Aishwarya Rai and critical geographies of fat/bigness/corpulence

Andy Daviesby Andy Davies, University of Liverpool

The British press last month took a perverse delight in pointing out a perceived ‘backlash’ in India against the Bollywood film star Aishwarya Rai and her weight. Rai, it’s claimed, is being berated in India for failing to lose her ‘baby weight’, having given birth to a baby girl in November. The Daily Mail provides a predictable touchstone with its current obsession with celebrity gossip, but the topic was also picked up by Sarfraz Manzoor in The Guardian.

Unnamed sources from unnamed websites are said to state:

“She is a Bollywood actress and it is her duty to look good and fit”, suggested one commenter. Another added: “She needs to learn from people like Victoria Beckham who are back to size zero weeks after their delivery” (from the Sydney Morning Herald’s website).

These statements are not particularly shocking when placed alongside the predictable irony of media sources like the Daily Mail patronising Indian people for commenting on a celebrity’s weight, whilst displaying comments on other celebrities’ behaviour and appearance as a mainstay of its own webpage. Yet, this also opens up a number of all-too-familiar questions about postcolonial denigrations of the ‘other’, something Manzoor touches upon in his more considered piece for The Guardian. The comments also chime with academic questions about the role feminist thought can play in uncovering some of the many tensions in contemporary India, which Rupal Oza did an excellent job of anatomising in her book, The Making of Neoliberal India (Routledge, 2006).

Yet, what I want to focus on here is the tension between ‘the Left’ (however defined) and debates about body fat and weight. Across the Western world, and particularly in the US and UK, we are consistently told that we are on the verge of an ‘obesity epidemic’ which uses the language of prefigurative politics to make a variety of claims about what the ideal type of human body should be to ensure the best future for humanity. In its extremes, as my colleague Bethan Evans has pointed out, this leads to the absurd conflation of obesity and climate change, where fat people are assumed to consume more than thin people, and who therefore are more likely to fuel not just an ‘epidemic’ of obesity, but also increased carbon consumption.

The ways in which our perceptions of body fat are shaped by wider public perceptions, such as the media, but also by the language of medical science, has been critiqued by a small number of geographers like Bethan who have argued that much of the supposed ‘science’ of obesity breaks down under careful analysis (see, for example, the recent symposium in Antipode, as well as papers by Robyn Longhurst and Peter Hopkins, to name just two) and in wider discussions about the links between health and fatness. These all raise very real questions about the ways in which fat people are represented and claims made about them and their bodies by ‘rational, objective science’. As a result, Charlotte Cooper, a British fat researcher and activist, has consistently claimed, with some justification, that the Left has failed fat people by not recognising the everyday forms of dehumanising discrimination that people whose bodies are seen to be obese or fat are faced with. In order to be ‘the Left’ which I wish to be associated with, which is the Left of tolerance and openness, there is a need to think in much more seriousness about these issues, for, as the Aishwarya Rai case shows, weight can be used just as viciously as (and also alongside) other sources of discrimination such as race which we now see as unacceptable. Rai’s position as a celebrity, an Indian, and someone who may or may not have gained bodyweight have all been deployed to make claims about her as a person, yet we often do not think about the ways in which we are told obesity is something that must be ‘fought’ in order to better our futures (see, for example, how bankers are represented as ‘fat-cat capitalists’). Thinking about how to make society more just and equal must therefore mean that we should spend more time debating the ways in which we may be more or less ‘fattist’ in our everyday behaviour.