Last week, I was diagnosed with something called neurogenic syncope. In plain English, I have a tendency to faint. My mind teeming with Google search results, I saw a cardiologist, who told me that I have poor circulation in my legs, which was causing low BP and making me faint. While I was flooded with relief to hear it (and not, for example, Long QT Syndrome, which would mean I could drop dead without warning), one part of me was deeply grateful to him for not saying, “You have poor circulation because you’re fat.” Because that’s what doctors say for fat people’s problems.
I’ve been fat all my adult life. When I say fat, please don’t think pleasantly plump Huma Qureshi. Think Rebel Wilson. Think clinically obese. There are a lot of theories about why I’m obese in a family without a history of obesity, but let us just say it comes down to loving food and not having much self-control or will power, and being deeply antipathetic to exercise. Yup, I’m the worst kind of fat person — my fatness is entirely my own damn fault. And I know this. Which is why, whenever I go to a doctor, their main point is that my weight is the reason behind my ailments (yes, obesity even causes tonsillitis if the local GP is to be believed). While I am enraged at this blind diagnosis, I am also deeply guilty because I know it’s my own damn fault.
It’s my own damn fault people stop me on the streets and tell me about amazing herbal remedies for weight loss. It’s my own damn fault I can’t find clothes in shops in India. It’s my own damn fault most boys have run for the hills when I’ve expressed feelings. It’s my own damn fault my hormones are a mess. It’s my own damn fault kids shout “moti” and run away and people point and laugh on trains. It’s my own damn fault I’m fat.
But then, sometimes, I wonder. Is it really my own damn fault? It’s not like I haven’t tried to lose weight. Memories of my adolescence are riddled with resentment and misery and anger because I could never eat a meal without a parental comment on how much or what I was eating. How many times have I sneakily eaten chocolate and chips in a blur of tears and desperation, because when my tummy was full I felt…okay. For a little while. I’ve been dragged out of bed to go to aerobics and swimming and yoga. I’ve had food banned; I’ve been cajoled; my father even tried to bribe me with the offer of a Barbie doll per kilo. Somehow, nothing worked. It was almost as if I needed to be fat more than I needed those Barbie dolls. I know, it makes no sense, na?
And then I was in college. It was a lot less cruel than high school, and at least people appreciated me for my other talents, you know, other than the ability to look pretty, like on TV. I made friends and I was terribly busy and I tried to walk to college in the mornings to get some exercise. I still needed rajma chawal and alu cutlets and chips and ice cream. I also started drinking in college, which meant more empty calories, as one of my numerous dieticians later put it. My parents still worried about my weight; it was still the very appropriate elephant in every room ever. But I began to care a lot less. It still hurt when boys told me I was unattractive though.
My father had discovered Herbalife while living in Indonesia, and he proceeded to give it a try himself. It worked for him so he persuaded me to give it a shot. Herbalife was…an experience. The protein shake was not particularly unpleasant, and the tea was even nice, and deep down, I prayed and prayed for a magical transformation when I was on the programme. But it was not to be. Then Appa discovered something called Protein Power, a book in the Atkins space, so we did that one too. It also didn’t work for me, though he lost some weight that came back when he stopped. We used to make jokes about what the breakfast staff at his hotel must think of this crazy man who at first ate chocolate Rice Krispies for breakfast, and then switched to papaya and water, and then to eggs and cheese!
I moved back home for a Master’s degree and we fell back into the same toxic pattern around food. They would worry and try to control my eating, I would explode in anger on the outside and guilt and desperation on the inside and then binge eat in defiance.
It was around this time that I began to wonder if I was sabotaging myself. If I was fat and miserable, I could blame the fatness for it, right? It was fatness that kept me single — not anything about my personality. It was fatness that kept me socially awkward — not my own feelings of alienation from my peers. It was fatness that made me want to quit — not a general reluctance to push myself.
In 2006, I moved to New York to get another Master’s degree. And then my life changed forever (Such a cliché, right?). That cloak of defiance I was clutching to myself, the one that said, well, f**k you, I’m fine just the way I am, fell apart. I wasn’t a freak. I could buy clothes. I could walk miles. I could climb lots of stairs. I could enjoy salad. I could date. I could flirt. All those years of gathering resentment and suddenly, I had nothing to resent. In the year and a half I lived there, I lost nearly 20 kilos. I was on treatment for PCOS, but I ate whatever I wanted — French fries and booze included. I walked all over the place and climbed stairs constantly. I went dancing twice a week. I stopped feeling like I needed to apologise for my size, shape, my very existence.
