When I was nine years old, I went to India for my grandfather’s funeral. After the cremation ritual, I was gathered into a room of extended family (most of whom were strangers to me) where the following conversation took place:
Random Uncle: “Do you ever walk on the treadmill?”
Me, a fairly active kid who did hours of dance, basketball, and swimming, and was yes chubby: “Hain Ji?” *yes sir*
Random Uncle: “At what speed? ZERO!”
*eruption of laughter from the surrounding guests*
His Wife: “Take it from me; all the housework you’ll have to do when you’re married will keep it off, but it’s better to start now. We only care about you.”
Image Description: Picture of Oprah wearing a purple sweater and white button-down. Saying “what?”. This image was a snippet from Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle.
While this was not the first time I heard these kinds of comments from family members, I was crushed. And I sat crying at my grandfather’s funeral, not out of the sadness of his passing (because, to be honest, I didn’t know him very well), but because relatives I didn’t even know decided their opinions on my body were so profound that they had a dire need to communicate them with all the surrounding patrons and me IMMEDIATELY.
Image Description: Pictured is a graphic design from @recipiesforselflove on Instagram. The image displays a pale pink background and the text “stop fat-shaming disguised as health concerns” is placed slightly left of center. A black woman is illustrated in the bottom right-hand corner wearing a blue tank top and black pants. She is encompassed in a greyish-pink circle and surrounded by tall green plants.
From the first moment of our consciousness, we (women of color) are raised to think of weight as one of our defining characteristics. Something that measures how much human decency we will be allotted, how many people will treat us with respect, and of course, “most importantly” (as many of my fellow South Asian women have been told) how many marriage proposals we will receive when we are older. It does not matter how much we work out or eat nutrient-rich meals; if we do not visually conform to society’s standard of the ideal body, we are not only ridiculed for it, but our existence itself is categorized as inferior. We are silenced, shunned, and demonized for simply existing in non-white, fat bodies. Whether it is from how we observe the world or how we are treated within it, we grow to learn that being fat equates with being of less value, and so we turn to the alternative: ensuring “smallness” by any means necessary.
In order to contextualize western diet culture’s impact on specifically women of color, it is critical to understand its origin as being one compounded by systems of white supremacy and the patriarchy. These systems feed into the creation of a diet culture stemming from anti-blackness that is used as a tool to pit women and groups of color against one another.
Diet Culture & Women of Color
For many communities of color, the discrepancy between how we are taught to consume food—in schools and from our friends—and the cultural foods we enjoy in the comfort of our own homes cultivates a relationship with food defined by confusion, embarrassment, and shame. We are taught that things like carbs and “fatty” oils are the devil incarnate, and for cultural diets—defined by dishes artfully composed of rice and noodles—this can be detrimental. The Indian meals of my childhood like khichdi, pulao, and pav bhaji—rich in spices and made with a foundation of rice or bread—would be considered “unhealthy” because of the carbs and oil they contain. These very meals that nursed me back to health when I fell sick and energized me after hours of dance practice; would also be the source of my shame during school lunch periods and visits to the doctor’s office. Any nutritional value and traditional significance of these and other cultural dishes are often overshadowed by a mistaken idea of what is “healthy”—which in this case really equates to practices that result in supposed physical “smallness.”
The need to conform society to one idea of “health”—which standardizes a “correct” diet —controls how communities of color and communities of women form their relationships with food and nourishment. Health, in this case, becomes a concept encompassing what patterned behaviors keeps one from becoming fat. It dictates how individuals must engage in nutrition in exchange for societal acceptance. This phenomenon, while detrimental to all people—in this case explicitly discussing those impacted by Western practices of diet culture—affects women of color differently as they live in the limbo of two different, often competing cultural identities, each with their own social diet pressures, in conjunction with the necessary pursuit of femininity.
To center white-ness when creating the standard and “correct” American diet, colonizes nutrition and manipulates the mentality around health. It serves to Other* various cultural diets by making Western “health foods” the norm and vilifying any foods that stray from these guidelines. In turn, society claims that the very recipes that strengthened our ancestors, the very recipes that have quite literally borne and sustained our lineages are unacceptable. In reality, what is unacceptable is the rhetoric of disgust and inferiority that often marks cultural food sources. The idea that one should not consume the traditional dishes of their ancestry because of the “white” ideal diet is racist.
