Growing up in a South Asian family, I always observed an obsession with weight.  Whether the subject is newborn babies, teenage girls, or grown women, it appears to be a topic of discussion. I don’t think it’s limited to one culture and the more I talk to people, the more I feel that it’s almost a universal trend, pervasive across most cultures. 

When babies are born, everyone will focus on the weight of the baby.  “How much did it weigh?” Comments focus on either how skinny or fat the baby is or how cute and chubby it is.  Everyone wants them to be fat and chunky. If the baby is deemed to be “skinny,”  or not fat enough, the mother-particularly a nursing mother- is questioned whether the baby is “getting enough”. When families meet each other after a long time, the first topic of conversation is, “oh your kids look too skinny” or some other comment directed at the individual’s physique.  Ironically, in years past, the term “healthy” was often used as a euphemism for someone who was deemed to be overweight.   

However, as these babies grow from childhood and turn into teens, suddenly the expectation changes. Young girls, in particular, are expected to be thin all of a sudden, despite having had a lifetime of being stuffed with food, often sugar and fat laden. Weight becomes this goal, this elephant in the room that is constantly present and keeps getting bigger. The lucky few that are genetically predisposed to being thin are told, “you should maintain yourself because you’re beautiful like this.” Girls, that are deemed even slightly overweight, are told that they need to lose weight if they want to find a good husband. Their beauty suddenly becomes inextricably linked with their weight. Random people, some of whom they’ve never met, feel comfortable to comment on their weight, shape and how they should try and lose that weight and change that shape.

Their beauty suddenly becomes inextricably linked with their weight.

And it doesn’t stop with shopping for a husband. Once they’re married, they’re told that they need to stay skinny if they want to remain attractive to their husband. They’re expected to get pregnant, give birth and bounce back and look like Kate Middleton a week after giving birth- never-mind that they didn’t look like her prior to getting pregnant. This feedback is given by random “aunties” as well as close family members. It appears that everyone in society has been given the right to comment on a woman’s weight- regardless of how their comments affect the person in front of them. People visiting after the birth of a new baby feel no hesitation in saying things like, “you really need to lose weight,” to the postpartum mom who hasn’t even had a chance to catch her breath. These expectations keep piling on as women age and have more children. Losing weight becomes this holy grail that everyone wants to attain but nobody knows how, because they were never taught. Every motherhood forum is full of moms asking how to lose weight fast with recommendations for ridiculous and unsafe diets that can have negative long term consequences.

We need to do something about your arms- they’re too fat to look good in photos.

I was part of this vicious cycle. Growing up, I never focused on nutrition and fitness. I was naturally skinny and was happy to stay that way by subsisting on Pepsi and All-Dressed Ruffle Chips. I was able to pull this off until my freshman year of University and then the freshman 15 hit. I just couldn’t shake that weight. I got engaged near the end of my second year and the thought of wanting to fit in my dress and looking good spurred me to eat a little more carefully and exercise. This lasted until the wedding when I was in relatively good shape. I will ALWAYS remember being dressed as a bride, and having our photographer who was this middle aged Pakistani lady tell me, “we need to do something about your arms- they’re too fat to look good in photos.”

This didn’t stop at the wedding. I remember visiting some family and being told, “you’re fat but you’re lucky you’re tall so your fatness suits you”.  I was compared to my MIL who is absolutely gorgeous and expected to replicate her body type as if I could become like her by association and marriage. I was told that I should consider losing weight because my husband is so slim, “you look like the O beside his I.” I could fill a whole book with comments I’ve received about my weight over the years. All of these comments and focus on my weight and not ONCE have those comments been related to my health- always, always about how I look. And therein lies the problem.

Our culture is SO focused on weight and how it relates to appearance, it pays little to no attention to health and how it is impacted by weight. Babies look CUTE when they’re chubby, so obviously, stuffing their faces works. Crash diets work in the short term and make the person look GOOD so it doesn’t matter what impact they have on the body. We focus so much on being THIN, we don’t even consider that it’s more important to be STRONG. We don’t think that our body isn’t simply a decorative feature in another person’s visual landscape but an amazing gift that needs to be nourished and strengthened.

We focus so much on being THIN, we don’t even consider that it’s more important to be STRONG.

If there is anything I can leave you with today, it’s that you need to stop being part of that cycle.

Instead of focusing on losing weight, start focusing on getting strong through good nutrition, exercise, and a healthy mindset. Stop stuffing babies to make them chubby and cute and start teaching them good nutrition and healthy eating habits from the start. Force feeding a child when they refuse food and creating a battle of wills when they are fussy eaters makes them even more so.  Stop being part of conversations when someone is putting another person, including you down. SHUT THEM DOWN. Tell them, “I don’t think what you are saying is kind or appropriate” and walk away.

Model a positive example of eating right and being active to the little boys and girls in your life.  Do it to show those around you that it’s not about how you look, but more importantly, it’s about how you feel. Little girls need to grow up knowing they are much, much, much more than their appearance. They are the leaders of tomorrow who deserve far more than being criticized for their bodies and not respected for their minds, character, and actions.

If you feel you are above your optimal weight, work on losing that extra weight but not because you want to look good, but because you want to feel good. Looking good is just a side benefit. Your health is your greatest asset. Don’t waste it in search of fad diets and quick fixes. Be strong and OWN your body. OWN your life and spend it being healthy and happy. It’s the only one you’ll ever get.