A lean compromise is better than a fat lawsuit: That is probably what Pakistani cricketer and Indian tennis icon Sania Mirza's chosen partner, Shoaib Malik, must have thought while bringing a much-hyped and bitter battle with his former wife, Ayesha, to an end.
Amidst the brouhaha emerged an uncomfortable truth: The tyranny of the perfect body image. With Ayesha shying away from the public eye, ostensibly because of her "excess weight", and the media going to town over the issue, there has been far too little questioning of society's fattist assumptions.
Ayesha's is not an isolated case. Lately, urban Indian women have become so obsessed with their looks and their desire for a Size Zero figure that everything else has been relegated to the back burner. A svelte, minimalist look is seen as the only guarantee for making the grade - whether it is in terms of a great career or a successful marriage. Being "fat" translates as being a "loser".
Thousands of girls, some even as young as 12, have succumbed to such notions. They are willing to do whatever it takes in order to achieve that perfect body. "Not looking good is perceived as a crime! And many are falling prey to this notion. The obsession with possessing good looks has reached an epidemic proportion. Many suffer from what is known as 'Hyper aesthetic tension'," reveals Dr Vijay Sharma, a renowned cosmetic surgeon, who has several A-list stars of the Hindi film industry as his clients.
Who is to blame for this unhealthy fixation? Is it the media that provides role models for youngsters in the form of picture-perfect stars and starlets? Or is it the parents, who want their young children to look their best, at all times?
The media's fascination with attractive looking people is obvious, whether it is in terms of their own "right-sized" anchors or the dazzling models and actors they project regularly. Many a young girl has sighed longingly at images of Kareena Kapoor or Aishwarya Rai, flaunting their perfectly famished figures. Then, of course, there are those numerous ads, recommending a fairness cream or expensive gym equipment in order to catch the eye of a suitor, gain the affection of a spouse, or get that dream job. The pressure on women to conform to these images is tremendous, but what is forgotten is the emotional cost. There is just no mention about the pain or side effects that often come with the deal.
"For the cosmetic industry, perhaps, it was a boon when Indian women started winning international beauty pageants in rapid succession some years ago. But for ordinary people, I think, it was the worst thing to happen. Suddenly women started coming under the pressure to look good. Until that point, good looks were of course appreciated but the maniacal obsession of today was never there," says Dr Shubhangi R. Parkar, professor and head of department of Psychiatry, G.S. Medical College and King Edward Memorial Hospital, Mumbai.
Parents often approach Dr Parkar for counselling, with dull, depressed, even forlorn, kids in tow. "Parents think their children are stressed out because of academic pressure or because they have some other psychological problem. It is while talking to the kids that we realise that it is all due to their misconceived notions of good looks which makes them forgo food. This, in turn, leads to several negative side-effects," reveals Dr Parkar.
Take the case of Delhi-based Khushi Anand, 13 (name changed on request). She stands at five-feet-five and weighs a mere 45 kilos. By any standard, the teenager will be considered thin. But all Khushi can think of are ways to become taller and slimmer, just like her favourite star, Deepika Padukone. She drags her mother to various gyms and dieticians to look for solutions to her 'problem'.
It is not only teenagers who are obsessed with losing weight. Young women in their 20s and 30s are very much on this bandwagon. It's not unusual to see even mothers of adolescent children trying to alter their appearance. Many find refuge in weight loss clinics, fat-free foods and crazy diets - all part of the ever-growing slimming industry.
"Women come to me for a diet regime because their school-going kids want them to look slim and wear jeans, like the mothers of their school mates or friends. I always tell them that slimming is okay, but they should do it because they want to, not because someone else wants them to look the way they think is good," says Mini Abraham, a thirty-something Mumbai-based dietician who is presently a consultant with Shree Hospital in Chembur, Mumbai.
Thane-based plastic surgeon, Dr Suyesh Patankar, echoes Abraham's concern. Says he, "I am alarmed at the short-cut methods young kids want to take in order to reduce weight. Although some of them are hardly aged 16, they come with wads of notes asking me to perform liposuctions! I firmly turn them away and later counsel their parents to talk to them."
Is this obsession due to peer pressure? "Yes," says Dr Sharma. "Twelve to fourteen-year-olds want go under the scalpel to get a better-sculpted nose, fuller lips, and so on, because they are teased for their frog-like nose or thin lips. Their ultimate dream is to look like Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra and Sushmita Sen or be as slim as Shilpa Shetty."
Interestingly, the 52-year-old doctor has himself gone under the scalpel five times, although he sheepishly admits that what he did was wrong. He shrugs his discomfiture away, saying that like actors and fashion models even he is under pressure to maintain his good looks. "When I am the cosmetic surgeon who 80 per cent of Bollywood consults, I cannot afford to look haggard and old," he says matter-of-factly.
There are some, however, who have managed to turn a 'disadvantage' into a success story. Pushtiie, the chubby lead of Yash Raj Film’s weekly soap, 'Mahi Way', is one such person. In the soap, she plays the part of an overweight journalist who is the laughing stock of her office. Did she ever feel inadequate like her on-screen persona? Says Pushtiie, "I have been a chubby girl since my childhood. As a teenager I would get hurt and dejected when people felt the need to comment on my weight and advise me to lose weight. I even began an exercise-diet regime to lose weight, which made me rather depressed."
A jovial and happy-go-lucky person, Pushtiie recalls that over a period of time - because of the constant remarks and her own attempts to slim down - she became an irritable, angry person. That was the point when she decided to accept herself as she was. "I love myself. So I want to be me," says the young actress. Of course, with the appreciation that 'Mahi Way' brought in its wake, Pushtiie says she now hears comments like, 'Oh, come on, you are not that fat. You are chubby!'
Looking good is no crime, but not "looking good" is also no crime. Also, tastes change over time and with them the body image. A Kate Moss could give way to a buxom Kate Winslet as the preferred icon. The important thing is to be confident in the person one is.