I came back determined not to lose this momentum. I went to aerobics and the gym. I dropped all cereals from my diet. But slowly, the numbers on the scale rose. They climbed and climbed and leapt past two digits and into three and just kept going. I ran to my gynaecologist and resumed treatment for PCOS. The Metformin didn’t work this time. Suddenly, I was back where I’d been before I left. And then past it. I tried everything I could think of. I went to nutritionists and dieticians. I even discussed with my then boyfriend the fact that I didn’t have a mental image of what I’d look like thin because I‘d never been thin, and he tried to get someone to photoshop it for me as motivation. In 2010, for six months, I had an hour of aerobics and an hour of weights five days a week. I ate only home-cooked food. I cut my drinking down. And I lost one kilo.
Eventually, in 2011, something snapped. One morning, I woke up and said to myself, well all right, I’m fat. I’m okay with my body; I can do all the things I want to do. I’m done beating myself up over this. So I stopped trying to be “healthy” and ate what I wanted, how and when I wanted it. I stopped checking my weight and when my clothes got tight I went to Sarojini Nagar market and got some more. I accepted that as a fat person, my role was to be the butt of jokes, the focus of “there but for the grace of God go I”. I accepted that I wasn’t supposed to dress fashionably, that I could be slept with but not loved. I just couldn’t be bothered to care anymore.
And then, I turned 32. And it was like a switch flipped. Suddenly, I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do. I had to stop on the first floor landing while going up to my flat. I couldn’t dance a whole evening away. I couldn’t keep up with my non-fat friends when we were walking somewhere. I found my weight was at an all-time high. My father began to have serious conversations with me about diabetes and bariatric surgery. He even pushed me to go and meet a bariatric surgeon, which I did, expecting to be told, “Don’t be silly. This is the last resort. Here, try and do this first.”
Only the surgeon told me I needed the most extreme form of bariatric surgery.
I drove home that afternoon in shock. How had things come to this? Hadn’t I tried? This surgery was for seriously ill people, those who couldn’t do it normally. Surely, I wasn’t one of them!
And so, once more into the breach I went. I downloaded apps. I recorded meals in idiotic detail. I drank only water at parties. I started the couch to 5k programme. I joined dance classes. Nothing worked. I got fitter, yes. My legs were stronger and I was more flexible. I could do pirouettes! But my weight remained stubbornly at my lifetime high.
One day, another overweight friend came to see me. “I’m on this new diet, so I won’t be eating anything,” he said. I sighed in sympathy. He told me how he’d lost 10 kilos in only a few months, and how, for the first time in his life, he thought he could do this. And then, breaking what I like to think of as the Fat People Pact (everyone else is telling us magical remedies; we must stand together and not do it to each other), he told me to try his diet.
So I looked up metabolic balance. It seemed to make intuitive sense. It cost a ton of money, but considering the circumstances, it seemed worth a shot. I went mad devising recipes and weighing meals and making each one individually. I tried to motivate myself by Instagramming the whole thing. About a month in though, I didn’t need more motivation, because, for the first time in seven years, I was losing weight. I lost 10 kilos over four months. Clothes that hadn’t fit in years began to fit again (All fat people have too many clothes, because we save all our clothes in the hope that someday we’ll get back to that size again). Everyone was commenting on it. I was euphoric.
Of course, as all weight loss stories go for me, eventually, it stopped working. It’s a hard diet to follow when you don’t live alone and control everything about your kitchen ,or when you travel. But, at least, it showed me that I could, even at nearly 34, begin to gain ground in this endless battle that has loomed over my entire life.
CHEW THE FAT
Pritha Chatterjee explores how does one break down weight loss.
* Morbid obesity is medically defined as when the body mass index (BMI) exceeds 27.5 kg/m2
* Weight loss depends, to a large extent, on the metabolism rate of the body, or how fast the body burns calories to produce energy. In this process, energy is converted to oxygen through a series of biochemical reactions. Its rate varies, depending on genetic make-up, age, gender and other factors. The body starts to lose weight when you metabolise or burn more calories than the amount you consume. Then the body starts using up its reserve energy stored as fat.
* When you lose weight, the body first starts to lose stored water, then the fat and muscle. In an ideal weight loss situation, with the right diet and exercise, the body should not lose any muscle.
* Body fat is a collection of stored energy in the form of chemical compounds known as triglycerides. These contain a molecule called glycerol and fatty acids. When you start burning fat, the body converts it to energy through metabolic processes. When the fat burns, oxygen is consumed and carbon dioxide and water are released. Of these waste products, CO2 is exhaled and water is released through sweat and urine. Energy is also released in other forms in the blood stream and is consumed by muscles and tissues. So, the fat just converts into other chemicals.
* If the weight loss is moderate, the skin naturally adjusts to the new girth due to an inherent elasticity from a molecule called collagen. If the weight loss is drastic, regular toning exercises are recommended.
* In surgical methods of weight loss, the size of the stomach is artificially reduced to cut down the amount of food consumed. This includes methods like gastric bypass, where the stomach is divided into a smaller and a larger pouch. The intestine is redesigned to bypass the larger pouch to reduce the volume of food. A gastric band is another procedure where a band is used in the upper abdomen to create a pouch. There are other procedures where the stomach is stapled to shorten its size.