Bollywood actress Vidya Balan poses for photographs at the Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai. (Photo by Sujit Jaiswal / AFP)

The body shaming of fat people, especially women, is not a new phenomenon, and in recent times the body-positive movement has slowly crept beyond the West and the United States to create awareness of the issue. But celebrities in the entertainment industry still have it rough, especially in India where they are increasingly expected to meet impossible beauty standards.

Back in 2008, when actor Kareena Kapoor Khan was seen losing weight to reach a size zero in the Bollywood film Tashan, everyone wanted a body like hers. A decade later, not much has changed, and Indians still heap shame upon anyone who fails to comply to what they consider “beautiful”.

In an interview with Filmfare magazine last week, actor Vidya Balan opened up about her insecurities over her body weight, insecurities that she has dealt with since her teenage years, all thanks to fat shaming. She has never been able to escape it, not even after she won dozens of top awards and was honored with a Padma Shri—India’s fourth-highest civilian award.

“People don’t understand that when you grow up a fat girl, it doesn’t leave you… I’ve had hormonal problems all my life. It’s probably because of the judgment I’ve carried around my body … So, I’d starve myself, I’d go through crazy exercise regimes and lose weight. Then the hormonal issue would settle for a bit before it reared its head again. I guess it was my body’s way of revolting because in wanting it to be what it was not, I was constantly rejecting it,” she said.

Tired of harsh judgments, Balan said, “When people tell me why don’t you start exercising, I want to say f**k you!”

Even actor Neha Dhupia slammed a website for commenting on her post-pregnancy weight, labeling it “shocking”, putting her critics in their place in the process.

“I don’t owe anyone an explanation because fat shaming like this doesn’t bother me one bit. But I do want to address this as a larger problem because fat shaming needs to stop for everyone not just celebs … ‘Fitness’ is a priority and not ‘fitting into’ society’s standards regarding looks,” Dhupia said.

The woman’s body was reacting to the birth of a child. What exactly was “shocking” about her weight? And how is it anybody’s business?

Actors should be judged on their acting abilities, not their body weight. The onus is not on the actor to conform to what an audience thinks is right or wrong. Nobody has the right to comment on what an actor should look like, how many times a day they should work out, or how a pregnancy should make them look.

Indians are obsessed with skinny women and Bollywood is to blame for romanticizing and glamorizing this obsession. However, this problem is not exclusively India’s. Far from it.

Just last month, Grammy-award nominee singer Bebe Rexha revealed that several fashion designers had declined to dress her for the occasion because she was “too big”. Rexha is a size 8. She took to Instagram to respond via video.

“F**k you. I don’t wanna wear your f**king dresses. You’re saying that all the women in the world that are size 8 and up are not beautiful and they cannot wear your dresses,” she said.

Even leading women’s lingerie and beauty products brand Victoria’s Secret has not helped matters by relentlessly featuring skinny models, thus typecasting thin women as the epitome of beauty.

At a time when conversations are moving towards body positivity and efforts are being made to de-stigmatize the guilt associated with body weight, it is indeed a shame to see publications, designers, and industries take a dig at people who do not conform to their supposed beauty standards. It is crass, inconsiderate and inordinately negative.

Another bothersome issue is how the word “fat” is seen as a terrible thing to say to someone, while “thin” is usually a compliment. The body-shamers are unapologetic and ignorant of the effects their comments have on women: creating body image issues, eating disorders, low self-esteem to name only a few.

In the Bollywood film Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), the leading character Prem (played by Ayushmann Khurrana) refuses to marry the overweight Sandhya (played by Bhumi Padnekar). He finally agrees to the marriage after the persistence of his family who tell him that she is educated and will, therefore, provide financial support. On the other hand, Sandhya’s parents are willing to marry their daughter off to a boy with poor educational qualifications and little financial security because overweight Sandhya’s prospects are bleak in a society that discriminates against fat persons.

With its real-world storyline, Dum Laga Ke Haisha taps into the mentality of the ordinary Indian with regard to marriage and appearance. And yet, the onus is never on Sandhya to lose weight. We don’t see her desperately working out to lose weight to impress her husband or make herself feel worthy of him. Instead, Prem works hard on himself and goes back to studying to impress his wife and feel equal. And that notion is the hero of the story.

With movies like this few and far between, Bollywood mostly continues to propagate stereotypes. We are yet to start seeing body types and skin color for what they are, for the distinct beauty they carry, and not as “good” or “bad”. Are our entertainment industries ever going to stop feeding into these regressive notions they have themselves created? Or is the onus always going to be on the victim to deal with the vile attitudes they constantly encounter?

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