It’s no secret that this country’s weight obsession goes both ways. Just as Americans worry that many of our citizens are overweight, we also worry that pop culture pushes young people to be too lean. For Americans with South Asian ancestry, mixing these obsessions with cultural attitudes can result in a great deal of confusion. On a larger scale, this could be actively contributing to existing epidemiologic disparities. On a micro level, it could be affecting you or your brown friend’s interactions with a local aunty at your next dawat. Serious stuff…don’t let her stop you from taking one more gulab jamun, my friend.
Any South Asian who has made a change to their physical experience, specifically with weight, will inevitably receive comments from friends and family. The origin of these comments along with the nature in how they’re delivered sparked my curiosity into their roots. I have a story of my own and a recent conversation with my South Asian American friends developed my thoughts. It made me wonder how Desi's attitudes toward weight evolved and what it means for us living in America now.
Why I Got Skinny
My weight has fluctuated over the course of my lifetime, but I've been relatively thin since high school. Like many skinny brown boys entering college, I went into a "bulk" phase where I started lifting weights and inhaling chicken breasts like air. Once my body evolved from the frame of Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire, I transitioned into an "eat anything and lift" mentality, minus the lift part. This resulted in a fairly mediocre mid 20 year old American physique by epidemiologic standards. In other words I looked ordinary with a shirt on until my dad bod was revealed.
By this time I was approaching my final year of medical school, and in hopes of building a proper physique and attracting a hot wife, I hired a personal trainer. The solution for my "skinny fat" body was either bulking up or slimming down. There were two reasons I chose the latter. For one, I was always self conscious about my love handles and chest fat. And secondly, I wanted abs. Several South Asians have low muscle mass with a high body fat percentage and I was no exception. Because of this, my plan would come at the expense of looking skinny with clothes on. The alternative was to fill out my clothes, but add to my fatty areas. That was a no no, so I stuck to cutting.
I ate in a small caloric deficit with sufficient protein and my trainer pushed me everyday. I was actually lifting the most I ever had in my life and became increasingly confident with my shirt off. However, low body fat percentage in the setting of low to moderate muscle mass doesn't always mean an aesthetic physique. While I finally saw a singular ab, I admit that I dieted for a few weeks longer than I should have. But for the first time, I felt in control of adjusting my weight and I knew I wouldn't have an issue putting it back on. However, during this time, I had a few shocking and appalling realizations. For one, I realized how hard it is for brown people to grow legs. No seriously, if you find a brown person with aesthetic legs, forward me their contact. Secondly, I realized how hard it is to skip rotti at the dinner table (I really didn’t have to). Finally, and most importantly, I learned that Desi culture has a dynamic approach to weight and beauty standards and the origins run deep.
The Rise of Fall of Fat in The Subcontinent
For a long time in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh fat has meant good. Prehistoric artwork and sculptures from the region show plumpish figures. Paintings from the Mughal Empire show imagery of royal women and children with no visible bone structure. The well fed male emperors from these paintings are shown sitting or laying down, enjoying gatherings. And actors from the 1970's such as Nadeem from Aina, or Sridevi can be described as more rounded compared to modern performers.
Being fat was a sign of having made it, kind of like a Gucci bag. Voluptuousness was luxury. Having a plump body type meant you were rich enough to afford a lot of food and could avoid physical labor. It meant that you were well loved, and cared for. Perhaps all this ultimately equates being fat to happy. On the opposite spectrum, being thin grew to mean being impoverished- socially, financially, and physically.
Fast forwarding to today, we are experiencing opposites in association. Being fat no longer means one is rich. It's now linked with a lack of time, effort, and money to afford to keep yourself in shape. To be fair, this is probably a result of globalization. A change in perception of beauty has reflected standards of the West globally. The images of rotund movie stars in Bollywood and Lollywood alike are now replaced by buff men and lean women.
