We The Queens
Words by Meher Varma; Illustration by Sarnath Banerjee
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 3: You and I Eat Differently.
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I take it that you, like everyone else who is Too Online, read the Orlando Bloom interview yesterday. Oh you didn’t? Well let me just drop it right here. By now, I accept it as given that celebs are just as online as all of us and that most of the time they’re purposely trolling us. The interview did seem to deliberately push people’s buttons: absurdly early waking times, facial routines the price of an average family of four’s weekly food budget, plant based diets, the term ‘plant based diets’, and a liberal borrowing of Eastern philosophical practise, in this case Buddhism.
To Bloom’s credit, Buddhism seems to actually be a sincere part of his life. But in the food and wellness world there is no philosophy, no religious practice, no culturally specific diet, no “super food” that cannot be stripped of everything that’s interesting about it, repackaged, rebranded and slickly sold back to us as the cure to all our ailments. Yoga just becomes a series of reps, the complex history of Ayurvedic diets are reduced to a Hemsley and Hemsley hashtag promising that you too can be #livinglavidaveda. As someone who works in tea, particularly Chinese and Japanese tea, I have to navigate between trying to change the minds of people indoctrinated by decades of teabags, and on the other, telling people politely that no, puerh is not going make you shit yourself thinner, no matter what Gwyneth Paltrow tells you.
I think our liberal borrowing from what I’m amorphously calling ‘the East’ is symptomatic of an innate distrust of the Western food system, and an assumption that everyone else has it all figured out. But what about the other way round? In today’s newsletter, Meher Varma looks at how the Indian wellness diet scene started to borrow from “the West” ─ in this case, as an aspirational way for India to enter the global space, creating an unresolved tension between an increasingly conservative nativism and a desire to be truly international.
A final note on this newsletter: today is also the one year anniversary of Vittles, having published newsletter 0.0 on March 22nd 2020. It seems fitting that this newsletter is the first not to be edited by me. Instead I’ve handed over the reins to the brilliant Sharanya Deepak, who you should know from her writing, including in these pages. It is also illustrated by the legend Sarnath Banerjee. I did not envision assembling such dream teams when I started Vittles and it is a joy and privilege to do so.
Thank you once again for reading, and hope that you enjoy Vittles Year 2!
We The Queens, by Meher Varma
By the turn of the millennium, every second urban Indian woman was ‘watching her figure.’ I would laugh at this colloquial phrase, wondering if it was lifted from a dusty edition of Reader’s Digest. But humor ran dry when I too, became part of this collective project of self-surveillance and new way of negotiating an Indian modernity. I learned to take interest in how party hosts marinated the chicken tikka, the invariable snack at any North Indian cocktail party, with strained yogurt, and not the protocol full fat cream.
This personal shift coincided with the year 2000, the year three Indian women (one of whom went on to become the Hollywood famous Priyanka Chopra), snagged the biggest beauty-queen titles in the world — Miss Universe, Miss World, and Miss Asia Pacific. This news hooked families, as the queens’ white silk sashays seemed to wipe clean a long settled patina of dust from urban, middle class TV screens. As a teenager colonised by hormonal change and fantasies of my own, I was enraptured by the discourse that swore these titles were premised on looks and brains.
The argument was like this: the reshaping of women’s bodies was not an example of biological determinism or unfiltered westernisation. Even if the ‘94 queen Aishwarya Rai wouldn’t be winning the swimsuit round anytime soon – ‘Indian thighs!’ — she was taut as Miss UK, prettier than Miss Brazil, and more articulate than any other contestant. Indian women now had to be everything, and their new globalising bodies were seen as vehicles to drive fresh capital into the country. The Queens, many of whom came from middle class backgrounds, represented mobility and possibility.
In this moment was affirmation. Economic liberalisation, a set of reforms implemented to open up the Indian market to the global one in the early 1990s, was in our bones. And we had, to use a clichéd phrase of the time, “arrived on the world stage,” without having to compromise national identity. Cited evidence usually relied on the trope of consumer cornucopia: in our shops, Heinz ketchup was as easily available as spicy namkeens, and even McDonalds, the unforgiving beast had to indigenize its menu, offering up beloved hybrids like the McAloo Tikki Burger and Maharaja Mac.
