I see you. I have been there. Me too.
Is it fair to air stories about my battle when Gay’s memoir is utterly raw and intimate? I don’t know. But Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body has exhumed some painful memories and writing about those here will be a comforting exercise in catharsis.
I was a few hours old when my aunt saw a nurse carrying me to another room. My aunt didn’t know it was her niece. Her jaw dropped; she asked my grandmother, “Whose child is this? So huge! Already looks like it’s 10-months-old!” The remark terrorised my grandmother. She said, “Shhh! That’s Ramesh’s child. She was born a couple of hours ago.” My mother always relates this conversation with pride because she pushed out that HUGE baby.
The word lives with me. HUGE.
My BMI has always been marginally alarming; I have been obese all my life. The biggest in my classroom, in my workplace, in my family, and even in elevators. Roxane Gay has given a fitting phrase to articulate my feelings — my body felt like a cage.
Someone whom I dearly love told her friend that I wasn’t going out often because I was fat. A cousin asked if my friends are scared of me in school because I am gigantic. My school teachers wanted me to try hard and win medals at shot put. In their minds, fat girls can lift heavy objects and hurl them effortlessly. Oh! And the elevators beeped, all heads turned toward me. Fine. I’ll walk out.
I was in Class 7 when my teacher took me to the staff room and whispered in my ears that I must start wearing a dupatta (shawl) over my school uniform to cover my large bosom. According to the rules, girls should wear shawls only from Class 8. I had one more year to enjoy that freedom. However, my teachers couldn’t handle the image of my chest. So she said, “Ask your parents to buy a dupatta for you okay?” I cringed, I collapsed into myself, but I decided not to tell my parents. I chose not to become different from my other classmates. I couldn’t envisage me being the only girl in the class to wear a dupatta. That would have been a shame. If I succumbed to fatshaming, it meant that I acknowledged that my bosom was a problem. I said yes to the teacher, but no to myself. I wore a dupatta only after I was promoted to Class 8.
My family was in a reunion. The oldest aunt in the family pulled my mother, directed her index finger at me, with a scowl on her face. I knew what was coming. I was livid and rebellious. “Why would you bring her like this? First cover her chest with a dupatta!” the aunt was almost yelling at my mother. I stood there, listening to the conversation. My mother uttered a feeble okay and I shot an angry glance at my aunt. That was all I could do then. But I continued to attend social gatherings without wearing a dupatta. I made my statement that way.
I walk to the men’s section to buy shirts; the salesgirls smirk. I ask for the next size and they stifle a giggle. At markets, strangers pass lewd remarks. Random women ask me in restrooms, “Where do you buy your plus-size clothes?” I wonder why they think it’s not a crime to ask personal questions to a total stranger.
Despite being rebellious, I felt like a victim. I bought clothes online to avoid human interaction and the ridicule. I chose oversized black clothes. I boycotted gyms because the trainers who had to be patient and empathetic were condescending. I was often mistaken for a man. (I still walk behind my boyfriend, use him as a shield since security guards rush to run their hands on me, presuming I am a man.) I intensely experienced the need to lose weight, become fit, look feminine. I still do. But since last year, the need seems less depressing and more motivating. I work out, try to watch what I eat, move often, because it feels good and I owe it to the people who love me.
Everyone was so worried about me when I broke my ankle and it confused me. I have a huge, loving family and a solid circle of friends, but these things were something of an abstraction, something to take for granted, and then all of a sudden, they weren’t… There were lots of concerned texts and e-mails, and I had to face something I’ve long pretended wasn’t true, for reasons I don’t fully understand. If I died, I would leave people behind who would struggle with my loss. I finally recognized that I matter to the people in my life and that I have a responsibility to matter to myself and take care of myself so they don’t have to lose me before my time, so I can have more time. When I broke my ankle, love was no longer an abstraction. It became this real, frustrating, messy, necessary thing, and I had a lot of it in my life. It was an overwhelming thing to realize. I am still trying to make sense of it all even though it has always been there.
I never had the right words to pin down my thoughts and then Roxane Gay’s book happened. It’s loud and sincere and burning. I am glad I read the book because I now have the vocabulary to embrace my journey. And I think we all must read the book because our bodies deserve the sort of respect that Gay advocates. This pale blue dot is everybody’s.
Deepika Ramesh is a reader, blogger, animal-lover, aspiring cyclist, and a sucker for tiny, warm moments.