(Names changed to protect identities)
Fat. Heavy. Overweight. Chubby. Large. Buxom. Roly-poly. Plump. Zaftig.
When you’re any of these things, you realise that not only will everyone in your life comment on your body, all the time – but that the number of words that are used to describe your body is inversely proportional to how good you are allowed to feel about it.
Whether the reasons are purportedly aesthetic or health-related or societal, you are never allowed to feel good about being whatever size you are. And when it comes to romance or love – well, the number of ways people will try to shame you multiply exponentially.
We spoke to two plus-size women, Priti Singh, 34, Bangalore, and Anisha Godbole, 32, Mumbai, about their love lives, and their sex lives, which are two very different things indeed. In an age where bigger sizes are the norm, yet media and society focuses on tinier sizes, the gap in our heads between reality and conditioning is wider than any waistline critics decry.
Related reading: How big is your love?: Plus-size men and relationships
When do you realise you look a certain way? Or that you’re different? Some people realise it very early, others later. For fat people though, the difference is that you are forced to this realisation. Both Priti and Anisha define themselves as plus size, because others always defined them this way.
Whether it’s being called ‘healthy’ and realising that doesn’t mean good health, or being openly told that girls should be thin, both women knew early on that they were different.
Priti adds, “It has been so drilled into my conscience now that I don’t know the difference anymore.” Sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, when you think about it.
While being bigger affects your confidence in every way, from clothing to avoiding meeting mean relatives, it is when we come to romantic relationships that things go haywire. Priti jokes, “What romantic relationships? Haha, seriously, I couldn’t even remotely consider getting into a romantic relationship until I lost weight. I didn’t have the confidence to pursue anyone openly, obviously neither did anyone pursue me.” Anisha had a kinder beginning. “I was a tomboy and wasn’t romantically attracted to anyone till I was 23. When it happened, the guy was a friend. And I was quite comfortable around him so my weight or looks weren’t an issue.”
Priti’s first boyfriend was tall, handsome and witty. Who started dating her after she lost weight. And always made her conscious of why he was with her. “He would keep pressurising me to maintain my weight loss, and to lose more. It was months of stress, of someone who was trying to control me in every way, just so I would look a certain way.” Anisha’s relationships weren’t stressful – but were no less focused on weight loss. “In the few relationships I have had, the men have been very supportive. They talked about healthier lifestyles and working out and even offered to work out with me since they realised I can’t be regular and I hate working out.”
Which begs the argument that fat people cannot be fit or healthy – which simply isn’t true and science has disproved as frequently as the trope that thin people are always healthy.
There are oodles and oodles of pages devoted to BBW – Big Beautiful Women, in porn. Paintings and sculpture always show voluptuous women, and expanses of flesh. And yet, in real life, we are shamed for what we look like naked, especially when we’re fat.
Confidence is a big, big gamechanger in how women approach sex. If you believe you’re attractive, feel attractive, then you will be far more open to letting someone explore your body, and explore someone else’s body.
Priti and Anisha both had passable initial sexual encounters at ages 23 and 25 respectively. But despite being in relationships with the men they were intimate with, their confidence remained low. Anisha remembers, “I was nervous that the first time might just be the last time. I wear a lot of black, and clothes that flatter my body. Without them, all my flaws would be exposed. What if he doesn’t like what he sees?” Priti’s complexes were a continuation of her childhood – “You are never attractive to yourself; and you never feel attractive to guys. Even when you’re dating them, you wonder why they are with you.”
Today, both Priti and Anisha are married. Priti had an arranged marriage to a man from her community, and Anisha found her husband through common friends. They’re both much more secure, more confident in life, in their relationships and their bodies – and they credit the unusual men they married for all of it.
Priti says, “My relationship with my husband is totally the opposite of everything I experienced before. There is no pressure from him, about my weight. Whether I work out or not is my choice. It has improved my confidence tremendously and I don’t worry about my weight in public any more. I do think I need to lose some for health, but not anything else. And it’s made it easier now – I ran a marathon two years ago and I feel amazing!”
Anisha squeals, “My husband calls me sexy and hot, especially in bed – it makes me feel desirable and helps me be myself. We’ve always been compatible mentally, and once we decided to get married, we had frank discussions on being overweight (he’s slightly big) and being limited to a certain number of positions – and we were both completely okay! It’s an amazing feeling – to be accepted by someone – it helps you accept yourself.”
What about criticism from in-laws and extended families? Women grow up with their own relatives always commenting on their weight. What happens when you get married in a country that’s famously patriarchal with double standards?
Priti adds, “There were some comments before – a few snide laughs and the light. But I was expecting worse. After marriage, with my partner’s support, I don’t care what anyone says. Earlier, I would be very reserved and not open up easily.”
Anisha has had a less welcoming set of in-laws. “I am scrutinised from head to toe every time I meet them. My mother-in-law even confessed to me, during a unguarded moment, that people questioned them over their ‘moti bahu’. After two years of being a daughter to her and also making her the grandma of the cutest boy ever, her attitude has changed. Now, she is elated when someone in the family brings home a bahu who is ‘ugly’ or ‘non-ideal’ as per her standards of beauty.”
Priti says, “Being fat has overshadowed my life forever. So much so that even now, despite the lack of pressure from anyone close to me, I feel that my personality is limited due to this one aspect. I feel if my childhood had been more confident and not full of shaming, I would have been someone else entirely. I see some glimpses of my own potential, now and then and wish I could have been that.”
Anisha dimples. “When I met my husband, he used to compliment me very often, saying ‘you look beautiful’, etc. It was strange to my ears; I thought he was just trying to woo me. But that’s continued – and I believe it…at least sometimes now,” she laughs.
Priti and Anisha are two amazing stories – the other women we spoke to did not want to be interviewed, one admitting that she faced daily criticism from in-laws about being fat. Another said that her marital sex life had dwindled to nothing after the birth of a child – her husband had stated that he didn’t find her attractive. The stories we heard got us thinking – what happened if the men were fat?