In the very watchable fourth season of The Crown, Lady Diana’s struggles with bulimia are exposed in unflinching detail, illuminating the tragically wide chasm between appearance and reality. The storyline has reignited conversation on eating disorders, though the subject is no longer trendy. In 2020 especially, admitting to a desire for an idealized shape is distinctly un-woke. When the world is threatened by pandemic apocalypse and race riots have broken in the securest democracy in the world, only a tone deaf narcissist will fixate on tawdry weight gain problems. Nowadays, it’s the Body Positivity Movement that began as a reaction to unrealistic beauty standards that has all the media attention.
A Google search for “first recorded eating disorder” reveals evidence of an upper class Roman girl dieting herself to death in the Hellenistic era, around 323 BC. A narrow silhouette with a protruding collar bone and a fragile long neck has been a standard of beauty in China since the Hun dynasty, 2000 years ago. Not much has changed. China’s luxury brand Shanghai Tang still caters to a scandalously slender frame: anyone slightly off in proportion may only gaze longingly at their elegant designs. Similarly, the corset was indispensible to show off a perfect figure in 19th century Europe. What’s clear is that since the inception of the human race people have tried valiantly to be attractive, and irrespective of the era, attractive meant slim. And throughout history, eating disorders have existed though the motivations may not have been the pursuit of thinness, but purification or religious reasons, or whatever pressures the sociocultural climate exerted then.
It is to be marvelled at that it took this long to challenge an aesthetic ideal that so ruthlessly alienates vast swathes of humanity. At its core, the message of Body Positivity is an important one — that whatever one’s size, it should not infringe upon one’s ability to lead a fulfilling life. This less than revolutionary idea has only made headway in the last decade. Currently, BP activists on Instagram are quasi celebrities themselves. By fearlessly revelling in all shapes and sizes they bring truth to the fore, that striving for physical perfection is a torturous aim that occupies way too much headspace. It’s akin to the pressure final year school students are made to feel: anything less than a 99 is not good enough, and there lies precisely the reason for the mental health crisis facing India’s youth. Similarly, the quest to be a certain size leads to a self-defeating cycle of fad diets that sucks the joy out of so many other pleasures of existence. But can unconditional body acceptance ever be a reality?
The truth is if you were to hand most people a magic wand they won’t wish away Covid or ask for world peace but pray, fervently, that they be 10 kilos lighter. I’m not even referring to the morbidly obese who really need to be thinner. Rather, that vast majority who are closer to plump than fat. From what I can see, this obsession with svelteness applies to all (adult) age groups and genders, and cuts across class and caste lines. Point to note, you never meet people who say they are desperate to put on weight. It’s because they don’t exist. A friend of mine who’s an open, recovered anorexic noted that even her well-wishers, while expressing concern for her health, would invariably end a conversation by asking her for diet tips. In fact, many, if not all women fall in the category of failed anorexics. They aspire to be able to starve themselves and become very thin but they can’t manage it. It’s too hard if you’re not crazy enough.
The BP messaging is right, to prioritise health over looks and get on with life, but I really wonder if anyone genuinely believes it. It may even be worth asking if there is any point trying to bridge these gaps between our limitations and desires — everything is not resolvable. Perhaps, it might be more freeing to accept that conflicting feelings on body image will be the lot of mankind till kingdom come.
The writer is director, Hutkay Films
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