I went to my parents’ house last week because an uncle was visiting. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, and the very first thing he said to me was, “You’ve gotten very skinny”. I nodded to his almost skeletal torso, made from years of working too hard and not eating enough and said, “Well, so have you.”
In years past, this comment would have been a moment of resigned frustration for me. I was used to my Indian family members commenting on my weight as if they were remarking on the weather. For decades, my sisters and I endured being told we had “put on weight”, “were getting fat”, or on the flipside “had become a bag of bones” from our aunties, who no doubt copped the same when they were young.
Weight was never equated with health, just appearance, and it seemed impossible to hit the sweet spot. I have always been considered too far on either side of the scale, despite being literally within the ‘average’ range by medical standards my whole life.
In my early 20s, I decided to join a gym. I needed more regular exercise, and it was unlikely I would commit to getting active on my own.
I told my parents this one day over dinner, and they seemed bewildered.
“But you don’t need to lose weight,” Dad said, and I stared at him.
“It’s not about weight,” I said. “It’s about health.”
That was the first moment when I realised that there is a cultural difference in the way my Indian relatives think about exercise and fitness than how I do, having grown up in Australia.
I remember visiting India as a child, and watching the village school take lessons outside from the window of my great-aunt’s house. There was a large, dusty open ground in the centre of the village, that doubled as a gathering space and an outdoor classroom. The kids would sit on the ground and listen to their teacher, and sometimes I’d watch them stand up and do a vigorous round of calisthenic-type exercises.
Everyone around me was either the picture of vitality, or had the gentle roundness of middle age and prosperity
Other than this, I never witnessed anyone exercising simply for exercise’s sake. There were people doing intense physical activity all around me, but it was all in the way of work – women vigorously pounding laundry, or brushing their front porches. Men carrying sacks of produce, pushing heavy carts laden with goods, loading trucks to take out of the village.
Everyone around me was either the picture of vitality, or had the gentle roundness of middle age and prosperity – a type of weight that was a sign of success more than anything else, in a community where having enough to eat was a constant battle. There was very little risk of obesity.
This is such a distinct contrast from Australia, where it’s rare for me to be anywhere in my hometown of Canberra without someone jogging or riding their bike past; where my friends rave about their F45 classes, and my partner signs up to do a 100km run in the Blue Mountains for fun.
Here among my peers, exercise is a sign of privilege – we have the time and energy to exercise, and also the need to, because our white collar jobs are largely sedentary. And being thin is often the sign of prosperity – proof that we can afford the gym, fresh healthy food, and have time to care about our fitness.
It has taken me years to understand where my own complicated relationship with fitness comes from – my fear of being ‘immodest’ while sweating it out in a spin class
My father had an incredibly sporty youth. He played squash, football, he ran and enjoyed almost any physical activity that tested his strength. But where he was free to pursue sports, his sisters were expected to be demure, modest, and only use their bodies for the functions expected and required of them as good Indian Muslim women.
While my sisters and I were encouraged to get into whatever sports we were interested in, our parents stand out in comparison to their peers for this. For our female relatives; bodies were to be protected from the male gaze, and exercise at most could constitute of walking briskly, and even then, only if you were at risk of becoming ‘fat’.
It has taken me years to understand where my own complicated relationship with fitness comes from – my fear of being ‘immodest’ while sweating it out in a spin class, or of being considered to be weight conscious if I admit to exercising regularly.
But I take heart from watching the next generation grow up – my nieces revel in their physicality, always jumping on trampolines, and swinging from monkey bars. And the best thing is, the ‘w’ word (weight) is banned in their vicinity.