Take, for instance, the narrative surrounding MSG (monosodium glutamate)—a food additive utilized in many foods and “naturally found in foods like tomatoes and cheese”(Yeung, 2020), but ridiculed because of its use in traditional Chinese meals. The media has marked MSG as a dangerous and unhealthy ingredient and has linked it to conditions like asthma, drowsiness, and headaches (but not by any scientific backing). This racist rhetoric has steered people away from MSG and has forced the Chinese American community to be mindful of the backlash they may face in using the ingredient, especially for restaurant owners. The overall stigma that surrounds this ingredient displays just how much power white institutions have in dispelling the use of products, especially when those products hold a particular significance in BI-POC cultural cuisines.
The Implications of the Small Feminine Body
There is also a physical element to the requirement of smallness for feminine bodies. It operates under the assumption that women should occupy as little space as physically possible so as to keep their positions of power stifled. The presumption is that women—as the “submissive” gender—must bolster male masculinity by embodying the opposite characteristics of what men possess. By this “rule,” if men are meant to be large to monopolize space and contribute to their dominance, women must then be as small as possible to make “smaller” men adhere to this expectation. Women alone must assume the burden of changing themselves to allow for men to conform to the ideals they have set. Straying away from this ideal—embodying fatness and taking up greater space as a woman—means undermining these systems of the patriarchy that award men greater dominion over the world.
For women of color who reside in the western world, the pursuit of femininity means the expectation of smallness is compounded by the need (for survival purposes) to shed their melanin and present as light-skinned as possible. Because society masculinizes women of color, specifically brown and black women, they must pursue femininity more extremely because of their skin color. If not, they are ridiculed and solidify their low position on the social ladder. Because of this they feel a greater emphasis to conform to the ideals of western femininity, which encompasses the prerequisite of smallness. In doing so, they may often feel at odds with connecting to the traditional cultural foods they grew up with and abiding by the rules of the society in which they reside.
Imperialism's production of the beauty standard—the necessity of thinness and whiteness—for women and girls in places like India portrays this phenomenon at work. The colonial impact left by Persia and Britain in South Asia has ingrained ideologies about correct body shape, colorism, and anti-blackness.
Image Description: Pictured is a scene from the era of British rule in India. Depicted are British soldiers, dressed in red and white garments, invading an Indian palace. The soldiers hold rifles and clouds of smoke surround them.
Since the reign of the Mughals and later the British East India Company, Indian culture has been defined by the idea that the highest cultural capital** is awarded to those of lighter skin and less weight. Because conforming more to this ideal cultural behavior meant increasing one's socio-economic status, adhering to the beauty standard was a matter of SURVIVAL. It meant that the closer you were to being this standard the better you would be treated by the foreigners who had come to rule your land and who controlled economic and social production within it.
Image Description: Pictured is an infographic made up of a light tan background created by Taylor Wolfram. It says “6 Ways to Be a Fat Ally”. And lists “ treat fat people with respect and dignity, call out fatphobia when you hear it and see it, seek out fat stories from fat people, believe fat people, ask restaurants, bars, special event venues, etc, to provide size-inclusive seating options, take fat friends and family to fat-accessible spaces”.
So with these foundational elements of diet culture’s impact in mind, we can then ask ourselves:
What can we do to mitigate and reverse the rather negative ramifications of this mindset?
We can change the way we think and talk about bodies
They are vessels that carry us through our day, why must we comment on every one we see ...?
We can advocate for ourselves and others when disrespectful rhetoric is used
You deserve to be vocal and correct disrespect even if it is viewed as normalized.
And maybe most importantly we can learn to view ourselves from a neutral lens
Your body is none other than how you move physically from place to place. To frame it in this way may help the preoccupation with how we are perceived because of it.
I know what you’re thinking: these tips are much easier said than done. And you are correct! But, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold ourselves accountable when we say or think about bodies negatively. It also means that if you are being degraded for your appearance: STAND UP FOR YOURSELF! Real change can only be possible when we—women of color—learn that we are worthy of taking up space in this world.
* The act of alienating something by highlighting its “abnormal” characteristics
** The amount of societal status one is given based on various factors (i.e., education, skills, wealth, and discussed the most in this case appearance)
Resources and recommendations you should be sure to check out:
Yeung, Jessie. “MSG in Chinese Food Isn't Unhealthy -- You're Just Racist, Activists Say.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 Jan. 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/18/asia/chinese-restaurant-syndrome-msg-intl-hnk-scli/index.html.
Chen, Toby, et al. “Occidentalisation of Beauty Standards: Eurocentrism in Asia.” Zenodo, Harvard University , 16 Dec. 2020, https://zenodo.org/record/4325856#.YZvkpr1Ki3I.