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A collage of the covers of various Nacy Drew books
Mills & Boons Covers
CategoriesPopular Culture and SexualityThe I Column

The Unlovable Love Handles

While growing up, I was a fat kid who was always overweight and shy of stepping on the weighing scale. However, I was able to live happily without being bothered about my weight. I always thought that I had a lot going for me so my weight (or rather the excess of it) would not be able to hold me back. Moreover, my love for food was too special to be hindered by considerations of the scale. Whenever we would go to shop for clothes and clothes would refuse to fit me, my mother would plead with me to do something about my body fat, but I would turn a blind eye and seek refuge in a plate of chole bhature as soon as the shopping was done. In present day lingo, my 10-year-old self would probably be called a big ‘foodie’.

The only thing that paralleled my love for food was my love for books. When not studying, I would be found reading a novel and would even claim to my parents that I would grow up to be a librarian just so that I could surround myself with books. What came as a close third to my first two loves was my love for watching television. It was a guilty pleasure that was my weekend and weekday plan for all of those hours when my parents were at work. As I grew, my love for food, books and television grew, and so did my body fat. However, from reading comic books and watching the Discovery channel, I switched to watching romantic comedies and gorging on Mills and Boon and Nancy Drew. Little did I know that these brushes with popular culture were going to endanger my love for myself, and how!

As I went from one Mills and Boon to the other, I realised that the descriptions of the ‘heroine’ in each of the books was always this svelte woman with petite waist, flawless skin and glorious hair. She was so beautiful that the ‘hero’ was bedazzled by her beauty and would lose his train of thought just by looking at her. The hero was often a Greek God himself, with sculpted abs and a muscular athletic body so strong that he could lift the heroine as easily as though she were feather-weight. While these descriptions were an insult to my intelligence and made me scoff, my cynicism did not stop me from harbouring similar romantic notions of being swept off my feet by a knight in shining armour and being shown the land of love in which everything was a thing of beauty. But each time I fantasised about such a possibility, I would realise that I, with my flabby belly and thunder thighs was not a thing of beauty to behold and would be an utter mismatch in such a world. Each time I would look into the mirror, I would see the love handles bulging through my shirt and cringe inwardly. Mills and Boon had convinced me that my body was not loveable like that of the thin, beautiful protagonists, and thus, there would no knights coming for me on horses, now or later. But, it was not just Mills and Boon; even as I read Nancy Drew, I was struck by the fact that Nancy not only was a smart girl but also was great to look at and had a lovely body to support her wise mind. Thus, the Nancy Drew books told me that intelligence was not enough by itself because if I was not beautiful, then even intelligence would not get me anywhere. This message added further insult to injury but I could not stop reading these books because they were my gateway to fantasy. I thought that since the romanticised version of reality that was sold by these books would not come true for me, atleast I should sample as much of this fantasy as possible through the books. But with every helping I sampled, the feeling of not being desirable was augmented.

I did not realise when I started hating my body and conferred on it the label of ‘fat’, but the process was certainly aided by the movies and television shows that I watched. The romantic comedies that I watched, one after the other, made me feel so good and bad at the same time. While I would get completely engrossed in the story and feel ecstatic when the women in the movies got their ‘happy endings’ (or so they seemed at that point), I would feel extremely inadequate while thinking about my own body and desirability. The movies told me, much more powerfully than the books, that only a certain body type was desirable and worthy of being loved. Even in movies where the lead protagonist did not look desirable, the entire plot was focused upon the transformation of the woman from an ugly duckling into a swan through a magical makeover. I internalised these ideas so strongly that I soon started watching such movies only for the makeover without understanding the grave damage the underlying message was causing to my psyche.

Transformation became the buzzword in my head to such a degree that it drove me to starve myself and exercise like there was no tomorrow when I was 15 years old. I started working out for a couple of hours daily while not eating even a single complete meal in the day. As a consequence, I lost 13 kilos in 3 months and did get the transformation I desired, but in a manner that I was completely unprepared for. Unfortunately, none of the possible harms/side effects of a transformation had been mentioned, even as a disclaimer, in movies which showcased these overnight transformations. With the loss in body weight, came issues associated with my digestive system and immunity. The episodes of starvation gave way to episodes of binge-eating and the associated feelings of guilt leading to a vicious cycle in which I find myself trapped till this day, though to a lesser degree. But the real big side effect that came with the transformation was the feeling of disappointment when it did not really boost my love life the way I had hoped it would.

Losing weight did not amount to suddenly finding myself being courted by a handsome hunk the way the movies had seemed to portray. However, disguised as disappointment was also the life lesson that I was more than my weight, and my sexual appeal was not solely defined by my weight. Looking back, I realise the degree to which the way I perceive myself was shaped by popular culture. Till date, these influences affect me quite strongly and now even more so with the advent and the proliferation of social media, which makes these influences almost inescapable. In the midst of this difficult time, I tightly hold onto that teenage disappointment for it serves as a constant reminder to take everything that popular culture seems to depict with a pinch of salt. It encourages me to ensure that I do not let the dominant narrative diminish me to a label or distort my story.

Article written by:

Shivangi Gupta is a 27 years old mental health professional and social science researcher who is extremely passionate about all things within the realm of mental health, sexuality and social justice.