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Plump is beautiful in India

February 22, 2008

bustop.jpgIn India most people think that being a little plump is perfectly alright, in fact the more curves you have the more beautiful you are…not that this means that Indians are built heavy! Not at all…most Indians are thin. If one looks around, on on the roads, in the malls, in the shops and in offices you will find that the majority of people are thin. Without trying. Without going to the gym and working out, and without controlling their diet. It’s not as if these people are dreadfully poor, or that they are manual labourers…it’s just that they don’t have cars and neither can they afford to buy rich food. Standing in queues, washing clothes and utensils by hand, walking to the market, carrying heavy parcels…that’s a part and parcel of their daily life. And if they think it’s alright to be a little on the heavier side…one of the reasons is that they associate it with prosperity.

Perhaps this is true in most poor countries – the majority of the people being on the slimmer side because of their simpler lifestyle and the higher cost of food in relation to income.

It’s completely different in the affluent countries, as food is cheap (costs a smaller percentage of income). The poor and lower middle classes can buy high calorie food and I wonder if that is one of the reasons why it isn’t a status symbol to be overweight. In fact I am sure it’s just the opposite (it’s a status symbol to be slim).

West vs India
I don’t know how accurate this is as I have not lived in the west for any length of time, but a recent study (sample of over 275,000 individuals) in the west reveals that it’s the well-to-do who exercise…and I assume are thinner than their less well-off brethren. Other studies in the west have shown that teens in poorer minority neighborhoods in the United States are more likely to be overweight as compared to adolescents who live in more affluent areas because they have fewer places to exercise. Less exercise and no dearth of food. Also, the affluent and the educated in the west seem to be making the right choices about what to eat, from what I have read.

But if in the USA there are fewer opportunities for the poor to exercise, here in India there is nothing at all. Even middle-class people have few opportunities as there are virtually no usable public facilities and club memberships are expensive. Over-crowding is a huge problem in a public swimming pool, if there is a decent one around.

In India however as I mentioned above, exercise is ingrained into the very lifestyle of the poor and the middle classes…and as for food, well, they cannot afford the ‘best’ food. The ‘best’ in inverted commas because I think their simple dal roti (lentils, and flat whole wheat bread) and a minimum of fried food and eating out is healthier than the diet of the rich in India…I have seen well-to-do people who lead sedentary lives here start their day with badam milk (milk with crushed almonds), chomp on fried cashews with drinks, eat fried snacks twice a day and eat dollops of ghee (clarified butter) with every meal. Eating out is also common amongst the upper classes. City people in India also eat dinner late (approximately 9 p.m.) and evening snacks are almost routine.

True, a section of the affluent in India are following the western trend of working out, but this trend is confined to a limited number of people, that too mostly in cities. Overall in India, even if one takes into account the affluent (farmers, shop-keepers, businessmen) in semi-urban and rural areas, people don’t work out. Even in the cities, it is only a small section of the affluent who exercise. And as there is no dearth of cheap labour to the jobs that require physical activity. It is not uncommon to see live-in domestic help even amongst the upper middle classes. I know households where teenagers refuse to help themselves to a glass of water…it has to handed over to them! And these teenagers don’t belong to the super-rich, they are sons and daughters of well-to-do professionals.

gym.jpgBeing plump is a sign of prosperity
Not that anyone is too worried. Most people are comfortable with their weights, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Unfortunately, one is more likely to elicit a negative comment if one has lost weight or looks thin. If I lose a kilo or two (I am of average weight) after working out intensely for 2 weeks, people ask me if I have been ill!😦 It’s irritating because I wonder why they cannot see that my skin is glowing and my muscles are taut!🙂 I don’t know when this attitude will change…

Actually, sports and working out doesn’t seem to be as ingrained in the average Indian as it is in the average westerner. This is the impression I have.
Wonder what the future holds for India. A populace that is being increasingly drawn to a sedentary life-style and rich food, but without the inclination to be physically active. Domestic help aren’t really helping as they encourage laziness…and the way I see it we are going to have domestic help around for at least 2 more generations…

(Photos by me)

Related Reading: How many people of both sexes are overweight and obese in different countries of the world?
India’s population to be two billion by the end of the century
Indians’ food expenses rising
America accuses India and China of eating too much!

