Unfittingly fit: The devolving sense of beauty
Cover Feature by CILLA KHATRY
Illustration by Sworup Nhasiju
At 5’4”, Sumnima Thapa, 31, weighs 43 kg. She wasn’t always underweight. A few years back, her weight used to fluctuate between 58-60 kg; but if the scale tipped slightly above 60, her fears of turning into an overweight were followed by a self-dictated diet regime. But a foodie that Thapa is, she would eventually succumb to her cravings and gorge on junk food. And out of guilt, she would force herself to throw up after every meal. Today, her obsessive compulsion has led to her bulimic lifestyle.
Bulimia Nervosa is a type of eating disorder usually characterized by two phases – binging, and then purging. Binging, or the frequent consumption of large amounts of food, followed by purging, an attempt to get the food out of one’s system by vomiting or taking laxatives, is what Thapa has been doing for over a year now.
“I was always a chubby kid and didn’t mind being slightly overweight. But as I grew up and people started commenting on my looks, I became more self-conscious and felt the need to tone up,” says Thapa, admitting that in the process of looking good, she has compromised her health. She feels lethargic after walking a short distance and falls sick more often than before.
It is usually self-perceived flaws and preoccupation with weight and body shape that compels people to go on a strict diet regime without giving a thought to the repercussions of unhealthy ways of shedding the kilos, mentions Dr Usha Shah, chief dietician at Nepal Police Hospital, and consultant at Norvic International Hospital.
According to Shah, throwing up after consuming large amounts of food or abstaining from it completely and sticking to only soups and juices have become a common phenomenon these days. The craze to look skinny is overpowering, and that in extreme cases leads to bulimia or anorexia where one has an intense fear of gaining weight and hence restricts the amount of food she consumes, sometimes opting not to eat anything at all. Thus the idea of being “skinny” has become a dangerous obsession.
Pratigya Shrestha (name changed), 28, is an anorexic by her own admittance. Her fragile frame and super-thin figure speaks volumes about this young woman’s obsession with weight. The hollowed eyes and prominent cheekbones, however, have a different story to tell. Shrestha’s obsession with weight has definitely not been a healthy one.
Shrestha, at 5’6”, weighs a mere 44 kg which puts her in the underweight category. Like Thapa’s, until about two years ago, Shrestha’s weight, too, used to waver from 60 to 65 kg. However, an unfortunate turn of events changed this once plump but radiant beauty into a scrawny and shriveled oddball.
While on a shopping spree at one of the popular malls in Kathmandu, the shop assistant of a posh clothing store refused to let Shrestha try on a particular pair of top she was fascinated with, pointedly remarking that it wouldn’t fit her and literally snatched it from her hands.
“She didn’t let me take it to trial room and said the material would stretch if I tried it on and the top would be ruined,” says Shrestha, the hurt still evident in her voice.
Even before storming out of the store, Shrestha had made up her mind to shed the flab that was the root cause of such angst. She went home without stopping for pizza with her friends, as she had initially planned.
The very next day marked the beginning of a new chapter in her life. She skipped breakfast and had fruits for lunch, the only meal of the day. She also started chugging down bottles of water to keep hunger at bay. What started as innocent dieting soon spiraled out of control and now Shrestha’s appetite is so lessened that she feels stuffed after two spoonfuls of rice.
This behavior pattern has taken its toll on her health, and she falls sick ever so often. She has been advised to gain weight so that she won’t have to face complications like osteoporosis, the loss of bone density, over time, kidney damage and heart problems. But Shrestha simply can’t eat, not even enough to meet her calorie requirements.
Media representations of extreme thinness and the stigma attached to being hefty – what you can rightly call the fat prejudice – are perhaps the two major factors that propel people to go on a crash diet, says Sadichha Shrestha, former Miss Nepal, adding that dieting should be done in a healthy and proper way, without hampering one’s health.
