The third piece for Taha Kehar’s curation for our website (September, 2022) is a memoir about workouts, weight-consciousness and a woman’s relationship with her surroundings.
Being a woman is a challenge. Being a fat woman is an even bigger challenge. Being a fat woman from a middle-class neighbourhood is a curse. While the now-popular claim that all bodies are beautiful runs rife at elite universities, people in middle-class localities still continue to casually body-shame women whom they consider somewhat chubby.
Random strangers make you feel conscious of the flab on your body, and judgmental aunties gasp if they discover that your belly fat is not an outcome of ‘changes’ experienced after marriage.
A year after COVID-19 settled into our lives, I returned to the gym. The lights were out on account of a power crisis. Undeterred, I sat down and assumed the ‘lotus’ position.
My trainer and another woman whom I’d never met joined me. As the minutes rolled on, we exchanged perfunctory smiles in the mirror against the wall and broke the silence by talking about our ‘lockdown’ weight. I sighed.
“I was on the right track,” I said, watching myself in the mirror. “And now, I have to lose the Covid pounds. Now that the travel restrictions have eased up, I’m planning to travel to Turkey, but I can’t possibly take this belly with me on my vacation.”
“Are you married?” inquired the woman who had arrived with the trainer. I shook my head, struggling to summon a polite response to a question I found intrusive.
“Then why are you not reducing these ‘tyres’?” she pointed at my waist. “Don’t you want to get married?”
She moved forward. “You know, my husband lives abroad, and he will be returning soon. I’ve re-joined the gym to get back into shape. You should really start taking care of yourself. All that extra weight is not good for you.”
I nodded and, frankly, agreed with her. I didn’t need her to tell me that, though; my inner voice was already in charge of making me despise my body. To have someone else pass careless comments about your body is uncomfortable, an unforgivable invasion of privacy.
I had heard someone say that exercise helps you release stress. Oh, the irony. There I was getting stressed out at a gym.
“So are you planning to ditch the conference you were waiting to attend for almost a month now,” my trainer said, attempting to change the subject—a welcome distraction from the woman's poisonous words.
“I've bought a new dress for it,” I replied. “But now I don’t think it matters.” I blinked back tears.
A few days later, I wore my new dress to the conference, still seething over the woman’s cruel remarks about my weight. During the second half of the session, I told my colleagues I had a workout session after the conference.
“How do you manage all of this?” one of them asked. “You know, yoga and aerobics?”
“Well,” I said, pausing to find the appropriate words to convey my distress. “When you carry a little extra weight around your stomach, you ought to take out time for such sessions.”
I forced myself to laugh. Self-deprecating humour is the perfect antidote in such situations; it keeps the awkwardness at bay.
The conference ended, and I was prepared to call a Careem cab and leave. When I looked at the fare, my heart skipped a beat. I was so tired of paying almost a thousand rupees for nine kilometres. I searched for a ride, and a Captain with a 4.9-star rating accepted it.
“Are you going to pay by cash?” his message popped up on the chat screen.
“Yes,” I texted back.
“Ok,” he replied.
“Ok” I responded.
I went to the hotel lobby to wait for my car. The entrance gate was teeming with people—men in suits, women in heels. I found their presence—all that endless, mindless chatter—unsettling. I wish I had a chauffeur-driven car so I didn’t have to wait at the venue for so long. My phone vibrated—a notification from my Careem app to announce my captain's arrival.
I got into the car and greeted the captain. He remained quiet for the most part of the journey, but before making a left turn towards my neighbourhood, he casually asked: “I’ve heard that the roads are quite narrow in your locality. Will my car be able to pass through?”
Exasperated by his question, I momentarily fell silent and a string of murderous thoughts swam through my mind.
Well, a Land Cruiser can easily pass through the roads in my neighborhood. I’m sure your Wagon R won’t have any trouble. Also, thank you for making me feel like I’m inconveniencing you for living on the other side of the tracks!
I wanted to yell at him, but resisted the temptation. If I had reacted negatively, the captain would have been well within his rights to ask me to get out of his car. After such a long day, I didn't have the patience for a verbal duel. I wanted to go home and escape into my own shell.
I politely nodded and said a prayer for myself, hoping he wouldn’t make a fuss about driving down the narrow streets that led to my house.
Every time the driver hit the brake and showed his irritation—to be fair, he tried to be as discreet as possible—I died a little. It wasn’t my fault entirely, though. Why can’t the city administration start treating the other side of the bridge as part of the city? I thought.
I finally reached home. After around thirty minutes, I realised that my phone was giving me the silent treatment. When I checked it, I discovered that it wasn’t connected to the Internet. I switched on my data and a stream of messages poured forth on WhatsApp.
