As a plus-size woman, body image is an inner demon that I have fought, lost and have a love-hate relationship with over the years. Heck, sometimes we have brunch on weekends.
I dislike my body. Everything is too much; my feet are too big and I am not able to buy cute shoes. My boobs are too big and jiggle when I walk. I have more than one chin. My thighs are too big and I have lost one too many favourite pants due to this. My mid-section makes people sitting in the reserved seat do a double take. On bad days, I even hate the two moles on my chin (I named them ‘cindy’ and ‘fatimah’).
As a Muslim woman who dons the hijab, I am unsure of the impact that societal pressures of body image is supposed to have on me. On one hand, I feel immune from the body image concerns that are forced upon women due to my non-conformance to it but yet as a woman I am also part of the narrative.
Has my poor body image become a mirror in my self-image? Perhaps. I am well known for being invisible; it’s my superpower. In meetings, I am not seen and people do not make eye contact with me. Individuals whom I have never met before tell me I look familiar when they have never met me before. I am a copy-paste; I am just another fat brown woman like the many others alongside me.
It started at a young age when I was constantly mistaken for the older child because of my bigger frame and round stature.
“oh, ni anak number dua, badan besar eh”
(“oh, this is the second child, big-sized eh”)
Statements as such were casually passed with looks from the adults especially the aunties. I never did connect the dots until much later in life. It took me many years to finally comprehend the ‘look’. The look was one of sympathy; sympathy because a fat girl does not get the best in life. Being fat makes her less desirable as a woman and as a prospective wife. Fat girls do not win in life.
Throughout my formal schooling, I was a lifetime member of the Trim-and-Fit (TAF) club. From primary school all the way to Pre-University level.
“Eh you know TAF club backwards is what?”
Bless you physical education teachers for your creativity.
I recall attendance for TAF club was compulsory; should one miss a session of TAF club; their name would be called out during morning assembly. Not only are you punished for being fat, you are also punished if you do not acknowledge that you are fat.
In secondary school, I became very aware that my breasts were bigger than they were supposed to be. Girls and boys would talk about them. The girls would mock them and ask me where I custom tailor my bras. Boys would stare at my breasts. This confused me greatly as I thought of breasts as just lumps of fat; just like what camels have. It was not helpful that they would speak about my body in a language that they assumed I did not understand. It was only in secondary two when I was standing outside Malay class when I was spotted.
“Eh siak ah, dia paham melayu siak”
(“Eh siak, she understands Malay siak”)
In pre-university level, I proudly took on the title of Vice-President of Fitness Club, a designation given to me based on the fact that I was the second biggest person in the club. The fitness club was a co-curricular activity club for the ‘badan besar’ people in the school. It was a daily activity club that required the members to expel a certain amount of calories before we could be released for a recess break.
I had associated big with bad and small with good. As a girl; as a woman, the smaller you are, the better and more desirable you become. I had been warned with cautionary tales that fat girls do not end up with husbands or that boys do not like fat girls. Tales were spun about a fat girl whose could not find love or lost out on love to a slimmer smaller girl. Fat women were participation prizes in a male competition when slimness is the ultimate prize.
I have my phases of ‘I’m-going-to-get-slim-and-people-will-discover-my-true-potential’ phase. In my head, it would be my Cinderella moment; as the layers of fat peel off and out emerges a slim Raudah with only one chin. In this fairy tale, I would be noticed; waiters will see me and serve me first, people would give way to me and I would finally get attention from non-senile men.
To date, I do get statements urging me that I would be more desirable if I lost weight. This makes me more rebellious as if I do want to get desirable, I would do it on my own terms and not because you asked me to.
I am a lot more comfortable with my body. At work, the big boob-ed ladies would exchange information on where to buy good bras and any upcoming bra sales. We would compare boob sizes. We have intense heated debates based on whose boobs are bigger [Ok, not all the big boob-ed ladies participate in the debates, mostly me and a couple others…. Ok and these debates and conversations are initiated by me].
“Asalkan tetek lebih besar daripada perut”)
(As long as your boobs protrude more than your tummy)
However, I would be lying if I say I am 100% comfortable with my body. I do have bad body days when I reprimand myself for staying on being fat. Perhaps it is not too late to get slim and be noticed. I would binge download fitness app that would set off alarms reminding me of my weight goals. After a few days, I would delete the apps and decide to cut sugar and white rice from my diet. Another few days later, I would resume eating white rice as the hawker centre near my office does not have a wide selection of halal food. I personally prefer wanton noodles, kway teow, and yong tau foo but it is difficult to find halal food stores that sell anything other than nasi padang.
“Everyday makan nasi padang, badan pun besar macam padang”
(“Every eat nasi padang (field), body also become big like field”)
My body image journey was a tumultuous one and I doubt it will end anytime soon. Just earlier this week, I waited patiently for 45mins for my Hershey ice-creams at MacDonald’s. I have also made attempts to inculcate my body insecurity into part of my sassiness.
P: You walk fast for someone who doesn’t look like she can walk fast.
Me: You mean fat?
P: No, I didn’t say that. I just said you don’t look like you can walk fast.
Me: * walks faster*
At my age now, I feel that I have lost out in the genetic race of beauty, looks and body. The younger girls also seem to be more versed in the act of looking good. Taking the train to work every weekday morning and seeing the Shenton girls with their high heels and immaculate dressing and make-up; I legitly wonder how they walk in those stiletto heels. Most importantly, I hope that they wear stiletto heels not because it is expected of them but because they want to. I hope they did not have aunties who looked at them with sympathy and told them they need to look and dress in a certain way to ‘win’ in this world.
Raudah is a plus-size Indian Muslim woman single woman who mostly wears black of dark-coloured hijabs because she gets food stains on them. Dreams of garnering an army of social workers to change the world and advocate for social justice and equity for all.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu