I learned early in life that my body is too much. Too dark. Too tall for the room. Too opinionated. Too loud. Too domineering. Too uncovered. Each time, I stubbornly confronted the norm— who gets to define what is too much, and what indeed, is the measuring scale?
Of the many identities I have metamorphosed into in life, my fat, dark, and disproportionate body remains at the center of my experience. From childhood in India to adulthood in Europe and the United States, it shaped first impressions, friends at work, the ability to attend a dance class, and even find a lover. The shape shifting and mind-bending body standards of the world chiseled me to fit an infinite amount of molds. There was no mold that I quite fit in.
I grew up in India for the majority of my teenage years, where the conditioning starts young. Women in my country are commodities-in-training, to become ripe and be made the perfect wives by age 24. Bollywood music like Chittiyan Kalaiyan glorified women with light-skinned wrists (yes, wrists). This is a world where skin-lightening creams are laboriously re-applied to the faces of unfortunate dark-skinned girls. Bring an umbrella to the beach, and it’s best if you remain under it. Darkness is a curse you mustn’t wish upon yourself.
If you’re a chubby kid, your mothers, aunties, and uncles will pray it’s baby fat. (Just know that you aren’t alone if you keep your baby fat into your teens). People will give you advice at every family gathering. Even your taxi driver is a nutritionist, a secret weight- watcher. “You should try skipping dinner, drink hot lemon water, 20 sun salutations a day, to pray the fat away!” Pretty dresses aren’t made to fit you, so you must ensure the right amount of crash dieting to wear a dress that makes you pretty.
Swimming competitively at age eleven, I got a beautiful summer tan, stretch marks from puberty, and a gold medal for the freestyle swim category. That same summer I got rough turmeric scrubs and a traditional “beauty remedy” (read: skin-lightening remedy) from my mother; she was mortified that her daughter’s skin did not match the lighter tone of her parents’. Being fat with stretch marks on your shoulders at 11 years old meant not being “the right look” for sports, the lead for a play or the dance troupe. It was normal to never see anyone like me in a Bollywood film, let alone on a stage.
Lessons learned: pretty = not fat/dark and not fat/dark makes life easy.
Be pretty, even if it meant praying you “get” an eating disorder. As an adolescent, I read about Anorexia nervosa on the internet, and it sounded like a pretty sweet deal to me. I already had a long way to go; shaving a little off wouldn’t hurt me, would it? Eating under 1200 calories a day and boys became the focus at 15 years of age. It didn’t matter that half my hair fell out, at least I had a boyfriend! Being pretty comes at a cost with a naturally fat body. At least I wasn’t too undesirable: for my parents, boyfriend, future husband, society… I was becoming just beautiful enough.
When you aren’t born “beautiful,” you must learn to over-perform for society. I had already mastered the art of only ordering salads in front of boyfriends; now I must ensure I am “jolly”.
The part: Easy breezy, funny, fashionable (for a fat girl) and always ready to party. Basically, become the president and CEO of the fat people committee.
The over-performance comes easy, but it doesn’t mean the battle is over. You might have to fight off skinny sorority girls who gasp at your large bosom sticking out of your top, which happens to be the exact same one they’re wearing. Attending university in the American South added spice to the mix. Besides consistently mistaking me for the closest brown ethnicity, white men of the South also avoided me like the plague.
Before the story of my fatness starts sounding like a sob story, I must add that in university, I also became a veteran of the dating apps. Dating in Generation Z meant having the holy trinity: Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. I already knew of the over-performance of prettiness, and the act followed into dating pursuits. I embraced my uniqueness here, determined to be a hot commodity on the apps.
Unfortunately, this was also around the time Priyanka Chopra (now Priyanka Jonas) came out with her single “Exotic”. She put brown girls like me on the map, or so I thought. That’s why she got Nick Jonas, my brain reasoned further. Through this I earned many such exotic nicknames in the Tinder community. Did I really come to university 10,000 miles away from home on a scholarship to be called a “bronze goddess” on the internet?
Being a fat, dark feminist on the dating apps in the South meant countless casual dating, and never enough of bringing home to slightly racist parents who ask you where you learned to speak such good English. Here came relentless efforts of trying to find the love of your life and forgetting that you lived in Greenville, South Carolina. Alas, I lived in a place where people still put up Confederate flags with pride in their dorm rooms.
