Author's Note: This one is like a swift kick up your arse; it can hurt, but it can also set you straight.
My last conversation with my parents regarding marriage was when on a family skype call my dad asked me what my plans were after my masters. The answer to that in a nutshell is that I’ll be seriously considering continuing on with my PhD. After telling them that I watched as the realisation sunk in of what this implied; I’ll be 28 when I finish my masters. Add 3-5years for a PhD after that and I’d be 31 in the very least. If I’m on the shelf now, by then I’ll be past my shelf life. I was proud of how composed my mum was as she asked me, “So, what about marriage?” When I replied with I’m not opposed to marriage but I will think of it only when I have someone in my life I’d want as a partner through the rest of it, I was amazed and heartened by the lack of response. No fireworks, no prolonged discussions, nothing. Be still my beating heart, I think we’ve got it! If you’re struggling to grasp the enormity of nothingness, you don’t know what a long and treacherous journey this has been.
If this is where we are (and there still might be occasional reprisals of the old theme) then the transformation from where we started has been vast. They started at a point when my mother’s list for me had on it a Punjabi/Sikh boy, at least 5 feet 10 inches in height, kind and generous in nature with a love of music, poetry and dancing. She lamented the fact that she herself loved dancing and music, and dad seemed to do a fair imitation of being tone-deaf with 2 left feet on most occasions. Since she knew that I loved these things myself, she made sure that she added those qualities on her shopping list. My dad chipped in with ‘well-educated, ambitious, able to match wits and discuss philosophy (or the like) with me and not of the armed forces’ on his part. Both agreed on the fact that he should be from a decent family with good social standing, and disagreed on the armed forces bit. My mother insisted that I’d make a fabulous Army wife, and my dad felt that that would be no life for me. They compromised on letting me make that choice for myself. My mother also made a few concessions that she felt I would much appreciate, me being all too radical. First, that the boy need not be fair, as it is men are so much more fetching when they are tall, dark and handsome, and secondly, it’d be fine if the guy were a Sikh who trimmed his beard, or a clean shaven Sikh/Punjabi with short hair.
Armed with this shopping list, they’d have prospective grooms lined up in a jiffy. What they weren’t anticipating is a daughter whose ideas in life made her a less than worthy prospective bride in the eyes of other buyers in the market, and for the longest time they were adamant on not acknowledging the one trait that made her even less than that; it made her defective merchandise! I only pray that they can soon see that that’s a darned good thing.
I like to believe that this transition in large part is a product of us having gleaned a deeper understanding of each other; and of them acknowledging that my beliefs matter. I have chosen to lead life and be vocal about my beliefs in a way that has made them very uncomfortable, and we as a family unit have chosen to deal with that discomfort rather than pretend that our differences don’t matter or that we can compartmentalise our lives in a way that those could exist side by side. From my views on religion, sexual and gender diversity, the rampant patriarchy of our culture; we’ve had to talk about some pretty serious stuff and they’ve had to reassess the social guidelines that they have lived by. Even though I haven’t asked them to change their views for my sake, it’s inevitable that theirs have softened and expanded. They’ve seen me and in large part supported me as I have actively worked in the arena of gender and sexuality. They’ve been witness to me talking about sex openly, taking an affirmative stance on LGBT issues, being close to men and women who are openly gay (and having my parents mingle with them as I would with any friends of mine), being best friends with a man (and again, having my parents engage with the reality of the fact that I have several meaningful relationships and deep affection for people of the opposite gender whom I am not romantically involved with in any way), belly dancing, living alone, flatting with a guy, riding a motorbike, travelling alone(at all times of day and night), shifting cities and states and continents, be vocally opposed to organised religion and simply living my life on my own terms. All these things, they’ve at first resisted, then accepted, and finally begun to defend to those who have nothing better to do than talk about me. I still remember my father fuming about someone who asked him, “How can you allow your daughter to talk about sex when she’s not married?”, or “How can you allow her to live on her own?”, or “Your daughter has gotten way out of hand!” Though I laughed at the underlying assumptions, I fumed at the notion of being “allowed” to live my life. Nevertheless, one of the good things to come out of all this is the fact that they reluctantly agreed that in the marriage mart, I was less than savoury goods.
