As a plump, accommodating teenager lost all her disfiguring weight, she discovered a preening, arrogant stranger in the mirror
The day the dream I had clutched for 13-something years came true was 22 September 2009. I stood before the mirror in my bathroom at 11:50 am, 26 years, 3 months and 18 days old, my crisp striped shirt tucked into my trousers. Finally. I had had this dream since I was 13: I had wanted, prayed even, to be thin enough to tuck my shirt in. Slender, actually. But that is another dream, to tell the truth. At five-foot-almost nothing, you cannot be slender, not with my obstinate broad bones. But still, here I was. For years, I had enthusiastically marked Mondays with new diets and walked briskly with purpose, only to collapse into my Coke-guzzling (Coca-Cola) ways by the end of the week. Then, the year I turned 25, something snapped. One morning, doing some bare-knuckle number crunching on the auto to work, I calculated that one-third of the life I was reasonably expected to live had gone by in disgruntled fatness. Later that year, my grandmother died; she was 77. I started running, in panic and in grief. On achingly cold Delhi mornings, I would tumble out of bed at the first call of the alarm, summoned by a glistening, lean, sinewy angel in trackwear.
Ten months later, I was looking at the mirror with satisfaction, the trousers draping appreciatively downward, that embarrassing gut bulge ultimately vanquished. Celebrations were in order, but the brioches and butter I had so painstakingly forsaken were not on the menu. That would be so not the point. Instead, I turned around a full 360 degrees before the mirror again, feasting at the sight, not once having to look away in bitterness.
This story is not about how I got there (you know that already, running blindly without brioches). This is about the changes, mostly unexpected, that came my way after I became certifiably (okay, undeniably) thin. Thinness is a whole new personality, a stranger, and nobody told me there were shades that I might not be ready to accept.
The wardrobe had to change, of course. That was the point. But as it transpired, my taste too had changed. Ever the tomboy with short, straggly hair and loose stolidly male T-shirts and trousers (I had been too fat for shapely jeans), I had no idea that I was powerless before the allure of pink. Oh, and those pretty little floral dresses ending a good few inches above the knees. I was a knee virgin; I’d made it a point to conceal my terrible, terrible stout knees. I hadn’t even worn nice shorts, so revolted was I by my ugly knees. Now, I found myself mesmerised for breathless minutes inside the trial rooms of posh stores, unmindful of the loud clucks (and sharp knocks) of exasperation outside. Were those really my knees?
Perfumes have changed as well. I’d always been a pour homme (for men) girl with a thing for sharp Brut-like fragrances. I still have them; sometimes I wear them too out of nostalgia. But to tell the truth, I’ve fallen hard for sweet, flowery bouquets. Last year, I settled on a heady, overwhelmingly feminine, impossibly grown-up fragrance as my defining smell (everyone has one perfume, I believe). J’Adore is an adult woman’s smell: the face of the brand is the smouldering, stunning blonde Charlize Theron. Nothing girlie about her.
Which brings me to this other thing: my heroes have changed. I used to dislike Charlize Theron’s scorching, uber-feminine sexuality. I loathed Angelina Jolie’s astonishing, simmering beauty. I found Katrina Kaif and Aishwarya Rai bland. I argued earnestly for the many charms of the girls next door, Meg Ryan and Rani Mukerjee. If you remind me of those conversations today, I’ll give you Hollywood actress Joan Crawford’s immortal line: “If you want the girl next door, go next door.”
Then there’s that thing about strays. An only child who wasn’t allowed pets, I grew up indulging strays; indeed, I adored them till I turned thin. I fed them, I petted them, made up ridiculous, revolting names. Post thinness, the relationship has gone rapidly downhill. It started essentially with the new wardrobe; I couldn’t bear to have their paws on my expensive acquisitions. Then I started noticing the things the anti-stray brigade had been saying for years: The poop left everywhere, the flies buzzing over it, the trash bags torn open, the unstoppable and unasked-for pawing, the barking and yowling that kept you up all night, and the bullying of hapless delivery boys. Now, we’re like those bitter married couples who hate each other but can’t get a divorce: we snarl at the sight of each other (or hiss, as the case may be), and badmouth one another (ask them) to anyone who’ll listen, sometimes even not. But I reserve my choicest expletives for the folks who feed the strays. Why don’t you just keep a pet (and scoop its poop after it)?
