“I ate too much again,” K bemoans with a rueful look on her face as she walks into the room with her hands on her tummy.
This has become something of a routine. I hear so many food-related woes everyday (and not the kind criticizing mess food). It’s all around us, whether we notice it or not, these weighty issues; whether we believe in it or not, it seeps into our behaviour and way of thinking. How many calories, how many grams of fat? How many minutes on the treadmill “wasted” with that Lays packet? White bread or brown bread for breakfast? (Brown, of course!) “I lost 10kgs after I stopped eating rice” says another, her eyes widening as she gestures emphatically. Somewhere at the corner of the table, someone resolves to cut out what has been her staple diet for years, and eat only rotis although the South Indian in her shudders at the thought. Must do it, she thinks. For the calories. Sly glances at the tetra pack you picked up from Amul, worriedly searching for that magic number. Kcal. Mental calculations every minute – how many calories can I afford before I hit my daily limit? Is the second helping worth it? Maybe it’s best to just go to bed early so that you don’t eat (you can’t always control the hunger pangs, after all. Sometimes you just need to eat. Damn the human body). You give in to temptation and eat an ice cream to beat the summer heat, and skip dinner to make up for your sinful ways. You start to feel guilty about the food you eat, and it’s almost strange. Sometimes you wish you could go back in time and undo eating that extra slice of bread, or that indulgent bar of chocolate. Sometimes you find your way around it, and fix the “mistake” you’ve made, instead. You stop seeing food as dishes, but the ingredients they’re made up of. “What’s poha made of?” someone asks while they suspiciously push their breakfast about in their plate. “But paneer kulcha has maida and maida is fattening”, your roommate frowns at the whiteboard menu outside Amul, looking for a healthy meal option. Fattening. You avoid tea because it has sugar. Pick out the paneer pieces from your gravy and dump them in someone else’s plate, even though paneer has always been your favourite dish. Avoid the aloo at all costs; it cannot possibly end well. I buy A her favourite cookies, but she only refuses with a distressed expression, waving her hands in front of her face and looking away, and feeds it to me instead. “I need to go running,” says S, who has never run before in his life. “Only to be healthy,” he clarifies quickly. V says you have lost weight, that your face has sunken in, but your brain can only process her worry as a compliment. The very sight of food begins to upset you and throws your brain into a frenzy, calculating at the speed of light, trying to account for calories burned, exercises and things done. A picks up a singular chip from a packet when someone offers her, almost instinctively, raises her hand halfway to her mouth and then puts it back in the packet, thinking no one noticed. “Just till I fit into my old jeans. I just want to go back to pre-college weight,” replies M to a question on why he’s begun eating less. K tries to teach you exercises she read about online (sit-ups are the quickest way to a flat tummy, apparently).“I hope you never become one of those girls who are obsessed with their weight,” says the boy you’ve started liking, and you laugh and say of course not, your petite figure is all-natural, no starvation or intensive exercise involved.
Stop. Step back, and take a look. It’s spinning all around you, whether you like it or not, and pretty soon you start to count the calories as well. It’s hard to eat oily mess food at a table full of people pushing bite-sized fruit pieces into their mouths. You don’t always notice it, but your behaviour alters itself to fit this weight-loss obsession. How can it not? 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it’s there, in the little things you never consciously notice. You’ve become conditioned to fear food, almost.
I don’t blame anyone who gets caught in this vicious cycle. You wake up in the morning, open the newspapers, and VLC is screaming in your face, about how it just takes 4 weeks to lose the extra flab, it worked for Sunita, how can it not work for you? You go to watch a movie and the stars are like perfectly sculpted Da Vinci statues. Flawless. You log into Facebook or Instagram and still you are not at peace – #fitspo, #thinspo follows you everywhere. You marvel at calves and forearms and abdomens and wonder if you could ever be like that. You set goals, you resolve to be like that.
And maybe we can’t even really blame the media. After all, what sells is what people want to see, right? (But how can we possibly want to see things that make us hate our bodies?)
What is it all for, at the end of the day? Is all the time at the gym, doing exercises you honestly know nothing about except what that Google search result page told you, running and picking up weights – things you hate doing – really worth it? Is denying yourself your favourite foods, your mother’s homecooked dishes, the small guilty pleasures (which I am opposed to calling ‘guilty’ at all, by the way) – things that make your day – worth it?
Don’t get me wrong, if someone is genuinely concerned about their health and wants to exercise or cut back on cholesterol, I will never stop them. My issue is with the fine line between healthy and the place where it crosses over to obsession. My problem is with the small things we’ve stopped allowing ourselves, the couple of meals skipped here and there, the sudden obsession with the gym. My problem is with the dessert you deny yourself because your shirt didn’t quite fit the way it used to a year ago, this morning. As isolated events, they may not seem so bad, but once you start with this restricting behaviour, it’s a slippery, downward-spiraling slope from there. Sometimes it goes away, sometimes it might translate into something much more serious. The skinny legs you desire will soon be the ones you struggle to take steps with. Exhaustion like you’ve never known before, only water in three days straight. It starts with controlling what you put in your mouth, but soon what’s on your plate starts to control you.
My advice? Draw the line. Losing a couple of kilos might help you feel more confident about yourself, but make sure you go about it the right way. Weight lost fast will be regained just as fast. Skipping meals is not a long-term solution, and intensive workout sessions will only put pressure on your body that it is not used to, and you could end up with serious injuries. Start slow, cut out the junk from your diet one chocolate bar at a time, but don’t be so rigid with your diet that you can’t allow yourself a few scoops of ice cream on those bad days. Weight loss isn’t a fast overnight process, as much as the pharmaceutical companies and plastic surgeons would like to have you believe.
And, most importantly, take a step back and just think. You’re growing older with every second, your metabolism is slowing, your body is constantly undergoing changes. You don’t need to alter yourself to fit clothes. Not fitting into the same clothes you wore a year or two ago doesn’t mean much other than that you’re human. Imagine if you still fit into your fifth grade clothes. Creepy, right? Yeah, I thought so too. Old jeans don’t fit? Throw them out, Levi’s has a new line out in that navy-indigo shade you like anyway.
You are never going to have JLo’s body. And you know what? That’s alright. You don’t have trainers hovering around you all the time, you don’t have three different dieticians mapping what goes in your mouth. You don’t have to appear on the silver screen or red carpet, the scrutiny of a thousand pair of eyes following your every move. Nothing you see on magazine covers or TV screens is not heavily edited. Losing a couple of kilos will really not change anything much other than the number on the scale. It won’t make people like you more or change the kind of person you are in anyway. It isn’t a magical solution to making you happier. And if anyone tells you otherwise, eat them too.