Think about it. What’s the first sentence you utter when you meet someone after a while? Hands up if it is this. “Hey, you’ve lost weight!” Or “You better start dieting and exercising!” Everybody is a Rujuta Diwekar. Unsolicited tips on eating right and burning calories are dished out with a flourish. At an adjacent table at Sangeetha restaurant, a middle aged man was recently holding forth on calories to a captive audience, as he tucked into his second plate of ghee pongal and a generous dollop of coconut chutney.
Whether waist lines become wider or narrower, what just keeps growing longer are our tongues that almost compulsively deliver instant judgments on how others look. There is no dearth of self taught extempore commentators on appearances and health. No one is spared, not children, not the youth, not the middle aged, not even the elderly. Nothing has changed over the decades. It starts with spontaneous ‘concern’ for lean kids, flowing from the perception that a ‘chubby baby is a healthy baby’. So if a child does not have that classic Farex cherubic face, advice flows on tonics to supplements.
Much as it’s difficult to believe this, I was thin during my school years. “Skin and bones”, as a Hindi teacher once described me, with regret, as it was impossible to whack me with her trademark double ruler for my consistent poor marks in the subject! A language teacher may be forgiven for her lack of knowledge about genetic make up. My wife was also on the lean side during her early years. Our twin children have taken after us. They are slim. Like we used to be. As our pediatrician Dr.Benny Benjamin often reassures us, children are bound to be like their parents and as long as they have a normal appetite, we don’t need to be weighed down by a few kilos less on the scales. But the nosey parkers of society will not let them be. At outings, invariably the first question they are asked is “why are you not eating well? Look at your hands. Poor things.” And then they turn to us, with an accusatory look that suggests that we are eating all their food: “Feed them well, na.” Do these weight watchers realise that this is body shaming? That their misplaced ‘concern’ may psychologically affect these tender minds?
The insults heaped on thin people, ‘Oli Kutchis’ (thin sticks) is often downplayed. A former journalist colleague once divulged how a senior bureaucrat openly told her at a press conference: “Come to Punjab and I’ll make sure you put some weight into that figure of yours.” Sheer audacity, one would have thought, but far from protesting, the others in the room guffawed.
Imagine what the other extreme goes through. Seemingly innocuous nicknames like ‘Fatty’ can be quite damaging to the morale of people. I know of a student who used to bury his head everytime his name was twisted to ‘Haathimal’ (elephant like) by teachers or classmates. One man’s joke is another man’s shame. It’s a fallacious assumption that those who are on the heavier side are gluttons. For that matter, obesity is not always due to hogging or a sedentary lifestyle. It may also be hereditary. Or caused by health conditions. Or medication. There are countless folks who eat frugally and exercise regularly but are unable to fight what is fashionably billed the ‘battle of the bulge’. It does not stop with merely passing unwarranted comments. There are those who even pat paunches in public and loudly exclaim: “You really need to reduce.”
A clear fallout of body shaming is a spurt in the number of obese people going in for surgical procedures like gastric bypass or liposuction. There is also an ‘Oli Belly’ package on offer! I’m not even getting into the size zero fad, crash diets, protein supplements and boot camps. There’s a whole ‘weight gain’ and ‘weight loss’ industry out there to cash in on that aspirational, often delusional ‘ideal weight.’
The shaming is not restricted to adipose. It goes right up to the scalp! Male pattern balding, a receding hair line or alopecia are also picked on. It’s perfectly fine if a close friend talks about it privately. But I know of a prominent club in Chennai that referred to the guest speaker’s hair loss in the introduction! Perhaps high society and sensitivity don’t always go together. And there’s another industry – hair systems (wigs are passe) hair bonding, hair weaving, hair transplants, anything to hide the patches. There’s a new breed of experts who specialise in detecting and spreading the word about who is sporting a wig,whether it’s imported or local, clipped or pasted, is the parting seen or hidden.
Whether a person is skinny or plump, bald or getting there, fair or dark, why can’t we just let them be? How is it any of your business? Joblessness in society is not always about career, I tell you.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)