The simple truth is that my body and I are having an affair. We each obsess about the other, ask questions and desire each other so much, that it often borders on the shameless. My body is more in love with me, I suspect, than the other way around. It makes more demands, more angry retorts, is arrogant as hell, and so in my face with its needs, than I am with it. Appeasing it is a challenge. One that I fail ever so often.
Even so, I wish this love affair had started much earlier. As with many love stories, ours is one of strangers meeting and disliking each other. It was a difficult body to love – tall, large. As a child though, it was much loved by others. It was a cute, chubby one and everyone wanted to pinch its cheeks and kiss it and behave inappropriately. Only then, this behaviour wasn’t considered inappropriate. It was considered a reaction to cuteness. That sweet body then grew, in awkward ways, in dissonance with what was expected of it in society, and therefore I was never sure of how to deal with it.
Being tall and fat as a young girl is not the best for anyone’s ego. Never being selected as a heroine in plays, and always only as the tree, the storyteller, or some such. Unable to leap around because the body was not light enough made folk dances impossible. And as all of us who have grown up in India know, there would always be some school event where dances were critical. (Helped impart culture to young minds!)
As one grew older, the more the others’ bodies grew in ways that were approved of, mine had a life of its own. Always defiant, always wanting to be different! That it was tall was significant, and that it was the tallest in school even more so. Curvaceous, yes, but curves where there should be none. A stomach that curved out, an arse that curved in (while others had pert bottoms), and breasts non-existent. All of this accompanied with a mind advanced beyond its years and very alive with thoughts and dreams. When boys appeared on the scene, it wasn’t possible to dream anything with them because they were far too short and conscious of having to look up at me.
Teenage is not a lovely time. Nuanced understanding was severely lacking all around, so it was never that crushes were reciprocated or adventures were had. All happened in the head; the creator, the dreamer, the director, and the star cast was I. Even the conversations were drafted in my head, and so there were limited chances of being hurt. If the hero in question did not know of my existence, then there was no fear. I could create stories where passion ran deep. When I was a teenager, passion meant smiling at each other as one passed down the corridor, or walking to class together. Others spent hours deconstructing the meaning of ‘the smile’ or certain words that had been used. I didn’t have to do any of that, because in my life, all this was created by me in my head, and there was no room for doubt that the person loved me or desired me or whatever it was I wanted the person to do!
Intimacy, love, and desire often do not need another person; you need imagination, dreams, and the power to be happy with the one that you are. There are multitudes outside of you that you can embrace in your head and have all kinds of relationships with.
The challenge, however, had to do with what happened outside that head. Random men offering up a penis as a special treat for me to behold, hands leaning forward to grab a breast, or someone cycling close enough to slap my back. I have spent many hours trying to dissect this and understand the pleasure that is to be derived from these behaviours. What is so exciting for them about this touch? Why do they feel a need for it? Why is it that I have never felt the need to show my vulva to random people as they pass by or felt that I wanted to touch their penis or breasts or whatever it is that fascinated me at that point? Maybe I just didn’t feel the passion enough?
The silence around the body ensured that the two of us didn’t really bond at all. There were minimal moments of recognising each other. It was useful to have around but did we understand each other? Not at all!
Then puberty hits and all hell breaks loose. Now the body has acquired an importance outside of the self. I am not the person who bonds with it – the family, society, the world at large decides to befriend it and dictate what needs to be done or not done. Size, shape, form and the behaviours approved for it are dictated outside of me. I hate it even more. It is not the body that makes the call, but I blame the body for what is expected of it.
The head and heart discover feminism and all that it entails. The body now loses all importance. Fat is beautiful, and who is the body to say anything to me – especially since the body is being dictated to me by others. Polycystic ovaries turn up, bringing along hair growth on the face, hair loss on the head, and the Catch-22 situation of weight gain when one is supposed to lose weight to rid oneself of the effects of PCOS. During my first encounter with a gynaecologist, she asks me to see a therapist. I wonder why. She explains that I have Stein Leventhal Syndrome. PCOS was first described by Irving Freiler Stein and Michael Leventhal in 1935, and the syndrome is named after them. She opens a textbook and I read: “It is characterised by hyperandrogenism, hyperinsulinemia, central obesity, polycystic ovaries, and anovulation and therefore possible infertility.” Tick mark in front of every one of these. My body has now betrayed me! This, however, is not the reason I am asked to see a therapist. Apparently, infertility is something that I need to sort my head around. I, a woman, may not be able to bear children and that would necessarily – at least the doctor seemed to think – lead to me having a breakdown! Maternal instincts not being fulfilled seemed like an imminent tragedy to her. For me, it was a matter of elation. Unwanted pregnancy was the only reason for condom usage – these were still the days before HIV and AIDS or common talk of STIs etc. No babies meant no condoms, meant no negotiations needed with men, and one could be at it whenever one wanted. Yay, PCOS had its uses!
PCOS also had its terrible effects. ‘Womanliness’ got thrown out of the window. Now I had a moustache, a beard, thinning hair on the head and thick hair elsewhere… What was I to do with this new reality of my body? It hadn’t endeared itself to me ever, and now I felt further distanced from it. A body that doesn’t fit the norm elicits unwanted comments, critiques, and self-help tips from the world at large. Suddenly everyone I met was concerned about my eating habits, my value in the marriage market, the gender I was since there did seem to be a dissonance between what I said I was and what I passed as! People stopped me in shops and streets and markets and offered advice around weight loss, hair removal, ayurvedic remedies, natural ways to depilate, and so on. Such concern! But once again, the traitorous body lived by its own terms. It did pretty much what it wanted to. It grew sideways, it didn’t menstruate as much as it should have, and it sprouted hair to make waxing a necessary weekly activity. If I didn’t wax, I would have to respond to the quizzical look on people’s faces when they saw me. Incidentally, how does it help to know whether someone is male or female? Those days, this was the only way to talk of gender. Does it enhance the quality of life for the onlooker? Does it enable conversation? I got used to being asked by children as well as adults whether I was a man or woman, and it didn’t help that I had a deep voice – sexy is the term used now. Then, it was a manly voice for a manly body – ergo, I must be a man!
The body was kind too. All of this didn’t stop the body from being loved by strangers and lovers. The head and the mind stepped in and over-compensated for what was not. I developed a personality. That ‘oomph’ which is often what helps one to survive: “She may not be beautiful, but she has great personality.” I thrived on that. I learnt to be everything that my body was not – sexy, alluring, smart, enticing and developed a panache that was seductive. What was there not to like? I lived by my rules and that seemed to be hugely attractive to others. The body got overlooked completely and there I was – ready to conquer the world. My body invited ‘friend-zoning’ but my other attributes attracted lust and desire. Talk about a binary existence!
My body and I are now in a committed relationship. We listen to each other, we speak to each other and we cohabit the same spaces in a happy way. As in any love affair where the lovers have ‘settled together’, we do sometimes get irritated, anxious, and pernickety, and complain to each other. But the passion has increased and it is an amazing journey that we have re-embarked upon.