Fat shame and feminismArchive
A nine-year-old contestant on a programme showcasing Asia’s singing talent is arguably one of the best among the contestants; her mischief and impudence bring some levity to the otherwise contrived shenanigans.
On an episode of the show that aired recently, the young girl was presented with an ugly scenario. A ‘fan’ had sent in a gift and she was to open it on air. This ‘gift’, whose identity must have been known to the show’s hosts and producers, but (as her shock attested) not to the young singer, was a weighing scale.
The chasm between the delight of the hosts and her obvious discomfort produced just the sort of snide hilarity that South Asian television seems to revel in. The nine-year-old, whose mother also watched helplessly in the audience, was almost forced to step on the scales. The male host of the show announced her weight to be 40 kilograms. The child looked mortified. The horror show of humiliation was, however, not over. One of the judges laughed and inquired whether the host had omitted a zero from the number that he had announced. The young girl may sing well, but she was, in the opinion of the host and the judge, fat and hence deserving of shame and ridicule and, yes, lots and lots of laughter.
There have been hardly any objections or expressions of horror at this crude and cruel bullying of a young girl on television. It is not surprising; the act of judging women, in this case a nine-year-old, for their inability to meet some imagined criterion of acceptability is very common in both India and Pakistan. Time and again, I have witnessed instances of women who may be slightly overweight being ridiculed and harassed in social and even professional situations. They may be doctors, architects or professionals, but their inability to meet the ideal of svelte girlishness renders them failures, open to castigation and a mountain of ‘oh if you only lost weight’ or ‘if you diet a little’.
It is mean, it is spiteful and it is also misogynistic, indicating a social hatred of women rather than a societal commitment to women’s health and well-being. The predicament of the young contestant on stage represents a steroidal version of what millions of Pakistani girls and women routinely face: public or semi-public degradations based on their physical appearance. That it happened to a very young girl, who has impressed so many with her confidence is particularly notable.
For one, it reveals a deliberate effort to eviscerate her self-esteem at an early age. The power dynamics of the show, the promise of fame and the possibility of being discovered, create further opportunities for such crude condescension, where parents must watch from afar while their child is ridiculed.
For another, it reveals the spiteful undergirding of a culture where grown men, a bearded host and a singer judge think it is entertaining and even funny to humiliate a child contestant for her perceived inability to meet some ideal archetype. Cumulatively, it sends a message to all the smarmy bosses, lecherous husbands and creepy uncles that commenting on a girl’s body is acceptable; after all, South Asian girls have to be schooled early into believing that looks are the only thing that really matter about them.
It is not only the men, however, who are at fault. There were several women on stage with the young girl and none of them did anything to rescue her from the clutches of the men obsessed with their own hilarity at the expense of a child. As with other patriarchal practices, their crime is not simply one of silence but also of complicity.
In a society, where men are king, women have become adept at destroying each other using the tools supplied by patriarchy. Judging other women on the basis of their weight owes to this and is an entirely permissible, even venerable, social activity. Weddings, message boards on Facebook, interactions in stores are all venues for its practice where women can comment on weight lost, weight gained and the consequent implications for looking young, being marriageable and such.
In sum, the consequences of fat-shaming, making women and girls feel bad about themselves because they do not look a certain way, are simply to remind women that their acceptability relies on their ability to fit into a very narrow societal definition.
Once this is done, other means via which a woman may judge her self-worth, her education, her professional achievements, her commitment to a cause, her ability to sing, to write, to improve the world around her are all relegated to sideshows. Central and crucial is her physicality, her weight, the colour of her skin, her height, her clothes and, of course, her ability to bear children. The package comes together neatly; you may be a surgeon, a pilot or a scientist, but if you’re fat or dark, or unmarried or not pleasing to look at, you are worthless.
Single instances of anything, it is said, do not produce transformations. This is untrue. The single instance that the young contestant at the show faced is likely to affect her self-esteem for a long while, to create doubt and paranoia that her physical self is somehow inadequate and deserves to be laughed at. If Pakistani girls and women believe that such treatment is wrong, and that as a group they deserve far better, they too must produce a transformation, a collective refusal to treat women as simply bodies.
If every Pakistani woman could commit herself to saying ‘no’ to shaming other women because of the way they look, their weight, their hair, etc, it can foment a small but significant rebellion against shame and objectification, whose cruel enactment was inflicted on a young girl in a show telecast all over South Asia.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2016