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How I Finally Learnt to Love My Body After 25 Years of Hating Everything About It

Heads up: I'm eating my office pantry's desi burger while writing this, which basically means that this is not one of those before/after miracle stories. I did not completely transform my body, nor did I lose a crazy number of kilos, and I certainly didn't find the man of my dreams overnight. I did, however, meet Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York, emotionally connected with thousands of people all over the world and, finally, fell in love with myself.

If that's interesting enough for you, let's proceed.

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Let's start with the fact that this is not a sad story. I was a happy kid, who could be made the mascot of everything warm and fuzzy. And that continues till date, but more on that later. Though, like all messed up stories, my problems date back to puberty. It screws you up in your teens, and you never see it coming. But that's the thing about being a 90s kid. Back then, you wouldn't know what bullying meant, and wouldn't be able to identify the bullies even if they waved nasty neon banners in your face.

The cousins who called you 'moti' loved you, as did the friendly neighbourhood aunty, who noticed that your face had become bigger. 'Bete, dhyaan rakho thoda,' the NRI relatives would say, while announcing to the house that I wouldn't fit into the dress they got me. At the moment, you would smile in embarrassment, and somehow convince yourself to feel better later. After all, how bad could 'fat' be? The right answer was simple: not at all; but I didn't know it back then.

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I was not a fat kid, I was a chubby-bordering-on-cute girl, who grew up around skinny girls. But, because of the latter, I grew up insecure and conscious. I made up by being good at everything else. At making friends, at studies, at ECA activities, and more. So, high school wasn't torture for me. In fact, it was good. But, like every heroine in a teenage romcom, I gave the high school boyfriend more importance than he ever deserved. At the time, my opinion of myself depended heavily on his opinion of me. I was too young to understand the difference, and too in love to care. Too in love - who knew that could be a problem? But it was.

School turned into college turned into professional life, and mushy-puppy love turned into young adult awkwardness. While I was out conquering the world at my first job, my personal life was filled with conversations like, 'That's not a nice picture of you,' 'When did you get a double chin,' 'You stopped working out again?' 'It's my brother's wedding, maybe that could motivate you to lose weight this time.' His opinion of me still mattered more than mine, but after a long time, the bubble finally burst.

A part of me blames the long-distance relationship that led to us falling out of love, but that didn't make the process any easier. After four years of stability, I hated being single and vulnerable. I was surviving on food and friends. It wasn't until I got on a weighing scale that I realised what had happened. I was so happy to finally be able to afford good clothes on my salary, I didn't realize when my size went from medium to large to an extra-large. My mom did point out my thunder thighs, and sagging arms, and overall weight gain, but that's something she'd been saying all my life, so I never took it seriously.

I still remember that shocking moment. Weight gain is supposed to be the result of unhealthy choices that are spread over a long period of time, but I went from being cute to what-the-fuck fat within seconds, courtesy the breakup and new job stress.

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In the months following that realization, the disturbing childhood question returned. How bad could 'fat' be? Well, going by the people surrounding me, very bad. It was at this time that I first encountered our society's obsession with the weight of a fat girl. My day started and ended with, 'kinni moti ho gayi hai?' This was from relatives to random school seniors, who were concerned about my fat face, and not my fancy front page articles (#JustJournalistThings).

I was pissed off, all day, every day. If I could start a petition on change.org to make talking about someone's weight a punishable offence, I would. I developed a defence mechanism soon after. Don't ever go to the mall near your school, and bring up your weight gain as a joke before anyone else can point it out as a problem. Ignore the morning stare-at-the-mirror sessions, and stop asking yourself the, 'what the hell happened?' question.

I did that well. I could write a book on what fat girls should and should not wear. All my sleeveless tops found places in my girlfriends' wardrobes, and a black outfit in every possible shape had been added to mine. Add to that a thesis in correct picture angles, perfect poses, hairstyles, accessories, everything. I was so good at this that I had people come to me, and say, 'Hey, you look so much thinner in your pictures.' Screw manners, right?

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There couldn't have been a worse time to be fat. As a 20-something, I was constantly juggling between 'live your damn life, eat the damn dessert,' and 'be a sensible adult, eat healthy.' No prizes for guessing which side won. Add to that the four letters that trouble so many women, PCOS (Polycystic Ovaries Syndrome). So, workouts didn't work the way they were supposed to, which meant more mehnat and not enough results. To top it all, every time I would be celebrating the one kilo lost, some meaningless acquaintance would remind me of the nine I had put on.

