I reached my peak weight gain in December 2015. The cause is irrelevant, although I admit that it was a combination of factors from work, relationships, and just a lack of discipline. The fact is I was overweight: I knew it and everyone around me knew it.
This drastic change in my physical appearance began to gradually affect how people behaved towards me, and subsequently, how I felt about myself. I was ashamed and disgusted by my appearance. I would spend long periods of time in front of the mirror, trying to figure out if there was something I can do to improve myself. When I realised how pathetically unsuccessful I was in trying to hide body fat under strategically planned clothing, I began to avoid social gatherings and public events altogether.
Every morning, I woke up with a feeling of helplessness, knowing what I wanted in my life but unable to obtain it.
Every attempt at changing my lifestyle failed, and I felt incapable of satiating my hunger for longer than a few days. Despairingly, I held onto a tiny string of hope that maybe I could throw thousands of dollars into cosmetic surgery and magically make the fat disappear. Over time, being overweight began to chip away at my self-esteem and my perception of self-worth, and the micro-aggressions I experienced from others in the form of subtle and direct comments, only brought me down further.
Little did I know, I had inadvertently become a casualty of the fat shaming culture that rampages the South Asian community.
Fast-forward to the present and I’ve succeeded in transforming my body, shedding over 45 pounds in a very short period of time. The journey entailed a thorough and complete makeover of every aspect of my life: a gruelling calorie deficit diet, a structured regimen of rigorous strength and cardio training, and new habits such as calorie counting and intermittent fasting. By no means was the journey quick or easy, and I continued to find myself lost and very close to relapsing back to my old lifestyle. Throughout those unforgiving months, I pushed my body both mentally and physically, devoting my life entirely to health and fitness. People say that God works in mysterious ways and so does the human mind when you put it into something with such unfathomable passion and determination. Today, I boast a BMI of 24.9.
This drastic transformation in my physical appearance brought about a stark shift in the way people addressed me. People were more receptive when I spoke, girls that once wouldn’t give me a second thought began to show more interest, and I had become a “handsome young man” among the aunties and uncles in my community. I felt a new air of admiration from people of all ages, and I felt more human than ever before.
Despite being able to escape the ‘self-inflicted curse of obesity, I was not left unscathed from the experience.
The social stigmas I experienced while overweight live with me today, and its psychological impact is evident.
Today, my weight has turned into an obsession, arguably more so than it was before the weight loss. This preoccupation with weight has taken over my life, causing me to spend vast amounts of time on the weight scale, once or sometimes even twice in a day, scrutinising metrics, and looking for any sign of fluctuation in my weight. After consuming a heavy meal, I feel immediate guilt and disgust with myself and return to the scales to see how it has impacted my weight.
If a piece of clothing begins to feel slightly tighter, I panic. I have become so afraid of returning to that dark phase of my life, that I will willingly take extreme measures to maintain my current weight, from skipping meals to starvation to counteract any weight gain. Maintaining a normal body weight is no longer for healthy living (as it should be), but rather because I want to “look good” and am afraid it will lower how the community looks at me.
We live in a world that judges and stigmatises people on their appearance and physical traits: their age, ethnicity, skin colour, height, and more. This is especially true in the South Asian community, where many people, particularly those brought up outside North America, lack the mannerisms we’re accustomed to as politeness and social etiquette.
In the South Asian community, it’s not unheard of for a middle-aged aunty to directly tell you that you're fat or that no one will marry you until you lose weight. No matter your age or gender, everyone is susceptible to this ruthless scrutiny. Often, children are fat shamed by their own parents - not in a supportive, constructive way but in a demeaning, harmful way. One can only conceptualise the behavioural and psychological effects fat shaming can have on someone at such a fragile and impressionable age.
In my case, the intensity of demeaning comments noticeably increased as I reached my 20’s, the implied socially acceptable age for marriage in the South Asian community. It was drilled into my head by my own parents that no girl will fall for me until I lose weight, that I have maybe a few years to lose weight before “all the good girls are taken”.
My weight was equated with my physical attraction - I was fat, therefore I was ugly.
Arranged marriages, the preferred choice for most South Asian families, intrinsically places an emphasis on this system of beliefs. Arranged marriages are initiated with the exchange of biodatas - tools that superficially evaluate a prospective partner’s suitability solely by their professional and physical characteristics.
Whether it is a family member or someone you haven’t met in years, it seems almost compulsory for them to make a statement about your appearance, whether positively or negatively, as if you were not aware of it yourself. This emphasis on physical appearance likely stems from the intrinsic social stratification in Indian society, which judges a person by their caste and social status.
Many people that fat shame could mean well and believe they’re helping the person - that perhaps taunting a person will motivate them to lose weight. Even in my own case, the people that fat shamed me for so long might today believe they were the catalyst that sparked my weight loss.
The truth is, research shows that fat shaming is ineffective in helping with obesity. It increases an individual’s stress, causing them to consume more calories and thus gain weight. Fat shaming only lowers the person’s self esteem, which in turns can lead to long-lasting body image issues, eating disorders, depression, and suicide.
It’s a very real problem in the South Asian community, and I genuinely empathise with those that know someone or have themselves went through a similar experience.
As a community, we must collectively rethink how we stigmatise weight and physical appearance.
We must begin by being mindful of our thoughts and actions; we may not know the struggle that each person faces. We must find a way to create a social environment that is more welcoming and inclusive for people of all shapes and sizes through our words and through our actions.
To those who are victims of micro aggressions by those around you, stay strong and keep your head high. I know it’s not easy, and sometimes it can really hurt, but don’t let anyone tell you that you’re less than what you know you are. But your physical appearance does not define you as a person; your individuality, your goals, your dreams, your values, your thoughts and actions make you. You have just as much of an opportunity to be an agent of change and make a difference in the world, and you have the power to spread love and compassion just as anyone else.
Originally posted on yja.org