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April 13, 2020

Wishful Shrinking

Text by Sadaf Shaikh. Photographed by Sushant Chhabria. Styled by Shweta Navandar. Hair and make-up by Jean-Claude Biguine, India

Pihu Sand made her acting debut as Lata Sharma, a plus-sized singer with stars in her eyes, in Fanney Khan (2018). The 22-year-old gives an honest account of how she was made to gain 20 kgs for the role and then pressured into taking it all off to sustain her relevance in an industry with demanding beauty ideals. Sadaf Shaikh, who continues to struggle with her fitness targets, weighs in…

I often find myself thinking of ‘firsts’ during my idle daytime musings. How did the first person who decided to keep a pet know exactly which species could be domesticated? Did the first person to chew on their nails feel like they were indulging in a milder form of self-cannibalism? What was going on in the mind of the first person who decided to restrict a primal human need in order to lose weight? ‘First person to go on a diet’, I type curiously into Google, wondering what could’ve prompted someone to deliberately eat less food at a time when a broader girth was indicative of a better quality of life. The search throws up William Banting who, I learn, was a noted 19th-century undertaker. He was prescribed a low-carb, high-fat diet by an inspired doctor when his obesity had forced him into descending stairs backwards to alleviate the stress on his knee joints. Twenty kgs lighter in less than a year, Banting and his impressive weight loss inspired such frenzy amongst his peers that it led to an eponymous diet plan which people still swear by more than 200 years later. I would know. After all, I was one of them.

In January 2017, I embarked on the very-high-fat, very-low-carb ketogenic diet — a stricter version of Banting — following the double whammy of my father bribing me with the promise of a motorcycle if I lost sufficient weight and a close friend mentioning that I’d be a lot prettier if I didn’t weigh 62 kgs. Up until then, I’d never really considered myself ‘fat’. Sure, my upper body was considerably slimmer in proportion to my derrière, but I took great pride in my callipygian figure, so when aspersions were cast on it, I did not process them objectively. Cut to December that same year: I weighed 50 kgs, had accentuated cheekbones, was the owner of a spanking new motorbike and revamped wardrobe — and was perpetually vexed. While I was revelling in the heady glow of thinness, my diet had launched a covert assault on my internal organs and mental health, constantly making me either constipated (owing to my lack of fibre intake) or anxious about going even a single gram over 50. Eventually, I renounced dieting altogether and have since allowed my curves and contours to take shape of their own accord, even if confined to a framework designed by me; I’ve maintained a healthy leeway for fluctuations — ups and downs if you will. And, as it goes with diets, there have been more ups than downs.

In the midst of this tumult, I married my best friend. And while it was a relatively stress-free event, I agonised about maintaining my lower weight and fitting into my wedding gown. My portions of sustenance reduced abysmally, and I was spending more time with the nutritionist than my fiancé, not to mention my trainer, who had put me on a punishing ‘bridal workout routine’, a euphemism that he proudly brandished in front of my gym partners. Something about the callousness of his using my fast-approaching D-Day as an incentive for me to exercise harder incensed me. I exploded angrily at my fiancé one day, in the middle of doing something not even remotely related to fitness. “Are you also experiencing this?!” When I managed to convince him that the aforementioned ‘this’ was not cold feet but the unsolicited pressure from his trainer, he simply said, “No, he mostly pays attention to my muscular strength.” And there it was, staring me right in the face, the inherent sexism of the whole affair. It came down to this: men exercise to become strong, and women work out to get thin. The exceptions to this rule, women like Mandira Bedi and Gurbani Judge (Bani J), who religiously toil at the gym, are criticised for relinquishing their femininity for a ripped physique in order to subvert the long-cherished notion that ‘the fairer sex’ will always have to rely on masculine strength to open a stubborn jar. But perhaps this misplaced belief stems from the deep-rooted fear of a patriarchal society that sees feminine strength as a threat to the norm of brute, ‘manly’ force. And I saw how, on a psychological level, this realisation gradually became a deterrent to my gym routine.

