Play back Bollywood headlines from 2013 and this is what sticks out: the striking visual of Deepika Padukone in a red Monisha Jaising gown, perched on a sofa on the Koffee With Karan set, calmly aiming barb after barb at ex-boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor. As Padukone picked apart Kapoor’s Casanova aura, she looked transformed. But it wasn’t just the dress or the make-up or the studio lights. In that moment, Padukone was the antithesis of the Cathy comic cliché: the woman who is expected to stay home with a tub of ice cream while ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ plays gloomily in the background. She looked stronger, happier and, honestly, better off.
This post-break-up metamorphosis has a name: #revengebod or the revenge body movement. It is the art of emerging from a break-up physically and mentally stronger, a transformation that will flood your ex-lover with bitter regret. It’s not a new phenomenon, either. On the night Prince Charles publicly admitted to adultery in 1994, Princess Diana appeared at an event wearing a (risqué by royal standards) clinging black outfit, now dubbed the ‘revenge dress’. A distinct post-break-up makeover is not uncommon in Bollywood either.
After her break-up with Ranbir Kapoor, for example, Katrina Kaif’s defined abs and the sudden sharpness in her style quotient was noticed by everyone. And she recently went on record to say: “Go to the gym and do some crunches. That’s how you deal with [heartbreak].” Similarly, Kareena Kapoor’s size-zero frame seemed to overlap with her break-up with Shahid Kapoor.
But the poster child of the revenge body phenomenon is Khloé Kardashian, who popularised the term after her own fitness transformation. If Kim is known for waist-training and contouring, and Kourtney is the health nut, Khloé was always ‘the fat one’ and unapologetically so. Until she decided—while bored and stuck in a hotel room in Dallas—to go to the gym. She went on to lose 35 pounds, with some help from Beverly Hills trainer Gunnar Peterson, who has also trained Jennifer Lopez and Sylvester Stallone. Peterson tells ELLE that Khloé didn’t have a weight-loss goal in mind when she started. “It was ‘I want to get it together, I want to change everything, I want to change how I look and feel’ and we’d go after that.”
Over the course of the next few years, as Khloé dealt with a difficult separation from husband Lamar Odom and the pressures of work, the gym became her sanctuary. “My workouts were not about vanity; they were about relieving stress,” Khloé writes in her book Strong Looks Better Naked (Regan Arts). “I had so much going on emotionally, and I was disinclined to talk about it, even with my own family, so the workouts became a form of therapy.” As with all matters Kardashian, this insight is being parlayed into a reality show even as we speak. Casting calls are now on for Revenge Body.
While the movement has its fans—search #revengebody on Instagram and you’ll find photos of people working out and motivational quotes like ‘Break-ups Make Bodybuilders’—it also has its critics. Paromita Vohra, a film-maker and writer with a particular interest in the areas of gender, love and sex, says, “Anger or the thought of revenge may be a starting point for some kind of personal journey, but the goal is emancipation from the stranglehold of being defined by a relationship. Converting yourself into some kind of ‘ideal’ as revenge is only [showing] further unkindness to yourself.”
And anyway, transformations don’t end with the ‘bod’, they only begin there. “I started going to the gym after my last break-up, not to change my body shape per se, but to feel proactive again,” says Tara Aghdashloo, a 28-year-old writer and director in London. At my gym in Karachi, women talk to their friends about fights with their fractious in-laws while sweating it out on the elliptical, using exercise as a source of emotional healing. In fact, focusing too much on the body just locks you in an empty competition with someone who has left the room, i.e. your ex.
There’s also a sexist bent to the trend that cannot be ignored. It implies that people (usually women) should change how they look (again) because of someone else. Ashleigh Shackelford, of Blackfatfemme.com, used #revengebody to tag a picture of herself in a bikini on Instagram and explained: “Our bodies are not inherently unlovable or unfuckable. Our bodies are not ‘before’ pictures. Our bodies are not inspiration for others seeking to achieve violent beauty standards.”
“It’s unhealthy to put an expectation on women to go through these types of transformations,” Aghdashloo says. “If you do it superficially, it may only lead to a temporary solution, and if you gain the weight back you might end up feeling worse.” Peterson agrees, “While revenge might spark it, that can’t be your only goal. It has to come from some place more meaningful and less about someone else.” The real motivation is regaining the confidence and sense of self that is so often lost in a relationship or corroded by emotional trauma. It’s essential to take time to reconcile and heal with the pain of a break-up, whether it’s through meditation and self-reflection, or through therapy and coaching.
Even if you’re tempted to launch into a Rocky montage of pulverising workouts, don’t. Focus on the basics: make a plan, stick to it, take it slow. Start an exercise regimen first, diet later, and don’t beat yourself up because the weight won’t melt off in time for the wedding where you’re bound to run into your ex. If you’re looking for a full-body overhaul, know that while it isn’t impossible, it isn’t easy, either. Trainer Samir Jaura, who worked with Farhan Akhtar for his role in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and with Priyanka Chopra for Mary Kom, says, “You need to focus and stay highly motivated. The schedule and training program has to be structured. It’s not like a hobby.”
On the day I reach Peterson, he’s up and about at 5.30am. And even though it’s a long holiday weekend in the US, he has a client who’s scheduled to come in at 7.30am—it’s Khloé. There’s no one to impress that early in the morning, no photographers, no fans, no ex. This isn’t about scoring a point any more, if it ever was that. While thoughts of revenge might flag off your fledgling relationship with fitness, you won’t need that kind of dark motivation for long as you replace hurt, anger and confusion with purpose, clarity and strength. As rebounds go, this one is a keeper.