Toronto
8 min

Loving myself phatly

Toon Toon, the cabbage soup diet & my journey to self-acceptance

Zahra Dhanani Credit: Tony Fong

“I am fat and beautiful.”



I said this during a performance at last year’s Desh Pardesh Festival and 350 people gave me a standing ovation. I had mentally prepared myself for the last seven years to get to the place where I could say “I am fat” out loud and in public, follow it with “and beautiful,” and then truly mean it.



That night I felt like the most beautiful woman in the world. I felt truly brilliant and felt the light shining within me. I haven’t always felt like this. It has been a long journey for this young girl who looked in the mirror and always hated what she saw.





I was born 10 pounds and 11 ounces. From where my memories begin, I remember relatives telling my mother, “Don’t worry, dear, this is just baby fat, she’ll grow out of it.” After the age of four, it wasn’t cute anymore and my mother didn’t feel she could sit around and watch this happen to her daughter. She had to make sure I wasn’t doomed to being fat forever, especially in this thin-obsessed society.



By the age of seven, my family was telling me what I could eat. The chips and cookies were hidden in secret cupboards and I was under surveillance. Inventory was taken of what was missing. I would search every cupboard and eventually I would find the “goods.” Then I would gorge, making sure there was no trace of food or my feelings when I was done.



Yet, as much as food was supposed to be bad, it was also one of the only ways my mother knew how to overtly show me love. It was a constant push and pull. If I was sad she would cook for me, but if I ate she would tell me “not too much.” If we were celebrating she would cook, but if I partook she would remind me of the diet.



My little kid head is still stuck in this tug of war; eating is always proceeded by a mental battle. I grew up in a family of big people and at family gatherings I would be ridiculed and prodded so that they could save me from their own depressing fate. I hated those gatherings, where elders would take my happiness into their incapable hands and offer abundant, offensive advice: “You know, beti, you’re too fat, but I have this diet and you can lose 30 pounds in 10 days!!”



I usually tried to sink into the sofa, while stuffing a samosa in my mouth. In those moments I would envision my mouth as a machine gun, launching the food into the faces of the people who had made my body into their spectator sport.



I also remember being told I had a “pretty face.” This was the indirect way to say that the rest of me was unacceptable. One day I was at mosque and I saw my mother and my two older sisters standing outside the prayer hall. They were talking to a woman and as I approached I heard her saying to my mom, “Your daughters are just beautiful!”



I came to stand next to them and my mother introduced me as her youngest. As the woman stared at me, looking as though she had just tasted sour milk, she grudgingly said, “Oh well, at least she has a pretty face.”



The ridicule wasn’t always passively aggressive – starting in kindergarten, I was called “fatso,” “tub of lard,” “beluga whale,” “Dumbo the elephant,” “brown cow”… the list is endless.





By the time I was 12, I felt like a hideous, ugly, unworthy, piece of shit and I have spent the rest of my life trying to make up for my inadequacy. With friends and family, I had always tried to be interesting, entertaining, a good listener, not take up too much space emotionally, not make too many demands. I always tried to disarm strangers by being charming and amusing.



I have put my body through torture to try and be “beautiful.” There isn’t a diet that I haven’t tried: the eat cabbage soup all day and shit your guts out diet, the no food diet, the nothing but protein and pills and a needle once a week from the doctor who prescribed this diet diet, the 1,200 calorie diet, the 1,000 calorie diet, the 500-calorie diet, the you-can’t-trust-yourself-so-we-have-packaged-the-food-for-you diet. When I was nine and still just a chubby little kid, I was put in the hospital for a week just to be on a diet.



I realize that no woman in the western world is immune from self-destructive body images and the fear of fat. I know many thin women and most of them are pre-occupied with either staying thin (which includes excessive dieting and weight control), or they think they are fat, which is the worst possible lot in life.



This is not just straight women. Most of my lesbian friends struggle with the same fears. The queer community is right up there in perpetuating the thin image of beauty. This particular ideal robbed me of any sense of self-love, right down to my armpits. I hated how my armpits were a shade different from the rest of my body. How come they weren’t pink and smooth and flawless? How come, from them, all the scents of my mother’s cooking (garlic and onions) would emanate, reminding me I was foreign and not one bit like the girls at school?



Obviously, as a woman of colour I have other beauty ideals to contend with. I grew up with Hindi film goddesses with their big busts and shapely hips, but always thin waists. The only character that I looked like was Toon Toon, the fat woman who provides comic relief. She was always eating and chasing after the heroes who would have absolutely nothing to do with her.





