Monday, October 28, 2013

Thin privilege

Just read and shared these articles (   and about thin privilege. While I recognize so much of it as real (as a fat person), and personally have the political awareness and language to understand what it is and where it comes from, I also realize that most of the people around me have no clue it even exists. Especially in India, especially those not involved in activism of some sort (and hence maybe not too conversant with the political/rights related language). In fact, sensitive, educated, open minded, concerned people don’t get it either. They don’t realize what is happening, and how it affects the person who has to deal with it on a daily basis.

Here are some regular things I face, practically every day, as I am sure other big women do too.

o   I am fat, therefore, it is a foregone conclusion that I am a food hog. People close to me know I don’t like huge portions, I don’t like oily or rich food, I don’t crave desserts and sweet dishes, and I naturally prefer subtler flavors and blander food, so that I can actually taste the ingredients. This is incomprehensible to everyone. How can I not be a foodie, yet be fat? How can I not be fond of fried, greasy, fast food, and yet be fat? How can I not like sweets, and still be fat? So, the conclusion is I must be lying. I must be a closet foodie with a secret life where I spend hours on the sly stuffing my face with all sorts of unhealthy foods…right? It is useless to explain to these idiots about things like metabolism rates, thyroid activity, and so on, let alone talk about the theory of fat but fit. If I reply to “what’s your favorite food” with a statement like “I like bland, light, non spicy food” the only response I can get is “so, dieting ha?” because, of course, fat people must live in a perpetual state of diet, and no one can really like the taste of oats and cornmeal over triple refined maida products dripping with ghee, right?

o   It is assumed that I must be unhealthy, just because I am of a certain size. Total strangers make that assumption, as do chat contacts who have never seen anything other than ONE photograph of me, as do many friends and relatives. This, I expect, and even forgive to a large extent. Media, quacks, new age fanatics, exercise equipment makers and sellers, slimming products makers and sellers, and all of society have spent millions convincing the average person that fat is always unhealthy. The message has been all pervasive in the west for almost a century, and has been getting louder and more omnipresent in India over the last five decades or so. It is irritating, especially from people you expect to know better, do their research, but not unforgivable.

o   However, it becomes unforgivable when doctors do it. They are the people who should DEFINITELY know better. They are the ones educated in the many facets of health. And they, of all people, should know that level of fitness is more important than the level of fatness. Yet, they don’t. Every single doctor I have ever visited has taken one look at me and immediately decided to check my BP. After all, a fat woman has GOT TO have hypertension right? It bugs me that they cannot imagine a healthy fat woman with a normal BP, let alone a low BP like mine. I tell them till I am blue in the face, I have HYPOTENSION, I have to dissolve salt in water and drink it, in summers, to get my BP up to the normal level. When I got gestational hypertension in pregnancy, it actually RAISED my regular BP to the expected 120/80. But no, check me they will, and be very surprised and mystified that I am not hypertensive! Every single time! Every single doctor!

o   I DO NOT have Diabetes. Never had, not even during pregnancy. Yet, they WILL insist on checking. EVERY time! That’s the second thing they think of, after my BP turns out to be better than fine. Viral fever? Must check for Diabetes. Headache? Must check for Diabetes. Skin rash? Must check for Diabetes. After all, I am fat. I have got to be diabetic! How dare I not? Regular people assume it too. Fat woman, refuses sweets when they are offered, “oh, you have sugar (blood sugar/ Diabetes)?” NO I don’t, I simply don’t like how sweets, especially most Indian/Bengali sweets, taste. For a doctor to make that same unfair, shaming, disgusting, automatic assumption, that a fat woman of 38 MUST be Diabetic… that’s just nasty!

o   People assume I am lazy/inactive/useless based on my size, and assume I have never had any interest in sports or other physical activity. That I enjoy walking, or was part of the school volleyball team are obvious lies to them. That I actually do three times the mental and physical ones of any of them, with keeping my own home (no cook, no child minder, no full time maid), practically keeping my parents’ home, working for my own clients, running a business (including a commute of one hour each way), and more, is immaterial. It cannot be… because I am fat.

o   I hate shopping. I have always been fat. Kiddy pics show a chubby child, teenage and school photos show a well rounded young girl, college shots show a woman much more well filled out than most of her peers, and the same applies today. the only time i have been anything near skinny was when i had ulcers. And so, I have always had trouble with shopping. I cannot find clothes in my size at just any store. The neighborhood market has nothing remotely in my size (including lingerie or nightwear), and even up-market, high tag, “tish” stores (like Biba, as I recently discovered), will have nothing in my size.

o   If a store does, miracle of miracles, have an article in my size, I will have no choice as to style or color. They will be in the most boring color combinations, the worst, shabby, out of date styles, and there is nothing I can do about it. Buy it or leave. Jeans will all be low waist, which will mean that I would require some insanely high number as waist size, which – obviously – will not be available (snigger, snigger, giggle, giggle from the skinny sales staff). To find something I might actually consider wearing I have to go to store chains that carry “plus sizes”. And even then, the choices are limited, styles are few, and prices are about twice what they charge for the same article in a “normal” size.  

o   After years and years of this humiliation, of trying on hundreds of things, per trip, that never fit right, of well meaning people making it worse, and more humiliating by picking out more and more items with a “this is sure to fit” and insisting I try it on, even when I say it won’t, even when all I want to do is leave the store and go home. After years of people buying me clothes off the street, or from smaller stores that “looked like they would fit” but never do (I have a suitcase full of them at home), I have decided I can’t do this anymore. I refuse to go shopping for outfits, preferring to buy fabric and get something tailored instead. That is not a pleasant experience either, with inept tailors who can’t make western clothes, and all tailors screaming out your enormous sizes to everyone within earshot, in the name of measurement, but it is better than the torture of trying to buy.

o   People, from total strangers to people close to me, will say things like “you have such a pretty face, if only you would lose some weight!” They may do it out of love, or from concern, or from whatever, it shows how society thinks, how pervasive this “you are not beautiful/good looking/ presentable if you are fat” mentality is. When people hear of my past relationships (yes, there was more than one) or my current love, it is always “oh you must have been/must be slim and beautiful”. Because, of course, fat women would never be attractive enough to have so many men fall for them, or have so many relationships. I have even had people tell me to my face that a particular cousin, who looks very similar to me "is so beautiful ya! why did you say she looks like you?" merely because she was thin, and i was not. 