However, glossed by the new market euphoria was an important contradiction: for the Indian woman to liberalise, she had to occupy a new body while safeguarding imagined Indian traditions. Overnight, historical icons of Indian sexuality, like the 5”4 Madhuri Dixit, were no longer enough: they were too short, too curvy, and too traditional for the global platform that we had arrived on. Modern Indian women, meanwhile, were too sexy, too uncurvy, and too foreign.
But irrespective of shape or size, women’s mobility became the business of the pro-market patriarchs of the Hindu-right, who were elected into majority in the second half of the decade. Simultaneously, Hindutva, or organised ideologues of dominant-caste Hinduism, rose into power and popularity. In this atmosphere, women’s bodies became canvases upon which economic growth and patriarchy could be dually inscribed. Female representations in popular culture were employed to embody this cutthroat double-standard. The sexy diva vs. chaste Indian goddess binary — which still manifests itself in contemporary representations became central. A ripe trope for Bollywood films, it was always up to perfectly shaped, upper caste, female protagonists to bridge the divide of old and new, and live both in modernity and at the edge of it.
In this shift, where both conservative politicians and fashionable beauty magazines had the same demands for women, we bid farewell to the familiar somatic sensibilities that produced our bodies. We did all of this while promising to keep the good Indian hair, ample breasts, and large, fetishised eyes, that were legitimised by the global beauty market. Our newly liberalised products adapted to help us achieve the impossible: traditional Indian ingredients, products, and recipes were updated to speak to a globalising consumer, using a language premised upon abstracting the local, while simultaneously exploiting its resources. Organic coconut oil, for example (but not too much), was considered good as long as it gave you lush hair. The moment it threatened to add an unwanted inch to a waist though, it was out.
A product of this schizophrenic climate, I grew up in a household where extra kilos were unwelcome, and I was the only one who carried them on my late adolescent hips. Unlike the rest of my baby fat that had shed in a timely fashion, my 38 inch hips were a household matter, and came up only when I did acutely strange things, like store imported Pringles under my bed for a late night snack. The excess was also something that could, my parents believed, be cured with an extra lesson of tennis, extra laps in the pool. But time was up for casual home remedies, and like many young women across the country, hip excess became a problem for a rapidly refining nation.
To move on, we started moving, moving like crazy, on clunky treadmills and fat burning machines that targeted problem areas with thirty minute vibrations from a thick rubber belt. Meanwhile, to take care of the majority of women who couldn’t watch their figures without help, the diet industry was born. Robust, and in demand from the outset, it took over metropolises. Diet and slimming clinics, which mostly used a shiny, just bitten into apple coddled by a measuring tape as their logos, became common sights through the city. Dieticians, who would in ten years or so, rebrand themselves as Nutritionists became important professionals, and weekly appointments with them became a favourite upper middle class ritual.
I was an ideal candidate for this industry, and also privileged enough to get an appointment with the star dietician of the time, Dr. Shikha Sharma. Sharma was, and still is, a middle-aged, upper caste and class, gentle faced woman synonymous with the earliest use of the word ‘lifestyle’ in India. At her peak, she had her own newspaper column and TV show, in which she wrote of slimming techniques and low calorie diets. During our appointments, next to her was always a fruit shake or a sprout salad — a docile plate that was always shy of being something you’d actually want to eat.
My first visit to Sharma induced starstruckedness. My mother and I waited for two hours before seeing a series of assistant doctors who finally led us to her, a trail of beauty magazines leading the way. Dr. Sharma held my data files containing information about my BMI (Body Mass Index), a favourite measurement of salubrious health, close to her chest. She re-measured me, spending an extra minute on the ‘target area.’ Looking to my mother, she assured us that I would be okay, but results would only come with transformative change, and a word I would grow to hear almost everyday – self-discipline.
On this day, we learned from Sharma that despite my generally good health, much of what we were doing all our lives was wrong: why were we consuming ghee like it was going out of fashion? Didn’t we know that watermelon, even in season, couldn’t be enjoyed liberally? With a vocabulary that reminded me of my 10th grade biology class textbook, mixed with the words from a virgin lifestyle industry (‘unrefined carbs for muscle toning’) Dr. Sharma began watching me watch my weight.