But, here's the thing, even in the middle of all this, I didn't know I had 'body-image issues.' Not when I was 13, or 18, and definitely not at 21. Nobody uses these heavy words in a Punjabi family. 'You just eat too much and you're just too lazy to do anything about it. You're stupid. How can you have self-esteem issues? You're so bubbly and chirpy? Your life is great! Stop inventing problems.'

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At 24, I was single, and bored, and low on confidence, when I discovered this great thing called Tinder. You call it a hookup app, I call it the 20-something girl's self-esteem boosting machine. I'd already perfected the art of great pictures, so matches were never a problem. Who doesn't like being right-swiped? Who doesn't like rejecting people to cope with the rejections that they've faced in their own life? After an adequate number of less than desirable rebounds, a new relationship finally happened.

But this time I was clear. This time, I wouldn't let anyone's opinion of me change my opinion of myself. I was a badass lifestyle journalist, with friends who loved me, and parents who were proud of me. How can anything or anyone damage this awesome person who seems to be winning at life? That's the version I chose to show the world, because I'd buried the mirror-hating, clothes-analysing person long ago. 

It was around this time that I met Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York. As a journalist for The Times of India, I reached out to the photographer before he came to Delhi as part of his debut world tour in 2014. Luckily, I got a chance to be his interviewer and translator for one day. We did a brilliant interview, hosted a great interactive session, but it was his interview of me that changed my life forever. He asked me a simple question and, before I knew it, I was sharing just how much my weight and people's obsession with it bothered me to his million-odd followers.

The result was this brilliant post:

And, with that one day, my life was changed forever. For the first time, I could smile at myself in the mirror. For the first time, I could separate my weight and my physical appearance from my existence. The thousands of positive comments on the post helped in the process. "I'm not fat, I have fat like I have fingernails." Some even quoted one of the biggest motivators of our time, JK Rowling, and said, “Is 'fat' really the worst thing a human being can be? "Is 'fat' worse than 'vindictive', 'jealous', 'shallow', 'vain', 'boring' or 'cruel'?" I was none of those things, I was just fat, and the post helped me realise that's something I could easily handle.

After 24 years of hating my body, I finally found a way to be okay with it. My mom's always been my best friend, but even she didn't know how much this had bothered me. When she saw the post, she hugged me, and apologized, which she didn't have to. I knew she meant well. She was not the enemy. School juniors, friends, strangers, and so many other people reached out to tell me that they knew what I felt, and that they'd felt it, too.

There were other kinds of comments, too. The ones who argued that being overweight was not justified for any reason. It was still a health disorder, still not recommended, and it still had long-term consequences. I completely understand and accept that. The post gave me the strength to accept this, but it also gave me the strength to change. I'd felt fat all through my life. Fat was not just a word for me, it was a state of being, which I'd accepted, and then lost to. But, for the first time, I found the strength to be able to say, 'So, this is what I've been till I was 24, and that's okay, but now I want to try something different with my life. Let's see how we can do that.'

This realization didn't happen overnight, of course. I was a happier person after August 2014, but I still had a lot of small and big battles waiting to be fought. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the guy I was with at that point, asked me the questions I didn't want to answer, and called me out on my excuses. When the relationship ended, my attitude towards my weight was questioned once again. But, unlike in the past, this time it didn't break me. In fact, it gave me more strength. I was heartbroken once again, but after a few months of grieving, and taking five steps forward then ten steps back, I realized I wanted to change. 

I was done blaming my weight for everything that was wrong in my life. I started taking baby steps towards the fitness challenge. No crazy targets, no extreme diets, just simple steps that helped me gain back some control on my own life. And control is a great thing. For the first time in my life, the weight loss process didn't scare or frustrate me because, for the first time, I didn't approach it as if my life depended on it. I had a brilliant life, I was just trying to make it better. I could look at the mirror, and be okay with what I saw. I was not unhappy with my current body, I was just unhealthy, and separating those two words made all the difference.

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If I could go back in time, there's so much I would want to say to 18-year-old me. I would tell her to feel fabulous at her school farewell, because the first time you wear a saree is a special moment that shouldn't be overshadowed by anything. I would tell her to stop caring about a Facebook picture because, five years later, it won't matter. Wear shorts, don't buy cringe worthy stoles that hide your gorgeous summer dresses, and try out any hairstyle you want. You're a great person, and those who want to talk about your weight over everything else don't deserve your time.

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It's been five months since I've been on this journey, and while I don't have a before/after picture right now, hopefully, someday, I will. But the most important thing is, that regardless of what the scale shows, I'll be smiling in both.

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