This is a story that I haven’t told anyone because I was ashamed of it. It happened on Orkut, with a guy I had not met, but had a crush on. I was an underconfident teenager, and so I had no display picture of my own. Instead, I used a picture of someone I liked. I was a small-town teenager. My desktop wallpaper was a poster from Bunty Aur Babli (2005). And my display image: Rani Mukerji from Saathiya (2002) in a bright yellow dress.
After talking to him for a couple of months, I was in a functional, long-distance, online relationship. My own version of You’ve Got Mail (1998). He would often ask me to put my picture up but I was scared of rejection. As days turned into months, I became confident that he liked me enough. So, one day I put up a picture of me in a white salwar kameez, smiling my biggest smile. That day, he didn’t ping me. When I asked why, he said, “You don’t sound like you look. You don’t sound fat.” I had told him I was not good-looking several times. He had reassured me that he didn’t care. As it turned out, he just cared for my weight. I said sorry — and I remember this with a lot of hurt. I apologised for not looking the way he wanted me to look.
A few days ago, while mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, I chanced upon a video clip titled Rae and Finn Forever. It catalogued the key romantic moments from the life of a fat teenage girl, Rae, and a thin, hot teenage boy, Finn. Whenever I watch a well-done romantic scene, I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s like a jolt of life. It makes me feel warm and gooey, and all my insides ache with joy.
This ache is my addiction. It gives me a temporary high, and so, I enjoy watching people kiss dramatically on screen. Think Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling in The Notebook (2004) or that scene (which you don’t have to tell me is problematic, most of these plotlines are) from He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), between Justin Long and Ginnifer Goodwin. Or “You had me at hello” from Jerry Maguire (1996). White, attractive people being passionate on screen make me feel good. But it’s not because they are relatable. It’s because it is a fantasy, one that won’t ever materialise for me.
A few years ago, I added the last scene from Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) to my list. A fat Bhumi Pednekar asks Ayushmann Khurrana to stop her from leaving. He breaks into a smile of unimaginable happiness, and runs, carrying the weight of his love in ways only true lovers can. Before this film, I hadn’t watched films where fat people found love. But the journey to this love for Bhumi was rife with insults and trauma. Rae and Finn, though, looked different. I had to find this show, and watch it. And I did.
My Mad Fat Diary (2013), a British comedy, is based on the diary of a teenager, Rae Earl. Played with vulnerability and conviction by Sharon Rooney, Rae was me in more ways than any other on-screen character ever, which made this show, in modern parlance, triggering. It wasn’t easy to watch the show in one go. Rae is fat, she thinks that makes her ugly, she discards herself, puts herself in boxes and is scared to look out of them. The show opens with Rae in a psychiatric hospital — she had tried to kill herself post a breakdown. After spending four months in the hospital, she has been discharged. But Rae doesn’t think she’s ready. She’d rather stay in, with people she has more in common with, than the outside world where “perfect people” live.
Rae is uncomfortable in her body, apologetic for occupying the space she does, constantly fails at loving herself, craves love and affection and, when she gets it, she doesn’t understand why anyone would love someone like her. Rae, in short, is a version of me. A version I have tried very hard to deconstruct, provide affection to, and understand.
As the show unpacked Rae’s emotional baggage, I was unknowingly doing the same thing for myself. In a tender scene, Finn takes Rae to a trailer he has decorated for their first time together. As they begin kissing, Rae stops him midway. The truth is that Rae isn’t ready, not because she doesn’t want to have sex, but because she hasn’t been able to look at her naked self in the mirror. If she can’t bear the sight of her out-of-shape body, how can anyone else? It’s a feeling I am way too familiar with. I have had this discussion with close friends: “Do I look fat enough in my photos for people to know how fat I really am?” They suffer from a lot of fatphobia. Fat people are burdened enough to assume that others won’t know how their bodies look inside their clothes. And they think that others can’t find them beautiful, because the truth is they can’t find beauty in themselves.
In a breakthrough moment on the show, Rae finally strips, removes some layers of her hatred in front of the mirror. That is a transformative moment for both of us. You see, while watching Rae, I was scratching my body, peeling off my skin that had dried as a result of a fungal infection. At the risk of pissing off Susan Sontag, I took my skin infection as a metaphor, and decided to look at myself into the mirror while applying the medicine. I had to do that for almost a month. Looking at my naked body became easier with each passing day. I started noticing small things, a curve I liked, or how shapely my hips were, like a big juicy apple, as a friend had once remarked.
None of this was new to me. Unlike Rae, I am not a teenager, I have taken this journey several times. But if you don’t keep reminding yourself that you are loved, if you don’t pause to admire yourself often enough, you will forget it soon. That you have a bigger role to play in this world, bigger than your ever protruding belly. When you are so invisible yet so easy to spot, it’s hard to not make everything about the body.
It took me almost 14 years to tell people that I was rejected by a boy I liked for being fat, not just because it was hard, but also because I was keeping the hurt just for myself, so I could stew in a self-made broth of pity. It was easier than accepting that I was worth more than a teenager obsessed with perfect bodies. I have, over the years, rejected many people because I was constantly rejecting myself. I wish Rae had come into my life a little sooner, I would have saved myself at least some amount of trauma — for she did teach me a lot about myself. Things I already knew but had forgotten about. That despite my several traumas, all the hatred the world threw at me and which I internalised, I have done really well. If I met the teenaged me, I’ll ask her to watch this show, and, in my most convincing Humphrey Bogart voice I’d say, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Because, why not?
Manjiri Indurkar is a poet and writer based in Jabalpur. This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Here’s looking at me’