By Nisha Susan
Sometimes when you read a lot of feminist writing you stop registering some phrases. Just like any other community it has its own shorthand. Sometimes I think my feminist awakening has been around feeling gratitude that there is shorthand for the life experiences that have left you baffled/bruised/thrilled/baffled & bruised & thrilled. I am not a fan of portmanteau words but it’s hard to imagine living without Rebecca Solnit’s ‘mansplaining‘ now. For instance.
So here’s a phrase that usually makes my eyes glaze over: “controlling women’s bodies”. It’s a hold-all type phrase. It has truth and specificity and meaning. But it also sort of rolls off your keyboard like in the old days (aka 2002) my activist elders rolled off phrases like dichotomy of globalisation for leaflets that were meant to be handed out at the bus stop. Who knows what that meant? All of us younger people felt we had a whiff of the meaning and that was enough.
This week though I had three distinct examples of ‘controlling women’s bodies’ that not even I could glaze over. They are all of one sub-genre.
One. A friend tells me that she and her sister-in-law both had babies nearly a decade after their marriage. When my friend visited the ‘native place’ twice a year she had to put up with long, loud discussions about how her fat and her terrible dietary habits were standing in the way of getting pregnant. These conversations were conducted by her in-laws, her in-laws’ in-laws and anyone who happened to be in the vicinity. It was so bizarre, so much a MMPG that she wasn’t quite crushed by it. As soon as she got on the train home, she let out her characteristic big, bawdy, laugh and forgot about it, I imagine. Her sister-in-law however lived on-site. Which meant that every day the whole village saw her running 20 rounds around the house before any meal as her mother-in-law had mandated. In an aside: my friend discovered in one of these trips that one of her teenaged nieces-by-marriage was only allowed to wear brown, white and cream. “Because Papa doesn’t like other colours.”
Two: A friend tells me that she has severe intolerance for spicy food. She is a wealthy young woman working a well-paying corporate job. She lives at home with parents and two brothers. She likes eating. So does her family. My friend barely ever eats at home in the last few years. Because in the last few years, her mother has decided that she may lose her slender build and become the Incredible Unmarriable Hulk. So her mother has cranked up the spice levels in the food cooked at home. So that she doesn’t eat too much.
Three: A friend has a petite mother with an inclination towards severity and asceticism. My friend on the other hand was born a chubby tamasik with a great capacity for enjoyment. On any given day she’d rather eat a beef sandwich and read a cheerful book this weekend than live forever on cabbage and truisms. Over the decades, the struggle between her and her mother over food have become more and more bitter. My friend’s mother, one of the world’s champion’s worriers, worries that her daughter’s fat is the cause of her sorrows. At times she grumbles at her daughter each time she puts a morsel of food in her mouth. My friend laughs, fights, argues and occasionally believes it herself. A couple months ago, my friend discovered she was pregnant and came home to her mother’s house. Her mother, loving and concerned now worried in geometrically greater proportions. My friend has nausea, gestational diabetes and is all-round fed up. She is at the stage where the sight of a plain roti can make her throw up. Her mother however has told her that no food she likes will be made in the house because she may ‘eat too much’.
So there you have it folks, today’s phrase for the day: controlling women’s bodies. Enjoy.