and physiological health; from lowering stress levels to improving the immune systems. Studies have proven the effect of indoor plants on stress hormones. Phytoncide is a compound derived from plants, which seems to improve immune system functions. In fact, in 1982, Japan made Forest Bathing a part of their national public health program.

                                                                                         Photo Credit: IndiaMart

The most important benefit of having green walls is curbing air pollution. Plants improve indoor air quality and clear the air of harmful toxins and dust. Since the past few years, an increasing number of countries are experiencing hotter summers with every passing year; it will continue to get worse. Heat waves are increasing health problems, causing a general change in the working abilities and mental state of people, making them angrier and exhausted during summers, and even causing deaths. An abundance of trees and plants can lower temperatures making the city cooler. A primary school in Singapore created a vertical green wall in the school to educate its students about global warming. This green wall reduced the temperature in the school by 2 to 3 degrees.

How one can grow a vertical garden at home is explained well by Selina Sen in her article here. Most of us know about the added benefits of having plants at home, but we rarely consider the benefits of having them in our city. Individually taking up the initiative of growing living walls at home is wonderful but to reap the benefits of this concept, we need more than just in-house gardening. The true effects of this novel initiative will only be seen when there is implementation at a local and nationwide level.

Other countries have already begun making these ‘green walls’ a part of their major cities. Sydney is working on a Green Roofs and Walls Policy Implementation Plan. In Singapore, the Urban Redevelopment Authority provides incentives to builders for creating green spaces. Airports are installing green walls to ensure better journeys. Architects around the world have embraced green walls and built urban structures and buildings which have vertical gardens. It is critical that in a tropical country like India which has really begun to feel the effects of global warming, such an initiative needs to be strongly encouraged.

That being said, it is heartening to know that in India, multiple cities have taken the initiative to build living walls, Bengaluru being the first. Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Mumbai have incorporated the concept by building vertical gardens and living walls on pillars under flyovers. Environmentalists, botanists, architects and lawmakers can and must come together and learn from other models in the world and thus work together to reclaim our disregarded spaces.


Feature Image Credit: Stefano Boeri Architetti


Shivangi Adani is a Volunteer Researcher at One Future Collective.

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice