“…And then the crowd grew exponentially until it got downright obese,” I had written. It was a terrible line but even worse, as my editor pointed out when she sent the line back with remarks in balloons – track changes on the draft of my book, she said – “And I don’t like body shaming words in general.”
And it hit home hard. How, as an extremely overweight person my entire life, I have internalised the fat-shaming to such a degree that I am constantly self-deprecatory.
So much so that I had stopped seeing how generalised and cruel the sport I was participating in was to myself.
If I am to honestly hold up the dark mirror on anything, I have to hold this one up to myself. It’s the hardest one of all.
Running on the Nostalgia Treadmill
Going back to my childhood, age eight. My parents got me a red bicycle for my birthday. Outwardly I thanked them. Inwardly I was crushed. Would I have to exercise? Ride this on the street to practice and fall off it – the fat girl fell off, ha ha ha! I never rode the bike. It was the first time I can remember cancelling myself out of a space to avoid embarrassment.
Age sixteen. We were out at a family dinner. I ordered a plate of fries. My father thumped his fist on the table and shouted at me in the restaurant for stuffing my face and doing nothing to lose weight. The more he said it, the more I went against it. I refused to swim. I refused to diet. I exercised and then gave up. My father tried to drum some sense into me by slapping me and threatening me into exercise. I was mortally afraid and then I decided to conquer the fear first; the fat could wait.
By the time I was in my twenties and struck out against my father, he realized what he had done. But now I had turned my size into a story of defiance.
Notes to self – ‘You don’t have a boyfriend because look around at all the stupid men your friends are seeing – whoever likes you will have to be better than that,’ I would tell myself to combat the peer pressure.
So I swung between settling for ridiculous men or for strange encounters with impossible men. “I suffer from the impossible man syndrome,” I heard myself tell friends much later. It was a cool line. And I could hide behind it, not looking at how I was really cancelling myself out of relationships.
Life in XXL
But my life as a size XXXL person has by no means been a straight line or even a series of sad encounters of the third kind. I realized this one afternoon when I was on one of my hectic weight-loss sprees, running on a treadmill at a gym. A young girl who looked like she was either still an adolescent or just about eighteen came up to me. “Would you mind if I ask you a question?” she said. “Not at all,” I said totally unprepared for what came next.
“You look like the kind of person who is confident around men. So are you ever shy of taking your clothes off in front of them to have sex?” she said. She was slightly overweight and had gauged correctly that I was the kind of person she could probably seek out to ask about the one thing that torments most fat people. “No actually I am not,” I said. And realized that over time I had become part shrink part counselor to myself, and told myself stories that had begun to work. I told myself that my mind would be my showstopper and with it I would be able to make a man forget the large wobbly flesh staring at him when our clothes were off.
It sounds like a cliché but much of the time, it’s worked. As long as I can tell myself the story, the man most often does look past the fat.
There are bad days of course just like there are with everything else. Where I have been let down half-way through having sex on two separate occasions. Did the men in question finally see that on those days I was under-confident, that my story had slipped? Did they stop the sex midway because now they could see the fat? They never said it but I thought it. It was at a time in my early thirties when I was particularly low on self-confidence. I found every single woman around – women in buses, women in cars extraordinarily attractive, and myself extremely unattractive.
Things came to a head over these two failed encounters. And in my own perverse way, I found a way out. It wasn’t ideal.
I was on holiday in Paris, spurned by a man I thought I was in love with. In my head I was carrying around the line to potentially use to start a book with later – “Most people go to Paris to fall in love and I was in Paris to fall out of love.” Cliched! But as I twirled this line and the double rejection around in my head, I was also walking through Montmartre. And as the evening light began to fade, I ended up walking out of this artsy part of the city into Pigalle – the street full of sex shops.
I walked into one and was told that there was a theatre upstairs where I could pick out and play any DVD I liked.
I picked one out randomly and made my way up the stairs. The darkened room had a TV in front with the colours faded. Four people fucking on screen. I sat down on one of the wooden benches provided for viewing. A brown man, possibly Algerian or Moroccan, was sitting right next to me. He stole a quick glance at me. I told myself if I returned the gaze, I would be inviting some action.
The story of my rejection took over and made me lose all sense of reason.
I returned the gaze but also conveyed to him that we will only use hands. I didn’t want to contract a disease from a stranger in a sex shop. As he got down on his knees and gave me a happy orgasm, I decided I would pay some of the cruelty meted out to me and not pleasure him back. After he was done, I put my coat and pants back on, walked out of the shop and said, “Sorry I have to run, I am out of time.”
Always an Oddball
Why did it feel so good to have made another feel so bad? He begged me to stay and do my bit but I marched out, feeling suddenly powerful again for having behaved abominably. It was the worst thing I could have done to exorcise my own pain. And the troubling thing is that it seemed to work. Not in isolation of course. I needed more stories to tell myself. About why and how I was attractive, without having to pay forward as I had received. Or hiding away my hurt and cancelling myself out of places and people.
It took another decade to figure out that I should stop over-compensating for my size by out-drinking, out-smoking or out-talking the other person.
That leaning more and more on my own shaky, ridiculous, imperfect self would be enough. I also had conversations about this with two lovers who were very physical beings, fit, sporty with beautifully sculpted bodies. I asked each separately, after a series of warm caresses, what they saw in such an oddly-shaped creature like me.
They gave me the answers I was looking for – or rather I made sure I curated the questions so I heard what I already knew but played back to me via them. They liked my oddness. They loved the uninhibited-ness in my body and they said – whoever said being slim was intrinsically attractive?
Leaving Behind the Victimhood Narrative
There is one final part to my size story that I need to put out here – the part that I started this story with. The part my father played in making me feel like I had to lose weight. My father died two years ago and it allowed me to look long and hard at the story I had told myself about the mess he had made in my mind about my size.
I could see now how I had used that story to hide behind as well. To play victim to myself and then not work on it at all.
My father, I can only begin to see now, was over-zealous in his love and concern. He was also cruel with it. But why was I not choosing what part of that story to discard and what part I wanted to keep? Victimhood in repeat mode is boring. So I am learning now, to slowly roll it back. Relax. Copy what I see of other confident women around me and pretend I am them. And then I often am.
(Revati Laul is a Delhi-based journalist and film-maker, and the author of ‘The Anatomy of Hate’, forthcoming from Context /Westland in November 2018. She tweets at @RevatiLaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)