Dating as a big girl

...involves fielding patronising compliments and usually, the lack of a second date

People are always shocked when they find out how much I weigh. Of course, like a good fat woman, I don’t wander around advertising it, but there are times — especially with guys who are trying to prove how okay they are with my size and how manly they are — when I need to pull out that number and wave it about (let me tell you that it has three digits). This is because they will try to lift me, and I’m not exactly psyched about driving someone to the emergency room because they’ve thrown their back out.

I suppose I’m lucky that my genetics have distributed my weight to give me a shape, and a nice one at that. I’m also lucky that I lived outside India for a while (New York City, to be precise), and while there, I learnt that it is possible for fat women to wear stylish clothes that flatter and fit us, instead of the flappy, shapeless numbers we’re all consigned to in India. Of course, back here, all this does is make me stand out. More than I already do as an opinionated, independent woman. This goes really well with that fat girl personality, by the way: belly laughs and self-deprecation, loud voice and expansive irreverence.

The whole package, however — cellulite, personality and opinions all put together — sometimes feels man-repellent. I’m 32, and have been single most of my adult life. I have had one relationship, for about 18 months, and dated one guy semi-seriously, for about three weeks. Don’t get me wrong; I have wanted many men. I spent five years pining after a series of nice guys who were my friends and then turned not so nice when they realised I wanted more. “You’re only attractive when I’m drunk,” one of them kindly explained to me. It was only when I lived in NYC and suddenly became attractive to men that I began to think about how we see large women in India.

A fat girl in India can be dated in one of two ways: the fetish or the dirty secret.

“I love BBW,” they confide earnestly, maybe holding your hand or looking into your eyes. “That’s nice,” you respond, wondering how it’s okay to talk about sexual preferences this early on. If you, like me, choose instead to tell them that it is not exactly appropriate, the response will likely be injured self-righteousness: “Arre! I’m just saying I like women like you; not these skinny chicks like sticks, man. It’s a compliment!” “You’re right,” I respond. “I really should be deeply grateful to you for fetishising my body in the opposite way from how women’s bodies are usually fetishised. I mean, it’s not like I have a personality or anything that you might want to engage with.”

And then there’s the guy who wants to sleep with you, to hold you, to lie in bed and read books with you, but the second someone else shows up, he’s on the other side of the room. Like one of those cat gifs. My ex took a good six months to come around to the idea of dating me, and on some subconscious level, I think it was because I wasn’t a girlfriend his macho colleagues would envy him for. Thankfully for us, his better side reasserted itself and he began to walk around in a happy daze at being with someone he saw as wildly intelligent.

Which brings me to attraction. There are a couple of funny things I’ve noticed. For one, guys often talk about how they’re attracted to intelligent women; if I had a dollar for every time an online dating message or profile contained the word ‘sapiosexual’, I might be able to live in America again. But the catch here is that your intelligence often needs to be just a smidge lower than where they perceive their intelligence to be. Someone’s always telling me to tone it down: “Make the guy feel like a man — you don’t have to be right every time!”

Secondly, many men are actually attracted to curvy women over really thin ones. Believe me, I know — you might say I have hard evidence — but yet we must persist in trying to portray the ideal as Penélope Cruz. Does this have something to do with aspiring to the lifestyles of white men who are photographed with Penélope Cruz-like girls? Sure we see different women in the media, but the most that can be said about them is that they’re not rail-thin. They’re not large women either. Huma Qureshi is a thin normal; Vidya Balan has some curves; Lena Dunham does have flab but that doesn’t make her fat; and actors like Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy are never seen as a romantic lead, or really treated as normal. They’re the “Look! We’re using plus-size actors!” gimmick. Can you see them in a lingerie catalogue?

It’s kind of difficult embracing yourself as a sexual being and, more painfully, dateable being, in this context. I have struggled so much with my body image. First, I walked around with a pall of ‘I’m so fat, I’m unattractive’ hanging over my head. And the fact is, like all the self-help books say, people just pick up from you how to think about you. Of course, it’s not like I came up with it out of thin air — I was the fat girl that everyone made fun of; I was that girl you used to make boys run by telling them she liked them. In my mid twenties, ably assisted by a Colombian man and the wide spectrum of attractiveness I saw in New York, I managed to accept myself as attractive. This might also have something to do with the shape I developed at about the same time, and the clothes I could wear. It’s funny how normal it makes you feel to be able to walk into a shop and buy something without desperately asking for an XXL that you know will actually never fit. 

I went out with a few guys back then, and it wasn’t so different from later on in Delhi. I met them at the university, at salsa bars, at friends’ houses. We’d laugh and talk and flirt, we’d get dinner and drinks, maybe go dancing. I’d have a wonderful time. But then I rarely saw them again. I don’t know if it was because I didn’t always put out or I had a completely different understanding of what constitutes a good date. But I could never land a second one.

I began to wonder: was my personality really that bad? Should I try and dumb myself down? Luckily, I’ve had enough friends and family, male and female, who have firmly and often vehemently squashed that idea, so I’ve never gone down that road. But it still hung over me, for about seven years. Why was I not good enough? I was willing to date anyone. Did it really all come down to how I looked? Of course, I got gooey at the sight of a hot guy; tall men still make me weak at the knees. But this never stopped me from engaging with short men, fat men, bald men, even long-haired men. My ex was very large when we were together (then he went and lost half his weight after we broke up, clearly deciding who won that break up!) and the other guy I dated was a whole inch shorter than me. I will admit that I am a bit of a brain use snob — if you don’t use it, you lose all attractiveness very rapidly — but that doesn’t mean I won’t even give you a shot.

It didn’t help that I’ve never been ambitious in the least. I’ve always only wanted to get married and raise kids, to the benign bewilderment of my very feminist and anti establishment family. But it was the one thing I simply couldn’t do. What made it worse was how people dismissed my pain. “You have plenty of time!” they’d say expansively. “Why do you want to get married? You’re so clever; you have so much potential! Get a job! Embrace your liberated 21st-century womanhood!” It’s funny; I can’t see anyone being told, “Don’t worry about it; it’ll happen when it does. Why don’t you get married? You should take advantage of the opportunities you have!” when they’re devastated at the loss of a job and their inability to find another. I never managed to get over my feelings of failure, because I never had the space to accept them. 

When I, aged 27, finally did find a boyfriend, it seemed like it might actually happen. But then, when I broke up with my ex, I suddenly found myself single again at 29, and accelerating towards 30. I dated madly, mostly online. They were young, they were Punjabi, they were looking for sex. I never saw any of them more than once. It was only once I turned 30 that everyone began to nod along sympathetically when I said I was lost and hopeless because there was only one thing I really wanted and it seemed like it would never happen. And then, I ran smack dab into a long patch of depression. Thankfully, I had a stellar therapist, and eventually managed to make my peace with those feelings of failure, to accept also that I might be one of those people who doesn’t get the happy ending. After all, in every race, someone has to come second.

Incidentally, this is what has made my 30s so wonderful. I have built the life I want to live, not the life I can quickly slide out of when the hope of a man arrives — and yes, I’m aware this means I’ll likely always be single. I bought furniture, I got a cat, I throw dinner parties. I go to all the places I want to go. I fill my life with friends and family and love. I get my baby love from the children my friends and family have. And it’s not like my size has prevented me from having a sex life or a love life. I have loved as deeply as any other person, and I have had some spectacularly good lays. I’ll always want that second date, but such as it is, this life is actually a pretty damn good one. 

Illustration Sudarshan Sudevan