3 Questions from SAHELI’s ‘Building a Brighter Future’ panel

At One Future Collective, our work is based on developing the leadership capacities of people and communities, towards enabling them to access their rights. Participating in conversations that centre key communities needing, and capable of propelling, structural change are therefore crucial in our journey to nurturing social justice leadership. 

Our founder and CEO, Vandita Morarka, was a panelist on a panel titled ‘Building a brighter future: How do we empower young girls in our society?’. This panel was hosted by the Navi Mumbai Hub of the Global Shapers Community for their project SAHELI, and Teach for India, on September 16, 2023. 

To learn more about the specific objectives of this panel, and to get to know the panelists alongside Vandita, visit here

For a recording of the panel on YouTube, watch here

The panel discussed the importance of preserving the choices of young girls, approaching the issue of agency resulting from education and employment with nuance, how the patriarchy is upheld in the everyday, such as through the ‘tabooing’ of menstruation. Read below to learn about our key lessons from this series.


  • What does the patriarchy have to do with it?

Opening the conversation, panelist Prabha Vilas, founder and CEO of Work for Equality, discussed, with statistical evidence, the ‘double challenge’ of gender- and caste-based discrimination she faced in her journey as a first generation learner from a marginalised background. Panelist Samrudhi, who is a student working with Work for Equality, illustrated patriarchal oppression in the home in both rural and urban contexts through restrictions on women’s mobility and access to choice. Radhika Dhingra, founder of Badlaav Social Reform Foundation, further discussed how the patriarchy informs the physical, emotional and socio-cultural impact of menstruation on young women, leading to poor self-image, reduced self-confidence and physical and social mobility (through education and employment outcomes) for them. Vandita agreed, adding that oppression has multiple, changing agents – family members, caste groups, etc. The complex nature of power, she noted, can make it so that a group that may be marginalised in its own communities can be oppressive to others, stating the example of women from oppressor castes, who can perpetuate oppression not only to men and women from oppressed castes but also within their own families, to younger women. They also highlighted how patriarchal and other oppression need not always be active – sometimes, even the silence or inaction of those in positions of power can lead to continued oppression. They also gave examples of ‘patriarchy in small things’. 


  • Who are the key stakeholders in this process?

Through the discussion, the panelists identified three main stakeholder categories in the process of building a future for young girls: systems, communities, and the self. Vandita outlined this difference as being one of impact –  while personal reflection and growth in understanding one’s rights and the processes of accessing them is important, ‘no amount of personal training can change a system’. 

Prabha also highlighted the role of governments as an institution which are crucial to empowering young girls. Are policies written only on paper, or are they also executed for people? They stressed the importance of girl-led, girl-centered advocacy to improve how systems and communities see and engage with women – do people really want young girls to do better, if they are uncomfortable at the idea of women actually doing better and becoming ‘too’ loud, ‘too’ educated, occupying ‘too much’ space?

Vandita underscored the role of communities like families in building ecosystems of support around young girls – their experiences do not need to be understood in order to stand by them, ensure that their trust isn’t violated, and preserve their agency over their own bodies and circumstances. They also called the home the ‘last barrier’, and spotlighted One Future Collective’s Ghar Ki Baat campaign. 

Samrudhi discussed the role of the self in future-building – ‘No one will listen to us, unless we speak!’ She also highlighted the importance of building identities for the self and for one’s communities over time. Prabha agreed, talking about young girls traversing the journey from, ‘What can I do?’ to ‘I can do anything!’ 


  • What levels does change need to be actioned at?

Apart from the changes needed from the stakeholder categories identified above, the panelists also stressed the importance of changing our priorities in the conversation around social justice. 

Vandita talked about the role and space for men and boys in such future-building: they talked about how programs that engage men to address the harm done to them by patriarchal systems need to be differentiated from those for young girls and other gender minorities. Finally, they shared that the conversations around ‘including’ men in agenda setting for the empowerment of young women should focus on the need for men to be comfortable with letting go of power. If there is a fear of men having less power as a result of women having more, Vandita asked, then is it really about empowering women? Can more seats not be built around the table, if there aren’t enough?       

Radhika talked about the need for naming our taboos and confronting what about a subject makes it taboo. Similarly, Prabha expressed anger at the prescriptions communities and systems place on young girls like their behaviour, actions, attitudes, appearance – for young girls to reflect on their conditions and organise for action, they must have access to spaces that nurture radical thought and reflections on changework. Samrudhi shared how Work for Equality creates such spaces.  