“Body image issues have so much to do with how women pressurise other women regarding their weight,” says Pihu Sand, who made her debut two years ago as one of the leads in the Anil Kapoor-Aishwarya Rai Bachchan-Rajkummar Rao-starrer Fanney Khan. In it, Sand essays the role of Lata Sharma, an aspiring singer who grapples with atoning for the failure of her father’s (Anil Kapoor) musical career while constantly being fat-shamed. The actor, who eventually weighed 99 kgs while shooting, never did fit Bollywood’s traditional ideal of ‘a lissome beauty’, but having to put on the additional 20 kgs to breathe life into Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s vision of Lata wasn’t kind to her body, or mind, for that matter. Perhaps this is why she’s able to contribute to today’s discussion with a wisdom that is beyond her 22 years. “Men are more lenient with each other,” Sand picks up from her previous line of thought. “If they meet after a long time and one of them realises that the other guy has grown portly, he’ll simply slap him on the back and say, “Yaar, mota ho gaya hain tu!” (Man, you’ve gotten fat!) They will laugh it off, and it will end there. Now, say, two women were in the same situation. There would be a palpable change in the attitude of the recipient of the same comment. And when she got back home, she’d probably turn over the words in her mind, obsess over them, spend an inordinate amount of time inspecting her body in the mirror and come up with an effective, if not entirely healthy, plan to lose weight. The thing is, up until now, women have been conditioned to equate physical appearance with social currency. Our rank in the pecking order is based on how we look, and fat women, or even plus-sized women, hardly ever make the cut.”

I don’t have an appropriate rebuttal to that compelling opening statement, even though her sentiments echo my own. But there isn’t much time to ruminate on this and form a response either because Sand has already started to wax eloquent about her love of food. “You know how some studies claim that certain kinds of social or environmental settings govern our food cravings? For example, people automatically start feeling hungry during their scheduled lunch breaks at work or experience a spontaneous craving for chips the moment they hear the rustling of a packet. That doesn’t apply to me at all. I can eat at any point of time. But certain foods beckon to me lustily, and I find it very hard to say no to these items even when I’m on a strict diet. Vada pav, Thai curry, chhole bhature, butter paneer, A1 samosas and freshly baked bread…. But now that I think of it, certain TV shows do trigger a desire to consume certain dishes. I was watching an episode of Friends the other day — the one in which Monica is striving to prepare the perfect lasagna to impress her parents. It made me yearn for a steaming hot plate of lasagna, but all I could whip up at the time was some basic white pasta. Still, I wolfed it down like I hadn’t eaten in days.”

As she continues to list out her various gastronomical exploits, there is a twinkle in Sand’s eyes, a visible reaction not unlike the faint flush that suffuses my cheeks when I fantasise about biting into a creamy slice of my favourite four-cheese pizza. I wonder if bagging the role of a plus-sized girl in Fanney Khan might have come as a relief for the newcomer. She could offset the pressure of facing the camera for the first time by the required diet, which encouraged her to binge on comfort food (a notable contrast to the instructions her contemporaries are given to be statuesquely cellulite-free). “It wasn’t entirely in my favour because I had actually just lost 12 kgs when I was told that I had been selected for Fanney Khan. But I couldn’t complain. I got to eat my biryani, I got to eat my Thai curry, and I got to play the main lead. Putting on the first five kgs was a breeze, and I didn’t think much of it. But it took almost nine months for the movie to go on floors by which time I was 20 kgs heavier. And mind you, this was not a natural progression of things. Women usually only gain so much weight in such a short duration when they’re preparing for childbirth. All of a sudden, I start developing health problems that I had never had before — hair fall, mood swings, a hormonal imbalance — all exacerbated by my PCOD (Polycystic Ovary Disease). My fluctuating temperament was the hardest to deal with, especially because I was not equipped to handle it at the age of 18. I’d be picking fights with people one moment and bursting into raucous laughter in the next. My period lasted for a month because of the drastic change in weight, and it made me extremely lethargic. The only time I could manage to demonstrate some degree of enthusiasm — which was sustained by the adrenaline rush I got from working alongside stalwarts like Anil Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Rajkummar Rao — was when I was shooting. Then there was the dilemma with my wardrobe — I couldn’t fit into any of my old outfits because I’d outgrown every single piece of clothing I owned. My brother got married somewhere around this time too, and I was scrambling for something to wear till the last moment because Indian designers shy away from creating pretty ensembles for plus-sized women. Nobody knows this, but there were times when I’d just break down in my vanity van because I couldn’t recognise the girl staring back at me in the mirror. So even though I would go back and do everything the same way if given a chance, with regard to Fanney Khan, I would probably map out a diet chart to put on weight in a healthier and more systematic manner. I would also consult the filmmakers and enlist the help of a trusted dietician to reach the required weight target instead of eating everything under the sun.”