More related reading: 11 Reasons why Indians aren’t healthy
India has one of the highest cancer rates in the world
Unhealthy Indian Snacks

Tobacco deaths in India

Food habits and exercise trends in India

Smoking on the rise in India?
Some good hundred year old diets!

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2008 9:57 am

    Nita – there was a saying among my middle class confreres in the 70s – “One can’t be too thin, too rich or have too many silk shirts.” Being thin is not only considered ‘U’ but also considered virtuous. Here the fat are considered lazy and stupid. This is not stated per se, but implied in social relationships. The unfortunate fact is that poorly nutritious food is cheaper here, and it is poorer people who eat this. Those who are able to eat fish and exotic vegetables and fruit and maintain memberships in fitness clubs. They also have the financial means to take part in sports which require a large out lay of money for equipment. In agrarian societies people are in constant motion and use their bodies and their attitude to food is different as so is their regard for “organized exercise” (they call it labour) and “sport”. G

  2. February 22, 2008 10:30 am

    In just one short paragraph you have explained it so beautifully! Thanks.

  3. February 22, 2008 12:22 pm

    @ Nita: I shall sit this one out too except to say that extrapolating from looking around is a simplistic and not the best way to arrive at conclusions, I think. All said and done, an estimated 150 M (which is actually the equivalent of 1/2 the US’s entire population and 2.5 times the UK’s) in India are obese.

    Shefaly, I disagree with you heartily when you say that “extrapolating from looking around is a simplistic and not the best way to arrive at conclusions..” What “conclusions” are we talking about here? This is not an academic article. Also Shefaly, I have said that “most Indians are thin” and that is what I mean. Not actual numbers but percentage.
    – Nita.

  4. Raj permalink
    February 22, 2008 12:50 pm

    Nita,

    I agree that there is a tendency to make people “fit” into what we see as an ideal “body mass ratio” or “weight for height” moulds.

    While it is good to make sure that we remain fit and healthy,there may be advantages and/or disadvantages in being overweight or underweight.Being extremely overweight or extremely underweight is certainly not desirable.

    If this comment sounds a bit confusing,it is because I AM a bit confused about all the fuss to “fit” into a mould which we think is desirable.

  5. Monica permalink
    February 22, 2008 1:15 pm

    Honestly, as long as Indians are getting their needed nutrition, I think majority of them are better off thin.

    People here in the US have access to highly-processed food, and that itself is leading to a rise in diabetes amongst young kids, and is leading to other complications in older people. And someone mentioned fatty food is cheaper here in America, WHICH IS SOOO TRUE.

    I go to a health food store and end up spending my ENTIRE paycheck on healthy un-processed food. Yet in 10 dollars I can get a whole days worth of fast food sandwiches and fries.

    As I see it, I think India is better off in this situation, although I think the upper class needs a little education on their food choices. America is doing horrible, too much cheap junf food around.

  6. February 22, 2008 1:39 pm

    @ Nita:

    The reason why I commented with the number of the obese is that after much political toing and froing, this number seems to appear again and again for obesity. Obesity definitions are clear but when framed in health terms, Indians are blessed (or should it be cursed?) with a genetic makeup that means many diseases related to weight gain or excess weight kick off in Indians at a much lower BMI than, say, in Caucasians (27 compared to 30 if you are interested but then again this is only data! What relationship can it possibly have with thinking?).

    Extrapolating from our observation is often inaccurate because of many reasons. I did not for instance believe any of the UK’s obesity numbers until I started doing a train journey that took me through really deprived parts of the UK.

    Thanks for letting me read and comment.

  7. Guqin permalink
    February 22, 2008 2:02 pm

    Regarding “Plump is Beautiful”
    I have noticed for long a very interesting phenomenon: A society that is both economically and mentally prosperous usually thinks “Plump is Beautiful”. Women represented in typical sculptures of Ancient India, Greece, Rome are all healthy, stronge and rather plump. Do Indian readers agree here regarding Indian sculptures? Tang China’s artists portrayed really plump women almost exclusively too. Same in the west of the Rennaisance: Look at Rubens’ paintings, all big fat girls; and in Michaelangelo’s sculptures, women are of the physique of heroines. Only not so sure about Egypt.

