When Shaili Bhat – a 28-year-old lawyer from Mumbai, India – was planning her wedding in December, she knew exactly what she wanted: A low-key ceremony without the “hue and cry” that usually accompanies typical big, fat desi weddings.
She had scheduled a day of shopping in Indore, a city in central India, with her fiancé and his mother, who, per tradition, would be buying her wedding dress. She knew what style she wanted for her lehenga (a long, flowing skirt usually worn at ceremonial occasions). What she didn’t know was that it would be paired with blatant fat-shaming.
“We were at a local store where I really liked a lehenga that could be tailored to fit me,” she told VICE. “And then, the salesman told me that I would have to pay more than the price tag because it would need more kalis (the panels of fabric that come together to make a lehenga; kinda like pleats). I was told that ‘the size is bigger and so, they will obviously have to pay more,’ in a way that was matter-of-fact. Over the years, I’ve made peace with the fact that I am not regular-sized, but this really stung because it happened in front of my future in-laws who also had to bear that additional cost. It was humiliating even though the one doing the humiliation did not even realise it.”
Fat-shaming – the act of criticising or drawing attention to someone’s weight, body type or eating habits – is pretty much a universal problem. Fatphobia is built into our day-to-day lives – the clothes we wear, the healthcare we receive, the TV shows we watch.
In India, however, it’s part of our everyday vocabulary. Add an ounce of no-boundaries, a teaspoon of respect-your-elders-no-matter-what indoctrination, and a tablespoon (or a hundred) of good ol’ patriarchy, and you have a recipe that’s especially hard to digest for women. But while the bodies of most Indian women are up for public scrutiny and unwanted commentary, it’s the women who are “ready” to, are about to, or have just gotten married who experience the nastiest version of this bullying. This fits right into the culture of a country that has no place for its single women, and where million-member-strong family units often conspire to get their “daughters” married off at a “suitable” age.
A recent Instagram post by an Indian doctor who advocates sexual health has brought this grouse shared by many Indian women back in the spotlight.
“There is SO much pressure on people to lose weight before their wedding – I had that, too,” Tanaya Narendra, popularly known as Dr Cuterus, wrote in her post. “Family friends would ask why I wasn’t ‘dieting’ before my wedding (in a span of one month lmao). Some even went out of their way to send me ‘slimming teas.’”
She went on to call out a renowned Indian designer’s bridal store for adding to her distressing experience, and in a follow-up Instagram Story, wrote about how the staff “looked at me up and down and asked, ‘oh *you* are getting married?’ as if I’m inherently unmarriageable.”
The post, though not the first one calling out a major Indian designer for body-shaming brides, went viral and found resonance with several other Indian women who have had similar experiences. It gained even more traction when Instagram fashion watchdog Diet Sabya picked up a related tweet.
Among the thousands of comments by women who vibed with Narendra’s feelings and frustrations was 27-year-old Shriya Momaya, who is preparing for a wedding in November.
“Until I read her post, I was made to feel like I was the only fat bride in the world,” she told VICE. “You see all these thin brides everywhere – in magazines, movies, on the ramp – and that affects how you perceive yourself. Walk into any store and if you are anywhere above 2XL, they look at you from top to bottom, judging you. Some even directly say they have nothing in your size. At one of the stores, I liked a lehenga that was priced at Rs 40,000 ($540) but they told me that I’d have to pay Rs 58,000 ($780) for it, which is just unacceptable.”
The debate around charging more for plus-sized clothing – dubbed “fat tax” – has been hotly contested for a while now. Retailers have argued that using more fabric and, in the case of Indian bridal wear, often more embroidery or embellishments, hike up the costs. The other side, however, says that if smaller-sized people aren’t getting discounts, plus-sized folks shouldn’t have to pay a surplus because it’s cruel to single out a body type.
However, with the body positivity movement and cancel culture getting stronger, brands, especially designer ones, have found that preferring certain body sizes could hurt business in the long run.
“Many brands want to now jump on the ‘inclusive’ bandwagon,” said plus-sized model and body positivity influencer Neha Parulkar. “But that’s often just a PR gimmick. Their size charts will still end at 2XL or 3XL, or at Size 14 or 16. That is not inclusive.”
For Momaya, though, it was the shaming from people she knew that stung even more.
“My to-be mother-in-law once told my father that I should leave work for six months and concentrate on getting thinner,” said Momaya, who runs a business of luxury gift baskets. “Yesterday itself, I overheard her telling an aunt that even size zero girls look double their size in a lehenga. ‘Imagine how Shriya would look.’ It’s like me being a successful businesswoman or intelligent is not enough. The only thing that matters is that I’m overweight.”
Momaya said she has a history of depression and self-harm, and this constant critique of her body type from relatives, both close and not-so, made her depression relapse. “I almost took a step towards self-harm but could luckily control myself.”
But what is it that makes Indians think they can get away with commenting on people’s bodies? Why do aunties, who insist they are only “well-meaning,” find it perfectly normal to tell women that they’ve become “healthy” (which is just a way of saying you look bigger – lol for the irony)? How did we get to a stage where complete strangers believe they have the power to not just call a person “fat” but also suggest “remedies” for it?
“In India, we’ve grown up in a very collectivistic culture,” said psychologist and psychotherapist Hvovi Bhagwagar. This culture elevates the needs and goals of the group above the needs and desires of individuals.
“It has its upsides, and it helped us a lot through the pandemic year. But the downside is that there are no boundaries, nothing to segregate what can be said to others and what can’t, and no personal space. Parents don't stand up to protect their children either, who are expected to listen to their elders quietly, and follow their directions. There is no assertiveness and there is definitely no talking back,” Bhagwagar added.
In India, women often exercise little agency in choosing a partner, and arranged marriages are still very popular.
“In my experience, I’ve seen that the dowry is often decided in such marriages based on the woman’s height, weight, skin colour and appearance,” said Bhagwagar. “The focus is on physical beauty rather than starting a life together. Many of my female clients with pre-existing mental health issues come down hard on themselves around their wedding, and this manifests in anxiety attacks or depression. Sometimes, they won’t eat or drink enough before the wedding, the results of which might manifest after.”
Zeenat, 32, who preferred to withhold her last name because she was sure her husband and his family would not be happy about what she had to say here, said she similarly “crash landed” before her wedding.
“My mother had arranged a matchmaker to help fix my nikah (marriage under Islamic law),” she told VICE. “That wedding planner, who’s a very influential woman in our community, basically just told me that to get a decent guy who had a job and a good family, I would have to lose at least 20 kilos.”
Zeenat developed hyperthyroidism around that time, which had made her gain weight rapidly.
“But to tell me that I was not worthy of even a decent man just because I weighed an x number of kilos killed my self-esteem entirely and made me develop panic attacks,” she said.
“I got ‘rejected’ by over a dozen boys, which only made it worse. Under pressure, I said yes to a man who I did not really entirely like, but only because he ‘passed’ me. The last thing my matchmaker told me, though, was that I could’ve done a lot better had I listened to her advice about shedding that weight.”
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