We’re nearing the end of my curation of Rohin Guha’s best Tinyletters from November 2015. That makes me sad. What makes me happy: this fourth pick reminds me that someone else knows of trials and tribulations within Bengali culture, that may seem comic at the outset, but are so deeply ingrained in our social norms that no one recognizes the damage they can cause. I genuinely have little else to add about this essay. Rohin, as usual, has done my work for me.
Nov. 17, 2015 — “Body of Work”
Once upon a time, my mom had left a browning photograph of me as a six-year old child on the beach out on the counter. You could see my ribs in the photo. It was taken eight years earlier, before our family came back to the United States and I became overweight. It was before you could grab my belly fat and hold it in your hands.
I found the photograph and I yelled at her. I told her it was a cruel thing to do. I spent the rest of the day sulking in my bedroom. She had the best intentions, but learned to soften her approach.
“Your cheeks look full lately.”
“Did you remember to go to the gym?”
“We ate a big lunch. I don’t really think I’ll be eating dinner. You shouldn’t either.”
“Shouldn’t you be buying clothes a size up?”
I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about my body in such ways; I don’t think men are supposed to feel such things about their bodies. I think I’m supposed to stay shut up about the fact that I trace the stretch marks around my navel.
I’m supposed to be understanding when former romantic partners replace me with leaner, better-built men.
My entire adult life has been spent trying to come to terms with my body, staring at the mirror and thinking, probably too hard and for too long, about how I ended up here. I might poke or prod my doughy midsection. “What the hell happened?” I might ask aloud, waiting for the shower to get hot.
I think about the cycle of feeling bad and sublimating those feelings with junk food; it is an ouroboros. There is no way out.
I’m supposed to think that most men aren’t so brutal and that I’m somehow only imagining this reality. But I’m shallow. I’m vain. I know most other men are, too. And that’s okay.
It is why I avoid the beach, too: A place where aesthetics are king. I can be traded in for a better-looking man in mere seconds at the beach; the disposability of it all is scary. A partial list of places where I would feel more at ease than the beach: The airport during a TSA pat-down, a mall a few days before Christmas, a Donald Trump For President rally.
I will justify cups of coffee with milk as a meal, or worse, skip a meal entirely. I will feel pleased that I have managed to skip a meal or go to bed a little hungry. I congratulate myself, as if I have leveled up in life.
On an empty stomach, I will go to the gym. Or lately, Crossfit. I will cry while eating my cheat meal because I feel so bad eating something that tastes so good. I might skip another meal later on to make up for it.
I am willing to die to look beautiful.
This is what pop culture has conditioned me to believe.
Of course I know better. Yet, I am not able to transcend these damaging myths. Desirability does not only hinge on beauty and aesthetics. We’d all be screwed if that were the case. I should know better. Yet, I am so used to this old way of thinking and behaving that I perpetuate these myths, too.
I turn down dates with men who are not aesthetically pleasing all the time.
Not too long ago, I went on a breakfast date with a man in Chicago. Afterwards, we walked back to his apartment. We talked about video games, our families; we talked about life, or something like it. His apartment was beautiful. He had set up an exquisite life for himself.
But we weren’t clicking at all. I tried in vain to feel out a vibe, and after a couple hours of conversation, I excused myself.
By the time I was blocks down the street, he texted me, “You are so handsome!”
Rohin, for the love of all the gods, old and new, be merciful when you kill this one.
I texted him back, “It is always great to make a new friend when visiting Chicago!”
It is a strange feeling to be told you are good-looking and to feel, quite regularly, that you’re not good-looking enough. Worse yet is knowing that on some level, maybe you are good-looking, that your body is fine, that you need not kill yourself to reach an apex of aesthetic perfection that probably doesn’t exist…and pursuing it anyway. Y’know. Just in case.
My brain is very good at playing tricks, especially tricks that revive thoughts of failed romances: If I am good-looking, why is it that he stopped speaking to me? I better go on a diet and subject my body to a punishing exercise program.
It is a mindset that seeks to avoid excess of one kind but completely gives into excess of another kind. I have devoted years of my life to this thinking this way. Now, I’m in the process of unlearning it.
The rest of my life, then, will probably be spent learning to forgive myself and walking the path of sensible moderation.