Conservative as the marriage mart is, not all goods are created equal in here. Where the highest bidders would keep an eye out for men and women who are abiding to the diktats of their religion and community values, gender conforming, educated but not too “liberal”, able bodied, and pleasing to the eye; those such as ‘aging spinsters’, widows and widowers, divorcees, and others would be left scrambling at the bottom of the heap. Unless of course they can mitigate their sins by other such virtues as having tons of money, or coming from an established family or the sort. Below that would be those who in being considered by prospective in-laws would simultaneously establish how accepting and liberal they are; people with disabilities for instance, or those belonging to a different caste. Through years of social commentary on my part, and open discussion at the family level, my parents have come to agree with this assessment. I must get my idealism from them though, for they continue to insist that the people who believe in such norms wouldn’t be suitable families for me at all and of course they can see that! All they want is my happiness and so they will find me someone who is ideologically aligned with me. They continue to hold me to the promise made in my tender youth that I will at least consider someone they pick out for me, if they will be open (not grudgingly but happily) to me marrying someone of my own accord. As humbling as their faith is in families with eligible sons who as a group are open-minded, liberal, feminist, non-religious, non-caste/community-specific, etc. there is something that puts me beyond the pale even for those haloed individuals and it breaks my parents’ heart- it is of course the fact that I’m fat! Who would willingly hitch their son to a fat bride, and what kind of man will ever want her for one anyway?!
The difference when it comes to this one point is that they believe this to be true, which of course breaks my heart even more. Not the part about having no credibility in the marriage mart, anything that hinders my participation in the matrimonial circus is fine by me…no, the part that gets to me is the underlying belief that being fat renders me undesirable and ineligible as a romantic partner. Let’s just look at this intersection once again before we proceed further; I don’t believe that this is true of all people generally, but I do believe that it is true in the arranged marriage circles which is okay. My parents believe this to be true of all people generally and of the arranged marriage circles in particular, because, of course it’s true! And that is not okay. I believe this is a great cause for concern and heartache for them, which is doubly not okay. I hate that they hurt, and I hate that they don’t see how this is hurtful, and I hate that sometimes when they do see the hurtfulness of it, they hurt some more.
Apart from the fact that I’ve grown up listening to how if I don’t lose weight no one will ever want to marry me, and how men don’t find fat women attractive, and how I’d be so beautiful and amazing when I lost weight that men would fall prostrate at my feet begging me to just look at them please!, there was one particular conversation last year that left me incredulous.
My mother was in the kitchen, cooking, when I walked in to generally hang out and chit chat with her. I came and hugged her from behind as I usually do, which lead to a conversation about my weight as it usually does. There’s just something about the cushy softness of a full-bodied hug that gets my mum thinking about her reach and my girth. We’d been having conversations about health at every size, and my decision to stop dieting and targeting weight loss as a goal for health for some time now. With the separation of the two, weight and health that is, deeper beliefs about beauty and desirability were also coming to the fore. One time when I was still in Pune and had a very emotional phone conversation with my mother about the health/weight conflation, I remember my mother agreeing with me on everything yet insisting that I please not give up trying to lose weight. After all, the party line on familial interest in me losing weight was always “do it for your health”, and all the other more tricky observations that everyone knew I’d want to argue against were never really used as a trump. So now, with nowhere left to turn, and still not wanting to say it in so many words (because of course she loves me) my mother told me that I very well knew why, and that I shouldn’t try to push her into saying the words because they’d be hurtful and ugly. There was helplessness there, and anger.
So, let’s come back to the kitchen, keeping in mind that these issues were being broached off and on. My mother says to me, “Will you at least consider liposuction?” This was not the first time she’d said that to me.
I replied, “No mama, I’m not going to get any kind of surgery.” I was surprised that she still was on this after everything we’d discussed about bariatric surgery.
“But this is not bariatric,” she said, “and it is not for your health. It’s purely cosmetic!”
She had apparently seen some television program where a doctor performs live liposuction on himself sucking out the fat from his “double chin” demonstrating how harmless it is. Viola! All this fat almost magically sucked out and collected in beakers for all to marvel and gawk at. I was going through a lot then, emotionally, and knew this conversation could lead nowhere useful. Yet, I pushed.
“Why cosmetically? What do you think is wrong with me? And you do know that most of the weight will come back in a year or two, right?”
She responded with, “Well, if you get it done and lose enough weight we can look for a boy for you, and get you engaged. Once you’re married, it wouldn’t matter if the weight came back! As long as you stay this way, we can’t even look for a boy. Then you’re going to go off to New Zealand, and where will that leave us?”
