Body image
It might seem like a casual joke to you, but body-shaming is never fun for a kid.

What is it like growing up a fat kid?

For Bengaluru-based Ramya*, it wasn’t just about being called nicknames that were always some version of “fatty”. It was also about random people asking if she had thyroid problems and being put through multiple medical tests. It was also about being told she couldn’t get married because of her weight.

“There was one year in school when boys in my class decided to give 'background effects' every time I walked in or out of class. It went 'dhush dhush dhush',” the 28-year-old recounts.

Ramya’s experiences aren’t all that unique. They resonate with everyone who’s grown up overweight and has been euphemistically called “healthy” – an ironic term considering that the usual environment around these children is anything but that.

Bengaluru-based video editor Alka* first saw herself as “fat” when she was 12. It was after a family vacation, where she put on a lot of weight. Soon, everyone in her family and friends circle began calling her some version of “moti”. While there was a tone of endearment in their voice, the 29-year-old soon began to equate her weight with her self-worth.

“I was always an underconfident person, but this made it worse. Initially it didn’t affect me much and even I would make jokes about my weight, making others think it was okay too. But it did make me feel unattractive. In fact, I would always equate a guy's disinterest in me to my being ‘fat and ugly’,” she says.

Alka’s experience raises a pertinent point – most people think overweight men and women don’t have sexual or romantic feelings and are not attractive in those respects. In Ramya’s case, this fed into a much more dangerous idea – that children who are deemed “unattractive” cannot be molested.

When Ramya was in Class 7, a stranger on the road lured her into an alley one morning when she was out to buy milk. Fortunately, a neighbour saw it happening, intervened and confronted the man.

“I ran as soon as he let go of me. The same day in school, there was a guest lecture where they spoke about child sexual abuse. I recounted what happened, and my teacher told me I should stop making up stories,” she narrates.

Ramya also says that because of her weight, it was assumed that she wouldn’t be interested in sports or athletic activities. But for Pune-based Sameeksha*, it was her mother’s perception that playing in the sun would make her dark and prone to being teased that put a stop to her physical exercise.

“My mother used to play a lot as a child and was made fun of for her tanned look, so she didn't want the same happening to me. I didn't play any sport or do anything that would count as exercise. I was always chubby but the lack of exercise and a good appetite led to me putting on even more weight,” the 31-year-old says.

While Sameeksha’s academic performance and popularity in school kept her from thinking that her weight was an issue, it hit her in her 20s. “There were more mean comments from people and I used to feel self-conscious and miserable at times. I was also getting sick of not finding nice clothes,” she says.

Sameeksha also says that it’s harder being a girl who’s overweight. “Even now, weight is a much more common topic of discussion among women than men,” she says. Ramya agrees: “Boys are not judged as harshly as girls. Fat boys I have known have the same sense of entitlement as other boys. Fat girls lack confidence – other girls do too, but fat girls have more issues.”

18-year-old Siddharth’s* story is a case in point. He says that he has always been on the heavier side – thanks to his sedentary lifestyle as well as unhealthy diet. However, neither his parents nor friends have ever made malicious comments about his weight.  

“I don’t think people treated me differently. They would sometimes show concern about my health but that’s it. I feel shy to go bare chested and sometimes feel like shopping for standard clothes rather than the free size ones, but don’t feel compelled to lose weight otherwise,” he says.

However, this is not to say that boys do not face scrutiny because of their weight. For Apurva, a senior production manager based in Mumbai, having a chiseled body like that of Hrithik Roshan was the ideal as a teen.

Unlike the women quoted here, Apurva’s family and teachers did not treat him differently. However, his peers avoided him.

“I wouldn’t get invited to birthday parties or sleepovers, and school recesses were spent roaming in the corridors alone. I was called names. People would pick at my ‘moobs’ (derogatory term for a flabby male chest) and flab. I looked at myself in the mirror and cried. It affected my behaviour. I tried to be ‘cool’, but it wasn’t me,” he says bitterly.  

His trigger to lose weight was his grandmother calling him an ‘elephant’ twice in one sentence two months before he was about to start college. He registered at a gym, followed a healthy diet and lost 22kgs in two months.

While losing weight in the healthy way satisfied Apurva, not everyone equates being thin to being happy. Ramya, who was put on a diet even as a child, says: “I like food, I don't like exercise, and while I've been at different weights through the years, being thin doesn't particularly make me happy and being fat doesn't particularly make me sad.”

For Alka, this is her third attempt to lose weight. But she too says that losing weight should be a personal choice and based on health reasons. “Find ways to love yourself, and everyone around you will love you, no matter what your size or weight is,” she says.

But one thing that all of them wish for is a more supportive environment around them when they grew up. “Making mean comments doesn't motivate anyone. Exercise should be fun if anyone is to make it part of their lifestyle. Tearing into your child's self-esteem will do them no good,” Sameeksha says.  

(*Names changed)