Every night I would go to bed praying that I would wake up skinny. I had these feelings even after I had become a feminist, was a teaching assistant in women’s studies classes, worked at women’s centres, facilitated self-esteem workshops, started law school. I had also come out as a lesbian and had intellectually rejected many societal norms.



Finally I decided I couldn’t live this hypocrisy anymore. I went to the library and found every single self-help book, from Co-dependent No More to Dance Of Anger to Living Sanely In A Large Body.



Let me tell you, I ran with the wolves and any other book that took me in deep. I read books on fat oppression and fat phobia, which informed me that current “healthy” weight standards were constructed by money-making insurance companies. I read about ideals of beauty in other places, like Polynesia, Tonga and many countries in Africa and South America, where big women are idealized.



I learnt that dieting actually was another capitalist myth, that 99 percent of diets fail and that yo-yo dieting causes a high rate of heart disease. I learnt about set point theory: We all are born with a set weight point (like a set eye colour) and that there is very little you can do to permanently decrease that point and with every failed diet your set point just increases.



I stopped dieting. I plastered my walls and mirrors with affirmations. Everyday I wrote in my journal: “I, Zahra, am perfect, whole and complete just as I am. I, Zahra, am beautiful. I, Zahra, am worthy, deserving, and lovable just as I am. I give and receive love with my body. I love my body.”



You get the point. All of these head things were important, but it wasn’t enough. I had to start living through my body as opposed to being locked up in my head. So, I began to feel myself up!



I would light up my room with candles, get naked and rub every inch of my body with lotion. I would play music and dance in my room to feel every joint moving. I started practicing Reiki and so I would feel the healing energy of my own hands all over my body. I started wearing clothes that I felt sexy in, as opposed to sticking with the “cottons.”



I also went all the way to Hawaii to see big, beautiful, brown women being revered. One day I saw a picture of a Hawaiian woman with her girl-child. The woman was honey-brown, round, soft and curvaceous. She was a “big” woman in all senses of the word: big body, big presence. You could tell from the picture that she had given her daughter lots of big love.



Her daughter was this sweet, beautiful, round figure. She was laughing and playing with her kitten, which she was holding in her soft and fleshy arms. Instantaneously, I began to cry for the love that my girl-child body had never felt.



Another incredible thing that happened was falling in love with someone who completely lusted after me. It was incredible to experience someone who enjoyed and desired my body. Someone who looked at it with so much longing and affection.



She kissed my belly 1,000 times, and another 1,000 times, and finally I am beginning to feel that my belly is desirable. I was able to be completely naked, vulnerable and raw with her and still her desire for me grew. This helped me see my body through a different, more accepting lens.





This process has taught me some deep lessons. I learnt compassion for my mother. My mother, a fat woman, daughter of another fat woman, thought if I was skinny – different from her – that I would be happy. Just like she thought if I wasn’t an activist, I’d be happier. Just like she thought if I was straight, I’d be happier.



She meant my life would be easier, meaning that I wouldn’t have to bear the brunt of discrimination, meaning that I wouldn’t have to struggle as much as she did.



I learnt that I want to stop looking at other women through the same perverted lens that has made me feel like a freak. My lover was half my size and to the public we made an extremely odd couple. Sometimes I was also shocked at what we looked like together. I was shocked at what we each find so beautiful and alluring. This makes me sad.



I have decided to reframe all of the fat people that I know of: my aunts, grandmother and mother, Lata Mangeshkar, Abida Parveen, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Toon Toon and even the Buddha.



These people are not incredible creative spirits in spite of their weight “problems,” but their spirit is part and parcel of their fat. In my room, I keep a statue of the Buddha with his jolly face and huge open round belly. I do this to remind my self that my belly is my vessel to enlightenment.



I learnt that being fat, as much as I have felt the pain and the shame of it, has also been one of the greatest gifts that I have been given. I feel like I am wise and intuitive because of this fat – maybe I was even able to more freely explore my sexuality because of my fat.



Maybe it took a lack of acceptance in the “mainstream conventional world” to open me up to all of the other possibilities. To open me up to great-free-unrestrained thinking. To open me up to a life fully examined and fully lived.



I feel like I have something not many people do. I am loving myself phatly. I encourage people to go there, to go to that place where you can accept everyone, no matter how they smell, no matter what their class, regardless of their size, and I promise you your own blissful liberation.



I am not saying that everything is perfect now. I am still trying to prove that I am worthy of love and attention, but every day I do this a little less. Some days, I still wake up and I can’t stand to look in the mirror. On those days, I try to be kind to myself, knowing that tomorrow or next week, I will feel better. It’s all part of the process.



On Jul 25, 1998, I was standing in front of an audience of 350 people, all yelling “Fat, fat, fat!” And it felt truly wonderful.