“Why have you not submitted the article?” asked the guy who had offered me a freelance gig.
“I just want to know when you’ll submit the story,” read a message from my colleague who heads a magazine that expects writers to write for free.
“I will not be coming in today,” said a message from the kid I tutored. Great! I already have enough on my plate.
I ignored all messages and tossed the phone on the bed, careful that it landed on a pillow instead of hitting the bedpost—you can’t afford a new phone in this economy, remember?
When I lay down on the bed, I was ambushed by a thought that lingered deep within my consciousness. What does a woman want? My inner voice asked this question and I had no answer to it. For some reason, my mind kept circling back to the conversation at the gym. Why didn’t I tell the woman off or give her a sarcastic reply? I shouldn’t have let her get away with it.
But I knew then—and I know now—that my words would have had no effect on her. She would have probably called me naïve and told me not to overreact. A sharp pain gripped my chest, as if someone had ripped my heart apart.
I sat up on the bed and clicked the YouTube app on my phone. Within minutes, the room was enveloped in the soothing melody of the meditation music that always calmed me down. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale… With much difficulty, I tried to find my so-called happy place, an oasis of peace. Everywhere I went, I felt like a worthless blob, invisible to the people around me. I felt tears in my eyes and wiped them.
No tears! My inner voice practically hollered.
I switched on my laptop opening my Gmail account to recheck my tickets and hotel bookings.
Fifteen days later, I found myself in the departure lounge of Jinnah International Airport, waiting to board my flight. I couldn’t escape the spiral of negativity that threatened to decimate me from within, but I could definitely push pause on it.
When I heard the flight announcement, I quickly grabbed my bag and ran towards the boarding gate. What does a woman want? My inner voice was at it again. I greeted it with ignorance.
A few hours later, I reached Istanbul and checked into my hotel. I lay down on my bed and took a few deep breaths. The weather was pleasant—comfortably cold. I decided to go for a walk.
It sounds clichéd—and Victorian—but walking down the cobbled streets in Sultanahmet proved to be more therapeutic than I had thought.
“Hey!” a male voice called out as I revelled in my new-found tranquility. “Where are you from?”
I turned around and saw a man in a large black coat. He towered over me, but was hirsute, handsome, unthreatening.
“Pakistan,” I responded sheepishly.
“Are you single?” He added. I nodded.
“Are Pakistani men mad?” he shouted. I didn’t know how to react.
Was I supposed to blush? I didn’t, thankfully.
The man walked closer towards me, unsure if I’d heard him or not.
“I am saying, are Pakistani men mad? How is it that you are single?”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, timidly accepting his compliment with gratitude.
“Would you like to go out with me?” he asked.
Validation from a foreign man may have seemed reassuring at a time when I was already low on confidence, but I thought against taking matters any further.
“My family is waiting for me back at the hotel,” I said. You may be looking beautiful here, but don't get too carried away by all his praise.
“Thank you,” I said before I continued walking. The man looked puzzled.
When I got back to the hotel, I felt at ease—something I hadn’t experienced in a long time, or at least since I had hit puberty and gained those extra, unflattering pounds.
What does a woman want? The inner voice nagged me again. This time, I submitted to its dictates.
“A break from this toxicity!” I shouted into nothingness.
Aimen Siddiqui is a Karachi-based journalist.
About the featured artist: Farazeh Syed (b. 1971) is an artist based in Lahore. After completing two years of the fundamental program at National College of Arts, Farazeh went on to acquire a diploma in print making at Gandhara Art School, Islamabad. Inspired by the Ustad-Shagird (mentor-apprentice) relationship, Farazeh trained with renowned painter Iqbal Hussain for over fifteen years, where she learnt painting and an acute understanding of the human form, subsequently, refining her own visual and conceptual vocabulary. Syed also attended Continuing Education courses in painting/drawing at Parsons and Art Students League, New York. As a Research Associate at ‘Sanjan Nagar Institute of Art and Philosophy’, Syed has lectured on South Asian Classical Music and Cultural history at National College of Arts, Musicology Department. She has been involved in art teaching/ training through formal classes, lectures and talks and is currently visiting faculty at Beaconhouse National University. She completed her Masters (Hons.) in Visual Arts from National College of Arts in 2015.
Farazeh has exhibited her work extensively and has attended local and international residencies. She was awarded merit grant for an artists’ residency at The Vermont Studio Centre, USA, in 2020 and was nominated for the 2021 Sovereign Asian Art Prize. She is also the cover artist for The Aleph Review, Vol. 6 (2022).