To make it more complex, obesity is becoming a new disease in the Indian subcontinent. While I can imagine the difficulties of navigating these paradigms, I have never lived overseas and can’t comment on any experiences. However, as South Asian Americans, I have a pulse of it in this country and I think we’re confused. Our attitude is stuck in the middle of these changing associations and we don’t know what the goal is.
Cultural Approach in South Asian Americans
South Asians, especially the ones living in America, cannot stand the idea of inadequacy. When it comes to overachieving expectations as a young Desi, you’re supposed to be the best at everything. Whether it’s school, dance, art, debate, soccer or playing the recorder, your performance should be optimized. And if it isn’t, you best believe you’re getting compared to Aisha auntie’s son. Moreover, I think that this attitude has also been carried over to weight.
If you’ve ever attended a dawat after losing some weight, you’ll hear that you look “very smart” after your transformation. Conversely, you let yourself go for a few weeks and well, you are now “healthy”. The same aunty you saw at a random shaadi who suggested you were overweight last year is now asking if your mom stopped feeding you because you’re looking a little too thin. The attendees of any Desi social gathering will waste no time in telling you these things either. Whether you lose or gain weight from last Eid to this Thanksgiving, you better prepare to get commentated on like the NBA Finals. While I can imagine how devastating these comments could be for someone like a mother after pregnancy or a teenager struggling with identity, I’m in a pretty privileged position and approach it with humor.
At a recent dawat I attended, a physician uncle became concerned with my weight loss and continually commented on how skinny I looked. He was legitimately concerned. My natural response to serious uncles and just about everything in life is jokes. So I asked if he could screen me for cancer and write me a work note so I could miss the next week of clinical duties. He didn’t find it very funny. Maybe because he knew my program director. Or maybe because he was looking for a suitor for his daughter. Sorry uncle, skinny boys can’t physically bear fatherhood, you’ll have to find a “healthy” boy.
It’s funny to observe how bluntness amongst South Asians differs from American culture but laughing is easy when you’re a male in his twenties. Ultimately, I do think there’s an important lesson to be drawn from all of this. In most of the activities South Asians participate in, all of them generally have a clear measure of success. But when it comes to weight and fitness, the objective is unclear. Strikingly, the medical community does not have a universal definition of "being healthy". Sure, there is a normal BMI range that physicians suggest staying in to prevent disease. But this weight range is actually vast, can look immensely different for everybody, and has its downfalls. From doctors preaching carnivore diets to nutritionists denouncing keto, there’s a spectrum of accessible advice. For anyone trying to improve their health and wellbeing, it can all be pretty confusing. Throw in cultural expectations and it’s downright intimidating. And we have to change that.
While exploring this topic, I came across a forum where a white woman who married a South Asian man wrote a long post. She described the most recent family gathering she attended and how she was repeatedly told by her in- laws how she gained too much weight since their last get together. I felt horrible for her, and then I read a comment that said “Which is a greater offense, being told something that someone is thinking or not knowing what someone else is thinking?” This is clearly a debatable topic and I actually don’t think there’s a right answer. Ultimately, there are aspects of American and South Asian culture that are both inviting and presumptuous. As a South Asian American community, we have the advantage of pulling positive social aspects from both cultures and practicing equilibrium. We should be mindful of initiating conversations about weight in any setting and demonstrate a form of social integrity. I think the goal is to provide true help to the people that need it while displaying a sense of care for our loved ones. Everyone is at a different point in their weight loss or weight gain journey. Achieving the ideal weight as a South Asian American, or anyone for that matter, is complex and dynamic, as demonstrated by history. Combining the ambiguity of modern medicine and lessons from both American and South Asian cultures, the ultimate goal is balance. Lessons from these cultures shouldn’t force us to enroll in daily crossfit lessons but also shouldn’t lead us to passing up that laddu either.
The true meaning of the following words may be different than my translation utilized for my article.
dawaat= Party/Get together
gulaab jamun = Fried balls of a dough made from milk solids covered in syrup
rotti = Bread
shaadi = Wedding
laddu = Spherical sweet made from flour, fat and sugar