Leafing through the newspapers, my mother once pointed out a supreme but somewhat under-reported irony. The big dailies, she pointed out, were devoting a sizeable portion of their features pages to cuisine and teaching readers how to score global foodie points by trying out every variety of exotic food and cooking practices. But this was followed by an equally sizeable number of pages that sternly warned readers against gluttony and underscored how important it is to eat only “coarse” food sparingly and punish the body with workouts. The regrettable overindulgence in food will result, these pages warn, in diabetes, congested arteries, osteoarthritis, colon cancer and God knows what else. The aim is to make the poor readers feel miserable whenever uncontrollable desires for hearty meals cross their mind.
Obviously, editors see no contradiction in writing about restaurants that serve meals loaded with calories, and simultaneously listing various kinds of weight-reduction diets, food supplements, asanas to reduce fat and tone up muscles, and, of course, health food stores in the city.
A mixture of information overload, lack of time and a deep atavistic fear of losing all that lovely dimpled flesh, ensures that food writing has become the new pornography for a schizophrenic society, to be read and savoured in privacy and frowned at in civilized company. This has also turned sessions with dieticians into confessionals.
“Is it not enough to have halved my consumption of red meat, forgone desserts, and reconciled oneself to a life in which walking up and down staircases and to the neighbourhood grocery are routine?” you ask humbly.
“No, it’s just scratching the surface,” the stern-looking dietician with a lantern jaw tells you. “If you actually dream of having a bottom like Kareena Kapoor’s or a six-pack like Shah Rukh’s, your lifestyle has to be dramatically different from what it is today. And this is non-negotiable. That will be Rs1,500, thank you. Hand your cheque or cash to the receptionist as you leave.”
Does perfect health mean changing everything about how we live? Must we trade in our love for comfortable couches, nice cars and fancy restaurant hopping holidays with 40-minute punishment sessions in expensive gyms with snooty coaches who look down their noses at all that adipose?
Fifty years ago, after crossing 50, parents of grown-up kids might not have been demolished by terms such as “ravages of time”, when applied to their somewhat flabby midriffs and faces with crow’s feet and sagging jaw lines. But expectations then were low.
In the age of botox, liposuction and streaked hair, it is no longer socially acceptable that we accept ageing as inevitable with good grace and a resigned shrug. And this is bad for grandchildren. They will never get to nuzzle plump grannies, an experience many of us recall with love and gratitude. Can a lean, mean granny who offers you granola bars and carrot sticks, instead of homemade sweets oozing butter and sugar, makes you down brown rice with organic veggies, and denies you colas and gives you fresh carrot juice instead, ever match the one who cooked biryanis in desi ghee and added a dollop of home-churned butter to parathas? Nobody asked grannies then to cook what they did, but they soothed away all those nasty breakdowns in the making, hovering around their well-laden tables like battle axes and stood between leisurely meals and the clock summoning you for unwelcome music lessons, homework and demanding parents.
True, there are social norms today that treat women who have stalled the ageing processes like honorary male warriors. But that is according too much honour to war. Perhaps we, midnight’s female children, will be at ease with ageing when we stop obsessing about what we should look like, and appreciate our non-flat stomachs with their stretch marks and dimpled thighs as byproducts of unique life giving and nurturing experiences that we share with all women.
Of course, changing media images will help. But that is not enough by itself. What we need is more of the old style natural togetherness, especially among women who are working outside homes. We need spots within workplaces where women of all ages can unwind and swap jokes and information just as homemakers do in traditional watering holes of their own. Like most groups of newly empowered people, women’s faith in looking good by others’ standards is yet to be shaken. And we have not quite absorbed facts such as the rising incidence of brittle bones, anorexia and heart ailments related to fad diets and increased smoking and alcohol intake among women. Then there is the economy size guilt trip—if we feel exhausted at the end of a long working day, it must be our fault. Perhaps our mothers and grandmothers didn’t teach us what to eat. Look at Madonna the magazines say, and Posh. But why must we all have their legs and waistlines long after we have given birth?
Only if we stop being competitive all the time will we accept our own body as unique. We will perhaps at that point, discover that there is actually much more to real fitness than measuring tapes and weighing scales.
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Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org