My safe dating spaces became the metropolises of America, and I planned frequent escapes to New York, Washington DC, or Boston to feel romantically desired. Having identified South Carolina as the cause of my undesirability, I became determined to move to a city that allowed me a dating life. I clearly did not know where I was going because I landed myself in the city of San Jose, California.
Having landed a coveted job in Silicon Valley post-grad, I was living the Indian wet dream. California was everything I had expected— perfect temperatures, beautiful beaches, and a world of a thousand Kim Kardashians. At my sales job, the beauty stakes were higher than ever before. I sat in my office chair for approximately 365 days, listening to my already aesthetically beautiful co-worker talk about how badly she needed lip fillers for her thin lips. Conversations about plastic surgery were like a chain reaction at the office, with women chiming in about all the body parts they would love injected with the silicone. This was a brand new concept for me as I had never heard of plastic surgery beyond the confines of Hollywood.
I should have fit right in as the artificial Kardashian prototype with my aforementioned blessed big bosom, natural tan, and thick brown lips. While I had the tan, a fake one was better appreciated. In hushed tones, I was informed why the cool guys of the office didn’t want to be friends with the bigger girls. “It’s because we don’t look like them”.
Conclusion: I will never look like them.
In a mere 23 years of existence, I have been put through a variety of body and beauty standards: from skin-lightening creams, to fake tans, to being asked to cover up my naturally curvy body to the same body being appreciated on white women. In reality, there really is no beauty standard. I spent many years catching up and dressing like the women around me, sucking my belly in for photos, and complaining about misshapen body parts. If I am any testament in this matter, is that there is no perfect look, no ideal body.
Women’s bodies are treated as trends, as items that go in and out of style with seasons. But it is not our job to follow marketing trends. What certainly is our job is to remember to not treat our body like the objects society teaches us we are. To be painted white or brown, injected, starved, or dolled up. Our bodies constantly evolve with us through our life experiences and remain a road map to our personal journeys. We are not meant to fit a prototype.
Does this awakening mean people treat me differently? To some, I am still the president and CEO of the fat people committee, with echoes of “Yass, girl” trailing behind me if I so much as wear a swimsuit on the beach with my belly and stretch marks out. Coming home to India, my family members still never fail to remind me that I am utterly unmarriageable with my fat body and multiple tattoos. I am not an example, and I certainly do not claim to speak for all bigger bodies. My body to me is not a burden, she is the vessel that keeps me breathing and alive to experience the world as wonderfully as I am.
“Dark. Fat. Feminist. Loud. Tattoos. I am everything they’re not looking for in a wife”.
It was first used to describe me at age 11 in competitive swimming.
How many beauty standards can this body endure?
Cultural- taught that thin, light-skinned and fragile women who make good wives
Modern now, educated is nice, speak good english, cover all your raw bits
How does it define how you love yourself?
Focus on making yourself pretty regardless.
Dating in the South, almost felt invisible
Easier on the apps, in the dark of the night
String of Indian men in Silicon Valley
Body standards in California. Learned of lip fillers, silicone-filled body parts
Is this supposed to make me feel insecure?
Sales, largely attractive, loud, self-assured
Co-worker let me in on a secret- “it’s because we don’t >look< like them”
Swimming competitively at age eleven, I got a beautiful summer tan, stretch marks from puberty, and a gold medal for the freestyle swim category. That same summer I got rough turmeric scrubs from my mother, who was mortified that her daughter’s skin did not match the lighter tone of her parents’. Being fat with stretch marks on your shoulders at 11 years old meant not being picked for sports, the lead for a play or the dance troupe. Books, on the other hand, you could be interested, so make sure you know how to average a book a day.
Aishwarya Tripathi regards herself as a global citizen in all aspects. Growing up and living in India, United States, and Germany has given her a unique cultural perspective to mold her ideas from. As a writer, she spends her time writing about global feminist and intersectional issues at online Zine InflueneHers. A psychology and German graduate from Furman University, her research background includes body image, childhood psychology, and language development. At this time, Aishwarya is pursuing a masters in International Affairs in Berlin and hopes to join the United Nations one day.