Vidya Balan opens up about being fat-shamed and how she overcame body image issues

Padma Shri awardee and National Film Award-winning actor Vidya Balan talks about how people called her names like gundu and moti, and how she got past body image issues.
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Growing up in India, you are almost always ‘too thin’ or ‘too healthy’ -- yes that’s an actual term people use to call you fat. They think they are being sensitive and nice by not using the ‘F’ word. Some others are not so ‘sensitive’ and would tell you to your face ‘kitna khaate ho?!’ (How much do you eat?!) or ‘kuch khaate nahi ho kya?’ (Don’t you eat anything?)

And these things often said casually without any spite and not meaning any real harm, can actually wreak havoc with the mental health of the person at the receiving end. The jeers tend to continue through one’s adult life, unless they start conforming to the society’s definitions of beauty.

During a recent chat with YourStory Media Founder and CEO, Shradha Sharma, on YourStory Inspirations series, acclaimed actor and National Film Award winner, Vidya Balan, opened up about her experiences of being fat shamed, and how she struggled with body image issues. 

For actors and celebrities, who are perennially in the public eye, it’s perhaps even more difficult to deal with the constant judgement and jibes. In an era ruled by social media, where people are unabashed and outright crude with their criticism and comments, it can really throw people off the rails.

“When you go out into the world, you realise there are certain expectations that people want to box you (in), because it’s just more convenient. I think that comes as a bit of a jolt. I grew up a fat girl, but I thought I was the most beautiful woman on planet earth, until people began to tell me ‘oh you’ve got such a pretty face, why don’t you lose weight’ and all kinds of terms get used for you - gundu (in Tamil) and moti (in Hindi) - and then you are suddenly looking at yourself at home (in the mirror),” said Vidya, recounting her ordeal.



But the fat shaming actually started much before she became a public figure. Like for most people in India, it started in school, she reveals. 

“I always felt beautiful, but when I stepped out into the world, and that happens early, in school itself, people begin to tease you and you begin to look at yourself through the prism of people’s perceptions, expectations, or ideals.” 

“So, I think I was anyway fighting that body battle for a long time because I liked my food and I didn’t like to exercise, so that was already there. And then you become an actor, and people have an opinion on everything.”

Last year, Fortis Healthcare conducted a nation-wide survey to gain an insight into the attitudes and perceptions of women towards the concept of body image, as well as the impact of body shaming on their psychological well-being. The survey, that sampled over 1,200 women, found that 90 percent of the respondents recognised body shaming as a common behaviour.

YourStory CEO, Shradha Sharma in a conversation with actor Vidya Balan

A whopping 95 percent said they believed that most people do not even realise they are indulging in body shaming. Over 60 percent said they felt anxious and nervous when people commented on their looks and physical appearance. About 97 percent of women said they believed the issue of body shaming needs to be addressed in schools, which is where it starts with most people, as was the case with Vidya.

The 41-year-old Padma Shri (India’s fourth highest civilian honour) awardee says her family’s unending support really helped her keep all the noise away, but that was until 2007-08, when the noise started growing louder, affecting her deeply.

“So for someone who came in very self-assured, I think I did go through a period of wanting to be anything but me - this was around 2007-08. I got criticised a lot for it, I couldn’t process any of that and I was like, I am doing exactly what people are telling me to do, then why the hell would they have a problem with that.”

But then something changed. The critically acclaimed - The Dirty Picture - happened to her, which proved to be cathartic. 

“I was going through such deep body image issues, and then The Dirty Picture happened to me. I was at my biggest until then because then I became even bigger. But The Dirty Picture made me confront how small I felt in my bigness, and that actually freed me, liberated me, it just made me own my body, however it was,” she says.

“Here I was oozing from everywhere, I had to wear little clothes, and I had to feel sexy to look sexy,” Vidya says.

According to her, the key lies in accepting oneself just the way they are, without being swayed by the norms and standards set by others.

“I have this deep desire to accept myself just the way I am. I have also been working with a healer for about nine years now. Being a public figure, you need some kind of support - whether it is therapy, or some kind of healing or something spiritual.” 

“I think everyone needs it, but all the more as a public figure, and all the more for a girl who comes from a family that has nothing to do with films - we are a middle class Tambrahm (Tamilian Brahmin) family, as they call us. And I realised that actually as human beings, all we want is acceptance, but that acceptance cannot come from the world, unless we accept various facets of ourselves.”

Edited by Megha Reddy

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