Although she assured me that she’d stay close, I never met her again. But for one and a half years after, her presence loomed in my carefully portioned plates of food. My diet did a 180: I drank ‘double toned’ (colloquial for skimmed) milk for protein, traded in snacks like guava and chaat masala for branded diet crackers, and accepted a low fat cheese that tastes like cardboard in lieu of my favorite thing in the world — Kraft slices. I stopped drinking alcohol, measured my dals with a newfound exactness, and never, ever ate more than two small multigrain rotis at any meal. Sunday family lunches at our neighborhood dosa place were problematic, and I stopped exploring the variety of regional foods that were available around me. “Treat day” was when I could have a barfi or one square of chocolate. I thought of this as a sign of the diet’s humanity, while being strangled by its absolute control.
All this happened while the mostly female staff in our kitchens labored even harder than before. With my diet plan up on the fridge for everyone to see, my discipline became their responsibility: they ensured the prescribed pulses were newly measured, and our pantries were denuded of Asian imports like bean pastes and rice noodles. With their necessary participation, diet became a Hindi word, and they too, were co-opted in producing the liberalised Indian woman’s body, reconfigured as fit for an India moving on.
But as we scrambled to keep pace with the new standard, we were behind from the start. While I was measured and re-measured and most women around me worked to meet the singular template for the imported Hot Brown Girl aesthetic, we put ourselves in the position of permanently catching up. The modern diet industry got us to radically second guess our bodies and the foods most familiar to us, as our corporeal knowledge shifted from indigenous to derived. The decade after we were told to cut out ghee, for example, it would re-emerge twice as expensive and fully re-branded with a minimalistic label that called it “A2 ghee”(made from grass-fed desi cows) and validated by Hollywood as the new superfood. Same with yoga, which we were told to trade in for Soul Cycle, only to be the ones signing up for twenty dollar Ashtanga classes a decade later.
Back at Dr. Sharmas, I was advised to come in weekly for weighing and reporting my deviances – which included even an extra spoon of paneer. But now always on a veritable or real treadmill, I began to go every four days, and then eventually, every two. Although I was advised “light exercise” four to five times a week, (walks and yoga were OK), I went all out, complimenting my Indian diet that paired salads and shakes with Indian foods, with mile long runs, kickboxing, and other Western techniques of body management that I had incorporated into my life. I listened to the clinicians about lifting weights, even as they implanted a fear in me that I would maybe faint, or put on, god forbid – muscle.
Over time, the doctors liked what they saw, and their notes on my file became less and less intrusive. I was kind of a miracle, it seemed, losing weight all over, becoming thin but not thin enough to threaten my Indianness. The machines were doing the talking, and as I was diminishing, I was liberalising. My new, firmly controlled body that came with desirably thick hair and still sexualizable curves reflected the patriarchal, emancipated nation.
As the nation continues to globalize, erstwhile stars like Dr. Sharma compete with younger, more savvy doctors, many of whom returned with plush Western degrees in Nutrition. But the formula has remained more or less the same: take indigenous knowledge, infuse it with Western capital-centric imagination, and sell it back to Indian women. Take Sharma’s current diet “Vedique” - a play on the Sanskrit word Vedas but with a dainty French suffix - which is easily accessible through an app. It begins with a simplified ayurvedic analysis of the body, which drastically reduces the complexity of the science, and goes on to recommend meal plans that include items like a broccoli salad to balance energies. This version of health now signifies progress, and the expectation that women’s bodies should embody it remains unchanged.
As for me, by the mid aughts, I was underweight by any standard -- Indian or foreign, but it took me some time to understand that my legitimised new self had very little to do with me. In becoming simultaneously global and Indian, I had traded in a vastly more versatile diet for something quite confining. And replaced social conversation, in which my body was just one of many, for an alienating food app. In liberalising, I had embodied something borrowed. Something a bit dead.
Meher Varma is a cultural anthropologist, brand storyteller, and writer. More on @agramofmeher and mehervarma.com
Sarnath Banerjee is an Illustrator and comic book writer. His latest book is called Doabdil. His fortnightly column Phantomgarh is published in Mint Lounge. You can find him on Instagram at @sarnathbanerjee.
Sharanya Deepak is a writer and editor from New Delhi. You can read more of her work on her website: https://www.sharanyadeepak.com/ and find her on Twitter.
Jonathan Nunn is the editor of Vittles, you can find him, constantly, on Twitter @demarionunn
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"docile plate that was always shy of being something you’d actually want to eat" - loved this line and the "dainty French suffix". My experience of Indian diet culture was from the other side - being acceptably thin and seeing the damage that comparisons with me did to my cousins (a quintessential Indian trait if there ever was one!). Thank you Meher, Sharanya, Sarnath and Jonathan for your work.