There are so many other daily, many times a day, experiences that I deal with, that all big people, especially women deal with, that all stem from the PERCEPTIONS that society as a whole and individual people in our lives have about this one aspect of our lives… that we are fat. There is so much weirdness of attitude, and unfairness, that is meted out to big people. Frankly – it sucks.  

Sunday, October 27, 2013

More evidence of complete lack of manners in Bengalis … or is it politics?

It has always fascinated me how what I consider basic manners seem so alien to most Bengalis I know. For a long time I considered this lack to be because of the kind of bongs I was looking at. Admittedly none of the people I was noticing was anything to write home about, educationally, socially, and in manners and etiquette, by any stretch of the imagination. First generation displaced, most of those people were the first from their families to leave the villages they hailed from, and venture out into the larger world. Back in the 80s, these people were eminently forgivable for their gaffes and lapses of social niceties, especially of global good manners. However, in their children, born into the information age, highly educated at the “best” schools and colleges, and growing up exposed to the way the world lives and behaves via TV, movies, books, and the internet, it is not so forgivable.

Add family relationships into the mix, and I would expect more consideration, better manners. But, I have learnt that’s just me, and I am in a very, very small minority. From twisted hindi/regional film logic of “no please and no sorry in friendship” to the feudal/filial structure of allegiances, our culture systematically teaches us to be rude, rudest to the people close to us. I may find this counterintuitive, after all, if I care about them, it is even more vital to show them that I appreciate or value everything that they do for me, but most of us just don’t bother to think it through.

So, something like this happens. First, a little background. My little family unit, my parents, my brother, and my man and I, have recently “divorced” a particular branch of the larger extended family. There has been no ongoing feud, no war, no screaming/ranting in public, no putting-others-at-a-discomfort, and no asking-others-to-choose-sides. We have simply, calmly, quietly, and after a lot of deliberation and consideration, decided to cut ties with a particular set of people.  Although the rest of the clan is aware of the rift, (we are not the kind to keep things a secret – especially when we don’t have anything to hide) they are not caught in the middle. We do not expect any of them to choose or take sides. And we have not the slightest expectations of them dropping their social correspondence simply because we have.

A rare confluence of people is taking place in the city at the moment. Cousins who live in the US, the Middle East, and off and on in other cities in India are, coincidentally, all here at the moment, as are my parents, who are the sort to never be in one place for very long. Given this happy turn of events, my mother decided she was going to have all the “kids” over for dinner. People were notified, preparations began in earnest, the relative merits of home/restaurant, cook/cater/order, were hotly debated, and a final decision arrived at. We were pumped up, happy, excited, looking forward to a really fun day.

And then, the legendary bong manners struck. My mother received a call saying her inviting all the kids other than the ones from “that particular unit” does not “look nice”, and hence no one was going to turn up, and she should cancel the party. Much as I am happy to be spared the expense, and the headache and hard, work of planning and executing the event, (given that my mom is particularly infirm at the moment and not much help other than in great ideas), I find this WRONG and RUDE on so many levels!

First off, if I am invited to a dinner, I would never even think of asking who else was on the guest list. I would consider it none of my business, I would consider it rude to ask, and I would trust that the host had his/her own reasons for asking everyone they had/hadn’t asked. Secondly, if I did know the guests list, I would not make the attendance of three separate but related family units dependent on the presence/absence of one person. Actually, presence…maybe… as in I personally may not attend a function/event where I know someone I intensely dislike or wish to avoid might be present, but absence, no. It is none of my business why the hosts have not asked x, y, or z to the same party as me. It is THEIR event, and it is THEIR right to choose who to ask. No one else has the least right to edit their guest list – No one – unless that person is a special friend/family member who has been ASKED to help with the arrangements and to SPECIFICALLY trim the guest list.

What happened here was more sinister. My mother was basically DICTATED to. She was told that she cannot choose who she wants in her home, or who she can/cannot ask to dinner on a particular day. She was actually asked to CANCEL an event by people who had absolutely no right to do any such thing! And coming from our “culture” that puts so much emphasis on respecting our “elders”, it is doubly rude!! To call up an aunt and say you have to ask X to dinner or none of us will come so you better cancel the damn event?! I cannot imagine EVER doing something like that.

Also, I have to consider the other side of the issue. When these same cousins will be invited to the house of the “particular unit” for something, as is inevitable (in fact a large event is expected next month or so), will they refuse that invitation as well? Will they make THEM cancel the event also? Somehow, I don’t think so. And if they don’t, then essentially they are creating a war where none existed. Just coming and having dinner at my mother’s invitation would not have been choosing sides. If anyone could be accused of partiality/unfairness, it would be my mom. But choosing NOT to come, and to have the event cancelled, puts them firmly in the OTHER camp, especially when (as I expect) they accept invitations from there, which don’t include us.

So, essentially, this part of the clan has decided to PLEASE, APPEASE, and side with the “particular unit” that too in a very clear, unequivocal, and in-your-face way. Well, good luck to them. But I would really have appreciated some better manners.