All of this surprises me, but it doesn’t worry me. What does is the streak of meanness, the hard edge I’ve sprouted in the past couple of years. It used to be that my folks had an epithet for me: ‘the how-mean’ girl. I was the sweet child, the plump one with a soft, comfortable pleasantness, who unfailingly said “how mean” at jokes in gossip sessions. When a cousin was called too fat to fit into a sari, I said “how mean”; when a sophisticated aunt was labelled high-maintenance, I said “how mean”; when a friend called to dissect an overachieving classmate’s over-obsessing ways, I said “How mean.” And I felt it too: the too-fat, the too-chic, the too-successful were minorities to my mind, and I felt their persecution keenly. Post thinness, the natural order of things has been re-established. Fat cousins are cherished for their comic Facebook photos, posh aunts mimicked, and over-achieving classmates denounced publicly. Now, my sympathies rarely extend beyond their natural habitat: myself. I don’t particularly miss that soft, sweet, sympathetic girl either; I am happy to see her go. Give me the slim, laughing, funny girl who’s taken her place any day. She’s quite something, except that she scares me at times.
Which brings me to yet another thing: a lot of people find me funny now. My mostly-solemn mother cracks up, my grandma who thinks men do most of the things worth doing and telling, presses me for anecdotes all the time, and I even earned some laughs at the weekly office meetings recently. Most cherished of all, an admired colleague with a taste for sharp Hollywood wit told me my sense of humour has improved. (She now laughs as much at me as at YouTube videos.)
I am a little bewildered by this. On careful consideration, and I subject myself to a lot of that now, I don’t find myself any funnier than I was. I always possessed a sly, wry wit. But what might be happening is this: secure in my new shape, I actually listen to others now. There is no longer the need to glance at the glass panel opposite to count whether the number of love handles is acceptable. No need either to calculate where I should position my ass on the chair to make my thighs look less alarming. I pay full attention to others, as a result of which I laugh at their jokes, semi-jokes, wannabe jokes (instead of the post-climactic wan smile posted earlier). Most folks love those who laugh at their jokes. They usually find them intelligent and witty. The other thing that happens is this: I check out others. Their waists and bellies, to be precise. A considerable expanse of waist draws a loud chuckle, a similar waist means a broad grin of fellow feeling, a slimmer and sexier waist draws a wistful smile. It is true: the world is a happier place as a thin person. Such happiness that I have endured three years without a raise, not to mention a pay cut, with cheerful grace. All that cheer, and all that grace, dare I say, is derived largely from my new and improved waist.
Yet, I must confess that it has got me wondering: what is this arrogance of the body? When did it become so imperial and autocratic? The answer has not been easy to investigate, nor straightforward, but increasingly, I feel that the evidence points to this: we are our bodies. For the overwhelming majority of us, except perhaps Stephen Hawking, it is our bodies that play a determining role in our lives. Tell me now, whether Helen Keller would ever be Helen Keller without her bodily failings, Christopher Reeve Superman without his wheelchair, Frida Kahlo the enigma she is without her polio and pain? Would Gandhi have been able to fast if he were diabetic? The spirit is undeniably, inarguably admirable, as countless corporates will doubtless remind you in award-winning ad campaigns, but it is fashioned ultimately by the body.
And while we are on matters somewhat cerebral, wrap your head round this: it is not just popular culture and the media that exalt the thin. Long before venerated glossies and Hollywood rules, there was literature. Consider Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for one. Though it was Elizabeth Bennett’s ‘fine eyes’ to which Mr Darcy is first drawn, it is her ‘light and pleasing’ figure that gets him smitten. Complementing these, of course, in true Austen style, are the ‘easy playfulness’ of her manners, her mind and her personality, making her ‘one of the handsomest women’ in his acquaintance. Then, there is Scarlett O’Hara who boasted a 17-inch waist, helped no doubt by an able corset, in Gone With the Wind. And it isn’t just the beautiful who are thin, it’s also the brainy, it seems. Sherlock Holmes, remember, was thin, stooped and super-smart.
These were the intellectual footnotes to my effort, though I was deliciously vague about what it was that I actually hoped to achieve with this thinness. I suspect I simply imagined myself as the effortlessly thin centre-of-attraction in a life of sudden and tempestuous events. Like Scarlett O’ Hara, perhaps. The changes I got were unexpected and inconsequential, but immensely amusing nevertheless. Like my singing. I now sing with what must be annoying ease for my colleagues. I know I am a tolerably below-average singer, not so bad as to leave people bristling with irritation, but certainly not one to be encouraged. This new-found vocal confidence is thanks entirely to the shapely waist, of course, and I am happy to report that no one has tsk-tsked or made any of those deliciously unspellable noises yet. Even my father, who hits the high notes with far more frequency and certainty than I do, recently complimented me on my vocal development.
But the strangest of all is my scene with food. I’ve always loved the stuff, putting it away in inglorious quantities. Post thinness, I hold it up to the light, admire it, intellectualise it, read it, talk ceaselessly about it, but I eat very little of it. It is one of those delicious ironies: my shelves groan with glorious food memoirs and books while my table is delightfully minimalist. And I have the perfect answer when anyone insists I try a piece of something irresistible: thin feels better than any food can possibly taste.