    My guess is that a society that likes big girls is one that is open, confident and rising.

    On the contrary, a culture that prefers thin, sickly women is usually stagnant or declining.

  8. February 22, 2008 3:32 pm

    Gugin, yes in ancient Indian sculptures the women were quite voluptuous! I have seen Egyptian sculptures first hand and both men and women were small, but well built. However, I am not sure about the relationship between a culture and the attitude to what constitutes an ideal woman!🙂 I think this keeps changing Gugin…

  9. Guqin permalink
    February 22, 2008 3:39 pm

    Dear Nita and Shefaly,

    I understand that I am not really suitable to step in between since I am not educated with Indian ethics and manerism. I do it anyway in hope that my sincerity is edvident, and that I feel responsible since I happen to be reading and commenting here.

    Dear Shefaly,
    When I saw your first post, I somehow felt that Nita might not like it either, since as I saw it, it might seem overly demanding and non-appreciating to the author. So I wasn’t that suprised about Nita’s reaction. But I perfectly understand your scholarly point of view and the more systematic approach to your object . And you were just speaking with the honesty and brevity of a scholar.

    Dear Nita,
    You explained yourself well in your response to Shefaly’s comment. And indeed, free-writing directly from raw observation holds its truth too. That is the difference between the work of an artist-writer and that of a scholar. When the work of an artist is critized without signs of sympathy, certainly, she will react. But I ensure you that Shefaly meant no harm. She was purely reacting as a trained scholar with her critical eyes.

    I like your blog. and I have learnt from Shefaly’s comments as well.

    My English is in-sufficient in handling more subtle issues like this. I hope I am not making things worse.

    Gugin, Thank you for a balanced comment. I have no grudges against Shefaly and she will always be welcome on my blog.
    Thanks for your sensitiveness and good wishes Gugin.🙂 – Nita.

  10. February 22, 2008 5:27 pm

    Raj, I agree that when society tries to fit us into a mould, it’s irritating. What I personally get bugged about is the fact that in our society people are expected to be of a certain weight, which means not thin! All my life I have been very thin, but now I am normal weight. But during my teens etc, i got so many comments for being under 50 kilos that it’s not easy to forget that!
    My babies too were not fat as so many babies were, and I used to argue with people trying to convince them that my babies were healthy! I never fed them artificial milk by the way and I am proud of that!

    Monica, thanks for that perspective on the US. Here too all that health food is very expensive! Awareness levels are improving, but old habits die hard. One can only hope for greater awareness levels in the next generation!

  11. February 22, 2008 7:42 pm

    This was so true Nita, I have been thin from the days as long as I can remember, anytime anyone sees me, used to tell me only one thing, why I am so thin, or why I don’t eat properly.
    The idea of a healthy body does not appeal much to people I guess, compared to idea of a hefty one.

    Regarding why many of us are thin, may be most of us still live with the old concepts of one lunch, and one dinner concept, and nothing else after that. But saying that many of these have changed, I am seeing that our next generation of kids, who seem to have much more unhealthy lifestyle are having to deal with obesity,

  12. wishtobeanon permalink
    February 22, 2008 8:09 pm

    Nice post, Nita. I too think that there are more undernourished people in India and we can come to this conclusion by looking around. I wonder if there has been any research or statistics on this. Like you said, I too noticed that people tend to prefer plump or curvaceous (not overweight though) women (at least, in some south Indian states). I know many instances of would-be brides being fattened up by their parents (sometimes without success) with herbal(ayurvedic) medicines, eggs etc. to increase their chances in the marriage market.
    On a different note, I do hope Shefaly comes back with her intelligent and well researched comments. I totally agree with what Gugin said and we know you are too kind and rational to have grudges.

  13. Laksh permalink
    February 22, 2008 8:51 pm

    Agree with you Nita. Very refreshing to hear different points of view. Me and my husband often have these discussion and I tend to equate India with my city. He always points out that my city is just a speck on the map. So, whenever I think clothes I forget there are stores that sell salwars for 200 and there are those that sell for 2000. I know am going off on a tangent but thats what came to mind after reading your post. In my immediate and extended family, I know of not many people who have the perfect body but all of them have a healthy attitude towards weight and food. And it is totally true that the lifestyle by itself acts as a work out.