Now a significantly pared-down version of her former self, Sand has long since quit the impulse to give in to diet-related hankerings on a regular basis, but the actor admits that the road to recovery was a rocky and weary one. “Losing the first 10 kgs was fairly easy since I was diagnosably obese at the time and was naturally going to drop the water weight quickly. Then the process began to plateau and I had to work harder to see results, but I was anxious to lose weight as fast as I could; the reality was that I was part of an industry that demanded I look a certain way. So I did the ketogenic diet for a bit, then I tried the paleo diet and, then I switched to another one. Basically, I experimented with three diets within the span of a month. That’s when it all came crashing down. I slipped into a depressive state of mind because I thought offers would come pouring in after Fanney Khan, but I wasn’t approached with a single script. It made me wonder whether I was only good enough to play the token ‘fat girl’ in Bollywood. By some stroke of luck, I had a moment of clarity and was able to trace all those negative feelings back to the pressure I was putting on myself to lose weight in an almost-impossible time frame. People shouldn’t be lauded for losing 10-15 kgs in a month because, almost always, it is the by-product of a damaging thought-process.”

Childhood trauma has long-lasting effects on the human psyche which usually resurface when one is on the cusp of adulthood. I, for example, have mild PTSD from the time I spent studying math with my father. “Three plus zero equals three…three minus zero equals three…three times zero equals…?” He would sternly ask at the study table. “Three!” I would squeal happily in response, confident in my logic for the solution. The internal buzz of my mental math would promptly be drowned out by a resounding slap dealt by an impatient parent who’d grown frustrated of having gone through the drill one too many times. My 10-year-old self did not make too much of this, seeing how every thrashing session was followed by an apology in the form of a chocolate bar. It wasn’t until I grew up, and realised that anything to do with numbers scared the living daylights out of me, that I was able to register how exactly those pre-pubescent episodes had altered my mental state. I also habitually give in to the whims of my sweet tooth when faced with emotionally-charged incidents, expecting desserts to play the same role as they did in my childhood — of absolving all my guilt and awarding me a fresh start. I wonder if Sand was trolled for being fat while she was growing up, because kids and young adults are sometimes prone to being merciless bullies. “Well, I was a very lean child, so nobody in my family imagined I would be getting interviewed for being plus-sized someday,” she laughs good-humouredly. “Actually, even if you look at me now, you will notice that my body structure resembles a thin person’s. I was 13-14 years old when I was diagnosed with PCOD. Teenagers are reputed for their impressive junk food intake, and I was no different. But coupled with a lack of physical activity and a hormonal imbalance, I began to put on weight at an alarming speed. Initially, my mother would coddle me with more food since I was very thin and could use some more body mass. But before I knew it, it had gotten out of hand. That’s when I made a conscious decision to lead a healthy lifestyle, not so I could look a certain way but because I want to live a long, happy life. The whole body positive moment is great, but I don’t think it’s cool when people use it as an excuse to celebrate obesity because that brings a host of other problems with it. It’s important to identify and make peace with your body type. If you have a fuller frame, you shouldn’t want to be a size zero because you’re messing around with the hand you were dealt. Also, one must really check the manner in which they are advising people to lose weight, even if it’s coming from a good place. I have to admit that I would’ve lost weight a lot earlier if people hadn’t teased me about my weight or constantly commented on how I wasn’t doing anything about it. That made me defensive and I wanted to prove that I was thick-skinned, so I just ate more as a sort of ‘fuck-you’ to the world.”

Sand’s attitude is refreshing, but she has her eyes set on the dizzying spotlights of Bollywood — an industry that thrives on stripping promising newcomers of their individuality until they are nothing more than sculpted, good-looking puppets. Does the young actor have any qualms about being relegated to the ranks of playing the chubby best friend, since Indian audiences are accustomed to seeing ‘perfect’ leads on screen, barring a few exceptions? “First of all, I will pick the roles I want to do,” she asserts. “That means I won’t take on a role where I simply have to play a fat girl without any substance. It’s only when women like us will put their foot down that directors and producers will realise that it’s time to usher in a new wave of performers in Indian cinema, where fat characters are the lead. I can only think of a couple of movies with plus-sized protagonists — one is Fanney Khan and the other one is Dum Laga Ke Haisha starring a formerly overweight Bhumi Pednekar. Both characters were body-shamed throughout the movie and then had an epiphany towards the end which made them embrace themselves wholeheartedly. It took Indian cinema some time to reach this point, but it’s now time for the next step: a love story about a fat girl and a regular guy or vice versa, or even two fat people. Recreate a Ram-Leela or Love Aaj Kal with two plus-sized protagonists in such a way that they don’t even need to have a conversation about body-shaming — it’s simply a story about two people in love. Bollywood’s glamour is eternal and necessary, but just once in a while, how about we give people a dose of reality?” Hell, yes. I’ll drink (and eat) to that.

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