A dietitian once advised me to eat a single packet of Maggi for dinner every night to achieve a one-kilo-a-week weight-loss goal. There was no obscuring the fact that this plan disregarded nutrition and focused entirely on calorie restriction, requiring the consumption of no more than 1,200 calories a day (it is widely recommended that the daily calorie intake for an adult woman should be around 2,000 calories). In retrospect, I realise that the meal plan I was dutifully following was leaving me undernourished and unhealthy, albeit encased in a smaller body.
In our diet-focused world, body-shaming figures in conversations on screens large and small—it echoes in complaints around the dinner table or on the phone with friends, it’s plastered across magazine covers and, most alarmingly, it rings with clarity in our own heads. The idea that the size of your body determines your social worth is not foreign to a culture that routinely posts matrimonials demanding a bride or groom be, above all else, “slim”.
This obsession fails to factor in the long-term psychological effects of restrictive eating. In the grand tradition of women the world over and throughout history, I too have had a life shaped by being at war with my own body. For those similarly burdened, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem by being presented as an opportunity to “fix” your body.
“There is a huge lack of conversation around bodies and food, and about how much body-shaming and fat-phobic language exists for us culturally as Indians,” says Ameira Sikand, creator and host of The UnMute Files podcast, which chronicles the stories of ordinary women who have thrown off the shackles of shame in extraordinary acts of courage. “One of my biggest pet peeves is people saying ‘I feel fat’—what you really mean is that you feel bloated or unfulfilled or unhappy. The problem with that is that it cements fat-phobia—because you are equating the word ‘fat’ with a sense of worthlessness,” she continues. Help can be hard to find.
“I have approached therapists in India who say they are not equipped to deal with eating disorders—I was advised to join a support group, only to find out that there weren’t any available domestically. They were all located abroad, and were unable to understand the cultural pressures I was experiencing—such as living in close quarters with my family, which makes drawing boundaries and addressing mental health issues more difficult. The hope is that The UnMute Files will provide that space for people,” says Sikand.
Ameya Nagarajan and Pallavi Nath, hosts and creators of the brilliant Fat. So? podcast, met after an event and realised they wanted to create conversations around fatness and bodies that mirrored their own experiences. “I was put on a diet when I was five years old,” says Nath, adding, “Because I was fat, I was made to feel like I would never be enough. (We now know) that actively denying yourself and making yourself smaller through dieting doesn’t work—you are messing with your body’s set-point weight, and most people put back on any weight that they lose through dieting within the first five years.” She says she has been on every kind of diet—from a pineapple-only meal plan that left her with an ulcer-ridden mouth, to one that prescribed drinking solely orange juice and maple syrup.
“I had a very different experience,” says Nagarajan, who describes a supportive and inherently feminist family that did not engage in body-shaming, gently encouraging fitness and exercise as a way to shed weight. Her turning point, she says, came at age 35, when she questioned, “Why do I have to accept my fatness as a bad thing?”
The branding of fat as “bad”, says Nagarajan, at one point led her to believe a romantic relationship was impossible for her (Nagarajan is also the writer of the popular Fifty Dates in Delhi blog that chronicled her experience of 50 dates in Delhi as a fat woman). “I am a person who always interrogates and questions everything, but speaking with Pallavi gave me the language to be able to voice the discomfort I was feeling,” she says.
Language around diet culture is insidious, and while it can be veiled in kindness or concern, can lead to harm. “No, you are beautiful,” is an example Nagarajan brings up—people who say that in response to her talking about being fat are unconsciously delineating between being fat and being beautiful, as if the two are mutually exclusive. “You can’t even call someone fat, because it’s an insult. But why is it an insult? It’s because of the association we have given to the word,” she says.
“When it comes to language around diet culture—this obsession with ‘cleansing,’ with ‘detoxes’—it’s horrific,” says Nagarajan, adding that the body already has organs to rid the body of toxins. “There is a lot of performance around food and diet that has turned into a fixation or obsession that can very quickly escalate into an eating disorder.”
“It has turned into an obsession with fitness and thinness,” concurs Kunjal Shah, a Mumbai-based psychologist who has pre-teens as well as seniors coming to her with body issues. “Instagram was a culture shock to me,” she adds, describing how many of her younger patients compare themselves to those they perceive as more beautiful on social media. “I advise active self-compassion—looking into the mirror and speaking to each part of the body and dealing with whatever negative emotions come up.”
Self-compassion, says Shah, takes practice, patience, and a commitment to bettering one’s relationship with one’s body. “It’s the first step,” she says, towards finding within yourself the validation you seek from others, and towards self-acceptance.
Needless to say, the single-packet of Maggi diet did not stick for me. It was just one in a long line of attempts to reshape my body. It took me time to understand that what needed to change wasn’t the way I looked, but the way I felt about myself. What required reshaping wasn’t my body, but the conversations that surrounded me and others who looked like me—and reshaping the cultural conversation around food and bodies demands challenging the status quo when it comes to diet culture and body shame. The best piece of advice I was ever given was to stop being my own bully. How you talk about yourself and to yourself matters—adopting a vocabulary of kindness and acceptance has the potential to radically shift your perspective on the person you see reflected back in the mirror.
Body of work: Books and podcasts to help you advance on this journey
‘Pleasure Activism: The Politics Of Feeling Good’ by Adrienne Maree Brown
‘Lessons From The Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting And Declare A Truce With Your Body’ by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby
‘You Have The Right To Remain Fat’ by Virgie Tovar
‘Hunger’ by Roxane Gay
She’s All Fat by April K. Quioh and Sophia Carter-Kahn
Why Won’t You Date Me? by Nicole Byer
Maintenance Phase by Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon
Arushi Sinha is a writer and editor, and the winner of the 2020 Henfield Prize for Fiction at Columbia University.