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.
Uncuff India Episode 7: Resisting gender-based violence by armed forces
Resting in the Resistance of Poetry
3 Questions from SAHELI’s ‘Building a Brighter Future’ panel