“When you try to lose weight by completely neglecting your nutritional needs, apart from its impact on your health, you’ll also lose your glow and charm. The whole idea of becoming beautiful will lose its meaning when you don’t look fresh,” says Sadichha who is also of the opinion that the right curves add to your beauty and being bamboo thin is just plain hideous.
Sijan Bhattachan, model and choreographer, agrees with Sadichha and whines about how extreme obsession with weight infuriates her.
“I wonder how looking wasted became a fashion trend when it makes you look ghastly,” fumes Sijan, her voice echoing with indignation.
Both Sadichha and Sijan are of the opinion that it is probably because of the media hype about being fit and lean in a society like ours that is swamped with voluptuous women that eating disorders are on the rise. People feel the need to be of a certain size even if it doesn’t match their height-weight requirements.
The movies that glorify svelte and glamorous women are also the culprits perhaps, as many youngsters try to emulate the models and actors who become the benchmark of beauty for them. This may better explain the increasing prevalence of eating disorders like Bulimia and Anorexia. It also becomes increasingly tough to love your average-sized body when there are ridiculously skinny women as set examples of beauty in almost every magazine that has boomed locally in recent times, including magazines which claim to promote health.
Media is also distorting the society’s concept of beauty and more and more youngsters are falling prey to it. Shah believes that the media is pushing an impossible standard of what women should be and that is affecting the youngsters’ self-esteem.
“The airbrushed images of perfect bodies of women in the glossy pages of most magazines these days have a deep impact on the minds of the youths,” says Shah who firmly believes that media has, maybe unknowingly, conveyed a message that the female body is an object to be perfected.
International media has also played an influential role in ingraining a distorted sense of beauty in the minds of women. The emaciated waif look of zero-sized actresses is so alluring that women tailspin into a world of irrational dieting regimes without considering the long-term effects of it on their health.
Diet advertisements are another matter altogether. From breakfast cereals that claim to help shed kilos without exercising to juices that supposedly speed up weight loss, the lure is immense.
Youngsters these days strive to attain a Barbie Doll figure, and as that unrealistic goal becomes increasingly unattainable through regular exercises, fad or crash diets kick in. While crash diets may seem miraculous, the truth of the matter is that starvation is downright dangerous.
Also, what many don’t understand is that being underweight is just as harmful as being overweight. Also underweight women have as much difficultly, if not more, in conceiving than overweight ones.
The overwhelming fixation to be paper-thin should not be one’s goal. Ask yourself an important question before you even think of embarking on a fad diet: Are you willing to risk your health and slowly lose your sanity as well by trying to force-fit yourself into your perceived ideals of beauty?
The Week met up with Dr Usha Shah, chief dietician at Nepal Police Hospital, and asked her for advice and tips to shed those extra kilos in a healthy way. Here’s what she had to say:
- Take your height into consideration while trying to lose weight. You need to be of a certain weight for your height, so try to keep your weight within that frame.
- If you’re overweight and begin a diet regime, don’t lose more than half a kilo per week. Step on the scale to monitor your progress regularly.
- Protein is very important when you’re on a diet. So make sure you’re getting enough to meet your nutritional requirements. Also, protein is digested more slowly than carbohydrates or fats; so it takes fewer calories to fill you up.
- Not all fat is bad for you. So do incorporate fat into your diet. Omega3 fatty acids found in nuts and fish almost never get stored in your body as fat.
- Opt to lose weight by doing cardio exercises, like jogging or brisk walking instead of starving yourself or going on a crash diet.
- When you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces more ghrelin, a hormone that makes you hungry, and less leptin, a hormone that increases satiety. So get enough shuteye everyday.
- Don’t go on a liquid diet by only having soups, juices and water and don’t starve and deprive yourself completely of carbohydrates, fats and protein.
- Break down your meals into smaller ones and eat at regular intervals during the day instead of having large meals in one sitting. You can have a handful of nuts, a wedge of cheese, or a slice of fruit as daytime snacks.