What are your key questions when building a future for young girls?

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

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: bit.ly/OFC_Fatness_Study

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

The Joy of Movement – Conditions Applied

This blog is the second of our series of blogs on the experience of fatness in urban India, and is written by Vallari Shivkumar.

I want you to close your eyes and picture someone dancing, someone on a jog, someone on a stage, and lastly someone moving through grocery aisles. What do these people look like to you? What aspect of a person do you first consider when you think of movement? If it was all thin-bodied people –  why did this happen? 

As a fat person, my brain also pictures ‘thin’ people in these scenarios. The thin body as an ideal standard has become so normalized, that we picture a specific type of body performing certain actions like, people walking, and dancing. running, swimming, or people at the gym.


The Pervasive Fat Identity

I did not know fat was an identity until it was directed towards me as I grew up. One day it stuck and stayed and started to look like not being able to find clothes my size anymore, being picked last in sports teams, and being teased about it. It soon became a term others used and it felt like more than just a descriptor. It felt like a character assessment, a negative one. 

Fatness as an experience doesn’t occur in isolation. It affects multiple aspects of a person’s being and life experiences. The body has always been a topic discussed in public and private spheres.  Human bodies have been conceptualized, illustrated, re-presented, explained, and interpreted politically for centuries. Different material cultures lived it differently, used different technologies, medical interventions, scientific expectations, and cultural controls, and incorporated it into different production and consumption patterns.

Fat people are reminded of their ‘fatness’ constantly and made to feel like that is all of who we are and that our value is associated with how our body looks. It becomes the first thing we have to acknowledge about ourselves. For example, a fat person exists in class not just as a student but also as someone who is fat and is constantly made aware of that. The size of chairs and tables is uniform to a thin body and as we grow up the space we occupy starts becoming quite visible. Every time a fat person sits on a table and someone makes a “careful, it’ll break under your weight” remark, and every time one has to squeeze themselves sideways because the passage isn’t wide enough as we move between rows of chairs and tables that are not built for someone like us.  People give dirty looks when a fat body asks to share a seat on trains or buses. Research shows that people feel anxious, dissatisfied, and out of place when their clothes are too small or their seating is too tight. There is a double consciousness of identity that occurs. This double consciousness refers to a person living their identity as a student and living their identity as a fat person reinforced via different agents of socialization as well as institutionally. 

Even spaces that are meant to be fun, can feel restricting. Places like amusement parks and trampoline parks have weight limits that exclude a  part of the population on the basis of their body type. Amusement parks have seats and belts that don’t always fit bigger bodies.  Trampoline parks in India have varying weight limits from the lowest being  85kgs to the highest of 150kgs. For amusement parks, the seats and belts can often be not big enough for fat people. For example, Aqua Imagica has weight limits for specific rides whereas Imagica does not mention weight limits but has height limits for specific rides. It is essential to add weight limits as it is necessary for the safety of the individual and it is also necessary to examine and acknowledge how these manufacturer designs make these spaces inaccessible to fat people that make up 23%  of the Indian population. 


To Move Or Not To Move?

Active Movement as a fat person is a whole other ball game. There is a difference in perception of a fat person moving vs a non-fat person moving. The assumption is that a fat person moves to get ‘thin’. Whereas, a non-fat person is free to have a multitude of purposes. Even if a fat person actively moves for a different purpose, fat movement is always met with stares and opinions, either to point out flaws or to say that our movement should be for one purpose only: to get thin.  For fat people, there is pressure to fit societal norms and to move but it is dictated by what others think fat people should be doing. Developing a healthy relationship with movement becomes challenging. This creates a vicious cycle of  dilemma about ‘am I moving my body to get thin?’ or ‘am I moving my body so that I can take care of it and understand it better?.’ I am unsure of my motives because I experience the way my body gets treated vs the idealized ‘thin’ body gets treated. 

When people see a fat body, they automatically assume its function is faulty. What is it about squishy and jiggly bits in a body that garners that reaction? Why does a body that may not be fast or flexible undeserving of space and access to movement spaces? 

These questions perplexed me as I engaged in my preferred form of movement over the years- dance. Dancing has always been something I’m passionate about but my journey with dance hasn’t always been the easiest. As much as I find joy in it now, there have been moments associated with this form of movement and expression that have led me to believe that my body isn’t the right kind of body for dance. I have had instructors ask me to lose weight, make me stand at the back during a performance, and ask me to switch to a different style because my body can’t make clean lines while dancing or if I told relatives that I have joined a dance class they would always comment on how it would help me lose weight. I may not have been the best dancer, but most of the time, the comments made had more to do with my body than they did with my actual dancing ability. It led me to believe that I can only dance well if I have a specific body type, which was ‘thin’. Now, I dance because it helps me connect with myself, it’s a creative outlet, and it is also a form of movement that helps me connect with people around me. In the dance industry, there is a hierarchy of body types that exists. For example,  Ballet as a style demands and perpetuates a certain body type that is ideal for dance. It took time and my on-and-off relationship with dance and my body to fix itself. Perceptions like these have led to fat people shrinking themselves and not going after things and opportunities they may want to because the belief is that their body doesn’t move the way it is supposed to.  

For fat people, movement is a double-edged sword, if you do it people have opinions, and if you don’t do it people have even more opinions. Hatred and insults are passed as thinly veiled comments of concern. When fat people dare to work out in public, we’re ridiculed at best and harassed at worst. Ironically enough, movement is considered crucial to a fat person’s very existence and validity as a person.  The lack of movement is considered the core cause of fatness. This belief led to Zerodha– an organization launching health-based initiatives in their organization that monetarily incentivize a calorie loss program and a low BMI. The issue with this is that, even though the intent may have been to promote movement at work from home during the pandemic, the relationship between movement and health is skewed when it is measured via calories and BMI. BMI is a flawed way to measure health. Incentivizing a measure of health that is inaccurate leads to an unhealthy relationship being created with one’s body and exercise and spreads misinformation about what is actually healthy. 

There’s a lot of privilege associated with fitness; it takes time, money, and access that most people don’t have. Most fat people don’t go to gyms or exercise classes, even if they really want to because they have to jump a lot of hurdles and more just to get there. It is widely believed that fat people are lazy and ignorant, and simply don’t want to get up from the couch and do some physical activity because they are too lazy and ignorant. A nationwide survey in America by the International Health, Racquet, And Sportsclub Association found that about a third of the respondents said they were too intimidated to work out at a gym. Most treadmills (as well as bikes, stair climbers, and other gym gear) have weight limits between 90kg and 140kg. Also, activewear is scarce, and it doesn’t come in plus sizes (Nike added plus sizes in 2017). Fat people aren’t being kept out because of their fatness, but because of anti-fat bias.


No Space To Fit In

Even though people tell us to lose weight, they don’t want us in their spaces, which includes pretty much anywhere but our own homes. Even after one does make peace with moving their body, for whatever reason, the issue of ‘space’ still stands. Spaces that encourage movement feel inaccessible because it feels like there is a set standard to what is acceptable in those spaces like public parks, gyms, pools, playgrounds, and fitness and movement classes. It‘s extremely intimidating to enter a space in which one feels like one doesn’t belong and is occupying too much space simply by existing. Research has indicated that fat people often cope with such experiences by simply excluding themselves from sports and exercise. 

Fat people, alongside all others, have been pushed to believe that fat people are unlovable, undesirable, and should not be seen or heard. They’re there to talk about, not to be talked to. It’s only natural that people who are fat would look ‘brave ‘if they saw, wore clothes, ate in public, and participated in public life the same way non-fat people do. It is exhausting to be considered ‘brave’ when one is just trying to live their life. ‘Brave’ is not awe, it is a reminder that fat people existing and living their life is an anomaly. I just want to live my life without constantly worrying about how my body is going to inconvenience the world around me.

There is a need for changes to make it conducive for fat people to have access to space and movement. For example, athletic wear for fat people, policies against weight discrimination, educating/training to check and acknowledge anti-fat bias for teachers, instructors, and trainers, and support groups and circles where people with similar body types can move together. Physical–spatial cues can create exclusion, but the effects of these are aggravated when combined with an apparent lack of sympathy or understanding from the audience watching the physical struggle. It is important to create awareness around the structural needs of fat people and accommodate for those needs in manufacturer designs. As Aubrey Gordon (Your Fat Friend) author and activist put it best,  my body may stay fat, but it will not stay still. 


Thank you for reading this blog, which is the second 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

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