Well, I’d asked.
The conversation quickly escalated from there, with me shouting about how disgusting I thought that way of thinking was and how little must they think of me to think that I’d con a man into marrying me! I didn’t even want to get married yet, dammit! And I sure hoped that when the time came it’d be mutual “wanting to be married to each other” that’d lead to the union. Not this, this, trickery! Yuck. Well, that was that. We were both in tears, and she wasn’t talking to me anymore. I thought that’d be the end of it, and I was wrong.
Later in the evening my dad called me to his room saying there was something he wanted to talk to me about. Uh oh, this couldn’t be good. Years of being commanded to “fall in” by my dad while growing up meant that I knew this would be a serious conversation.
Not surprisingly then my Dad opened with, “Your mother told me that you really hurt her this afternoon with what you said to her and how you said it.”
Hurt HER? Incredulous, I asked, “Do you know the details of what happened?” Yes, he nodded. He didn’t see what was so preposterous in what my mother suggested. At that point I lost it. Completely.
“Are you telling me that I am too fat for a man to want to have sex with me, that that is the one important criteria when it comes to marriage, and there is nothing wrong in me surgically altering my body to fit that man’s ideal of fuckability just so I can be considered marriageable? Spare me the generosity! If I weren’t going to find the whole arranged marriage business abhorrent before this, this ought to do it!” Tears, frustration, hurt, anger….it was open season! With each word I saw my dad’s face shutting down.
In almost a monotone he replied, “Don’t use those words with me, and don’t talk to me like that!”
“And why not? If we’re going to be talking about this, let’s at least be honest.”
“Fine,” he said, “Have it your way. Yes, no man is going to find you attractive like this, and don’t pretend that that isn’t important. Let’s face it that if we’re going to even look around for a groom, we can’t do that with you looking like this. You’ve got everything, so why wouldn’t you listen to us about this?”
At this point I don’t know if I was more livid or more hurt. I guess I wanted to shock him into seeing the ridiculousness of what he was saying when I said, “yes, so I will go under the knife, connive to “trap” a guy into marrying me, then when we are married apart from living with the fact that I have so little self-respect that I had to trap a guy into marriage, I will also look forward to the day when I gain back the weight and am no longer attractive to my husband! He will know he was trapped then, I guess. I suppose you know the statistics on adultery? And I also suppose that you think he would be justified in getting “it” somewhere else because he has a fat wife and that is certainly not what he bargained for when he saddled himself with a wife to breed for him?”
I don’t quite remember if my dad said that yes, a man would probably cheat on a fat wife. I think he did, but I also remember that at the time tempers were running high and we were having an unproductive conversation that was needling our worst fears and insecurities. Never in my life have I doubted that I am loved, but I also know without a doubt how deeply my parents believe that fat is unlovable and unattractive. It only follows from that that if I remain this size and someone does fall in love with me, he’d be doing a great commendable generous thing. I probably think my parents will be grateful to him for loving their daughter whom they so heartbreakingly love, but know is flawed when it comes to “desirability.”
My. Heart. Breaks. For them, and for me.
I for one believe that fat people do fall in love, are loved in turn, have wonderfully hot kinky sex, marry, have children, and everything else in the spectrum of sexual and romantic intimacy. I have seen it. I know people who live those lives every day. I am happy to not be fit for an arranged marriage, for various reasons I am ideologically opposed to it. Yet, when I live my life as a fat person I carry their hurt around and it becomes mine. I know they are far from being the only ones who think that way, and quite frankly what anyone else believes is their business. I will thank them for not polluting my space with their vicious garbage. But it’s another matter to know that the two people you probably love the most in the world, are hurt by it not just because they hear it, but because they believe it. I hope one day that will change.
In the meantime, I have the freedom to enjoy my rocking single life and mingle with like-minded men to my heart’s content. Maybe someday one of those men will hold my fancy for long enough, and I his, for us to consider marriage. I am very aware though, of how privileged I am to be able to do that. In this beautiful country of ours where women are pressured to take a husband, are valued by their capacity to do so, and so many of them believe it to be central to their happiness; I shudder to think of the extent of their ordeal, or the damage we so blithely do to them by continuing to propagate the skewed ideals of desirability and worth. For shame.
~The Fat Chick