    Thanks for writing about this.

  14. February 22, 2008 9:58 pm

    Rambler, when I was in the 10th grade, there were just 2 overweight people in my class, but in my daughter’s 10th grade, I found almost everyone overweight! I think snacks are a culprit like you said. Too many temptations around for todays kids.

    wishtobeanon, well, stats on undernourished people as such are not available as it is believed that many overweight people are also undernourished. About how many thin people there are in the country, no there are no stats. I doubt that you will find weight-wise stats on adults in India.
    What you said about brides being fattened up – I have heard stories like that too. Sad huh!
    And about people preferring curvaceous women, well what is curvaceous will vary from region to region I guess, but this is the beauty aspect which is also a very important point. The idea of beauty for most Indian men does seem to be a curvaceous woman and broad hips is generally considered fine and desirable in India.
    But the well-fed look is desired in men too, for various reasons, and I am sure like in women, perceived attractiveness is a factor, as is perceived health .

    Laksh, thanks. Good to see you here, and though you haven’t asked, I wanted to tell you that are on my surfer too🙂
    And I agree that it’s a good thing to be comfortable with one’s weight. We know what can happen with an obsession with weight. But of late even in Bollywood I have been seeing that the leading ladies are thin, it was never the case before, and I feel that Bollywood is trying to set up some sort of ideal…

  15. Gopala permalink
    February 22, 2008 10:02 pm

    I live in the USA and the reason for poorer people being fatter here is that they cannot afford food that is healthy! Most food here is junk food and is high in fat but costs less. The healthy options like fresh vegetables, lean meat, etc is way too expensive!

  16. February 22, 2008 10:25 pm

    My contribution to the discussion:

    http://xkcd.com/386/
    I came across this cartoon yesterday and my first thought was – “I do that too!”🙂
    ===
    Nita, I think there’s definitely more emphasis (almost to the point of obsession) placed on thinness in the US as an ideal body type, which I didn’t observe while growing up in India. Even looking at the actresses in BW, it is clear that most of them are much more voluptuous and curvy than their counterparts in HW, though that is changing too, with BW actresses becoming more and more like HW actresses when it comes to body type. Recently, BW director Aditya Chopra made some statements about how BW actresses should be thinner (or some remarks along those lines).

    If we leave aside obesity for a while, it is true that in general, Indians are much happier and more accepting of their bodies.

  17. February 22, 2008 10:50 pm

    Amit, that cartoon gave me a hearty laugh.😆
    About the accepting of our bodies, I wonder if it has something to do with our traditional clothes? A saree makes a woman look slimmer and wearing it skilfully can hide bulges in the wrong place. Also a saree can makes a thin woman look fuller if worn right. A salwar kameez too can hide a lot…but that can’t apply to the guys…! I wonder if more women are overweight as compared to men…

    Gopala, sad to hear that junk food is cheaper than healthy food. Here, speciality health food is expensive yes, but natural foods are cheaper than processed foods. I hope this state of affairs continues.

  18. sangeeta permalink
    February 22, 2008 11:58 pm

    Nita,

    In USA the problem of obesity is over nutrition due to unhealthy ,low priced fatty foods (like french fries,etc).Healthy food such as salads,greens fruits are way too expensive for lower income.Plus the ever busy lifestyle which make people go towards cheap fast food.And off course sluggish lifestyle which I see as one of the causes for obesity amongst the well to do class in India as well !!

    In India the scenario is different,the lower income group esp the rural areas are thin many times due to mal nutrition caused hard physical labour,demanding life style and high cost of food in comparison to their income

  19. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    February 23, 2008 6:16 am

    Sangeeta,

    I am commenting on your post without reading all that precedes it, so excuse me if someone has already made the point earlier.

    //In USA the problem of obesity is over nutrition due to unhealthy … foods … In India … the lower income group esp the rural areas are thin many times due to mal nutrition caused hard physical labour,demanding life style and high cost of food in comparison to their income.//

    Firstly, I don’t know if a concept of “overnutrition” exists in dietics or the health sciences (maybe Shefaly could educate me on this). Something like it exists in limnology — though even there the term as such is not used. it’s effect on the waterbody is called “eutrophication”.

    Secondly, I think you need to distinguish between malnutrition and undernutrition. Among the poor in rural areas, while there is undoubtedly some malnutrition, the major culprit is “undernutrition”. And such malnutrition as exists is due either to the lack of availability of essential nutrients in the diet or unhealthy cooking and eating habits. Malnutrition can never be “caused by hard labour”. Undernutrition can, because the poor do not have the money to buy all the food they need to replace the calories burnt through labour.

    Besides, a lot of what agriculturists cultivate is determined more by what will fetch a good price in the market and less by their own home needs. A majority of our farmers have small land holdings, not adequate to fulfil even domestic food needs. So even they traditionally know what they should be growing for self-sufficiency in nutrition, economic compulsions prevent them from practising their wisdom.

  20. February 23, 2008 8:47 am

    Sangeeta, thanks.
    Vivek, thanks for pointing out the difference difference between undernutrition and malnutrition. You are absolutely right, there is a huge difference between the two terms. many thin people, even those in cities are undernourished I feel. I find this common amongst a certain group of maharashtrians, who have a very frugal diet, and even when they can afford it don’t eat properly. In fact two of my aunts, skinny throughout their life but quite healthy (no fevers, colds, no operations, nothing!) developed severe osteoporosis. On one hand we read that it is important to eat less to lead a long healthy life and on the other hand, this reduced intake of calories means that one has to be extra careful about taking a balanced diet. Avoiding milk and calcium rich foods can affect one’s bone health. In fact one of the reasons I myself have put on weight (as compared to what I was earlier) is because I started consuming more yoghurt and eating cheese etc (worried about my calcium intake). I have always hated drinking milk! In fact that is why I also gym everyday, as I fear osteoporosis.

  21. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    February 23, 2008 9:01 am

    Nita,

    I do not know about a cause-and-effect relationship between eating less and osteoporosis.

    I also don’t know if a self-imposed frugal diet can have the same effect on the body as involuntary undernourishment or starvation. The former would most likely accompany a suitable lifestyle.

    Maybe these questions should be addressed to Rambodoc.

    Vivek, I didn’t mean a cause and effect relationship between eating less and osteroporosis. I meant if you eat less, you need to be more careful of what you put in… in any case two of my cousins are orthopedics, so I do talk to them about this. They say that many people who eat less (small stomachs) tend to not get a balanced diet. – Nita.

  22. February 23, 2008 9:03 am

    I don’t quite understand food and its effects very easily. Indian food intake is lighter on cholestrol than western diets, yet we have a larger number of per capita heart diseases than heavy meat eating nations (I am unsure about the US, but I would like to leave them out of this generalisation).

    As for weight issues, someone please educate me on the basis for deciding obesity. If I am not mistaken, it is largely based on BMI, which is, inarguable inexact. The deficiencies of BMI are quite evident and hence a lot of fit people labeled obese and a lot of unfit escape the label.

    With the growing culture of fast food, the 12-hour jobs and urbanizing in India, I wonder how long we will escape the label of being an unfit nation considering how most Indian diets leave much to be desired.

    DD, I think Shefaly could have answered your main question.
    But what about weight I think one shouldn’t worry too much about it. I personally don’t care about BMI and don’t know my BMI. As long as I am healthy and agile, eat a balanced and (as far as possible) a natural diet, the BMI I am sure will be fine!- Nita.

  23. sangeeta permalink
    February 23, 2008 9:26 am

    Vivek ,

    I correct my self,thanks for drawing my attention to that.I don’t know whether the term “over nutrition” has any scientific basis,it could be more used in the US.
    In Wikidedia it says ” Over nutrition” is a form of malnutrition in which nutrients are oversupplied relative to the amounts required for normal growth, development, and metabolism.”

    Thanks again Vivek,this is really very helpful!!

  24. September 12, 2009 4:02 am

    It’s interesting to note that, often, when I read an article of yours, I end up going back to your archives and reading something that you wrote much earlier.

    I’m glad that plump isn’t bad in India; within limits, I don’t think it should be bad anywhere else either.

    People come in all different shapes and sizes; the current trend to idolize skinny-minnies to the exclusion of everything else is just plain stupid.

    • vasudev permalink
      September 12, 2009 7:08 pm

      plump, is the most beautiful. fat, is ugly. skinny??? arrrghhh!

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