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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, February 06, 2022

entry arrow5:41 PM | Dearest Concerned People Who Tell Me To My Face That I Need to Lose Weight in the Middle of a Pandemic

I was out in the world for once. It was an increasingly rare thing, to be out this way in a world still teeming with so much uncertainty.

Like many people I knew, I still harbored a suspicious regard for the outdoors, even in the beginning of the third year of this pandemic. A few weeks ago, someone I know had announced in his Instagram that—even after two vaccinations and a booster shot, even after all these time wearing masks and being extra careful—he had contracted the Omicron strain of COVID-19, and was battling a debilitating bout of it. “But I was going out a lot during the holiday season,” he wrote. “I shouldn’t have, but I did.”

I knew several other people who tested positive for COVID-19 in January. And that was enough to keep me indoors for longer stretches, again.

Not that I was already going out even before that. Taking care of my mental health was becoming a full time endeavor, and home and being out of the radar from people was proving to be comfort I needed to have. Or else go mad. Being out meant courting needless anxiety, so I stayed in.

And when I did go out, it was to combat the occasional stir craziness—and much as possible, only in the most furtive way. Like a mouse. And only in the company of people in my immediate bubble. And only to familiar places I felt was safe enough to be in—like the open-air comfort of Caña at The Bricks Hotel, which had become a second home in the pandemic.

And so when I do go out, the effort often feels like a prize, almost.

So I was out in the world at the Valencia municipal plaza for their Sunday tabo, which has also become a gathering place for many of the province’s major restaurants to set up stands to cater to the eating pleasure of the early morning crowd [a lot of them from Dumaguete]. It was my first time to be there, and it was a tentative joy to behold—given that I was also seeing people I have not seen in almost three years.

Near the end of our excursion, I saw a familiar face, someone I had not seen in many, many moons. There was a rush to my steps as I turned to greet her, my smile wide beneath my facemask, my fist ready for a bump in what had become the fashionable replacement for the old beso-beso. Before I could even say a delighted hello, she said:

“Tambok na ka kaayo! You really should lose weight.”

I really should just had taken it in stride.

I knew where it came from. It is cultural. One can even argue that it’s an unfortunate part of our DNA as a people. Even before the pandemic shattered our lives and reordered the way we did things and dealt with each other, Filipinos were wont to say, “You’ve gone fat!” in lieu of hello—and you can, with all honesty, say it is our hello. Apparently even pandemics are not earthshattering enough to change this.

It is rude—but it is also deeply ingrained, most people don’t even realize they traffic in its crudeness.

Still, it’s not easy to take this in stride. Whether in Tagalog [“Tumaba ka!”] or in Binisaya [“Nanambok ka!”], the comment—especially when it comes as a greeting—astonishes because it always seems to come out of nowhere. Your mindset is to be warm in greeting someone you have not seen in so long, and when the response you get is body-shaming couched in tones of concern mixed in with the salutation, your mind reels. You feel attacked just when you are about to welcome the person in your bubble of familiarity. You are never prepared to give an appropriate response.

What is an appropriate response?

Here’s one: “Ikaw rin!” My closest friends tell me this when I ask them over the occasional chat in Messenger.

But it strikes me as a witless, even commonplace, response; never mind that it is also answering passive aggression with equal hostility—and my mother once told me, in what she said was helpful Biblical metaphor, that it is better to throw back bread when people throw stones at you. [The Bible, I later found out, never said anything remotely resembling this maxim. But I was an obedient Sunday School-bred kid. So I learned to throw bread metaphorically, but also to eat them literally when I needed to soothe whatever pain I felt. I was constantly on the verge of becoming a doormat with eating problems.]

Besides, I am always afflicted by what the French term l’esprit de l'escalier, literally “the spirit of the staircase,” or what they call coming up with the perfect response a little too late. So when someone hails me with “Nanambok ka!” I almost immediately respond with nervous laughter—and think of the wittiest rejoinder thirty minutes later, the offending person already out of sight.

I am certainly not alone in this commiseration. In a 2019 paper on the context of fat-shaming among adult Filipinos, Dr. Roberto Prudencio D. Abello of De La Salle University-Manila’s Behavioral Sciences Department writes that “the contemporary Filipino setting is both harsh and humorous toward individuals labeled as ‘fat’ and in local parlance, ‘tabachoy’ that would suggest that fat shaming culture exists in the Philippine society.” He cites depictions [and reception] of obesity in our popular culture—including movies and television [think of Bondying and Dabyana and Vice Ganda’s infamous 2013 fat-and-rape joke involving TV journalist Jessica Soho]—as the battleground figures that codify the popular attitude towards weight. The ramification, he concludes, is a social hazard: many fat-shamed individuals in his study grapple with unending levels of shame that also leads to feelings of invisibility and inadequacy, among other things.

In other words, “Nanambok ka!” is not helpful at all to anyone’s mental health—so whatever friendly concern it may have been intended in its utterance is all for naught.

And besides, we are living in a pandemic!

When COVID-19 started its onslaught in 2020 and we were all forced to stay indoors for months, I knew what it entailed: it was a wholesale disruption to our ways of doing things, including our rites of fitness we once took for granted. Gyms closed down. We had no idea if it was even safe to venture outdoors for a run. And lockdown also meant, for most people, sedentary living bingeing on movies and TV and partaking of food that was closest comfort in precariously uncertain times. On Facebook, I posted: “In the next few months, please, let’s not comment on each other’s weight.”

There were many individuals, of course, who took to the pandemic like the perfect excuse to gain a six-pack. Good for them. Many of them had access to homebound gym equipment—which is privilege. Diet is also privilege. In Dumaguete, so many food delivery businesses sprouted in 2020, a lot of them touting the latest fad in “healthy eating”—but for a price.

I thought the pandemic was enough to give pause to the usual judgments on weight and other ornery things. I was banking on common understanding and goodwill. I thought: we were fighting a battle in this pandemic, surely we could afford to be kind to each other.

But still—after not seeing each other in months and months, there was this: “Nanambok lagi ka!”

In August 2020, actress KC Concepcion shared on Instagram her own experience with body-shaming: “I used to get body-shamed when I went on my 3-year hiatus for not having that Asian, stick-thin body (for an Asian like me), and many women like me get affected by this mentally, emotionally and physically. Going through a pandemic and realizing the big picture issues of the world, I realized life is to be celebrated, and enjoyed... Like, why would I choose to develop an eating disorder over losing all the extra weight healthily?”

Later, in November of the same year, the Department of Education had to issue an apology when a module for distance learning from DepEd-Occidental Mindoro took potshots at a celebrity and subsequently made the rounds on social media. The material, for a MAPEH class, prompted students with the following situation: “Angel Locsin is an obese person. She, together with Coco Martin eats fatty and sweet food in Mang Inasal fast food restaurant most of the time. In her house, she always watching television (sic) and does not have any physical activities.” It went on to ask students what would happen to the popular actress if she “continue[d] her lifestyle.”

Needless to say, I am perfectly aware that I have grown bigger as the pandemic stretches on. But I’ve weighed things—no pun intended—and have chosen to first take care of my pandemic-induced mental health issues. My anxieties add fuel to my being adrift, and I do find myself eating my feelings. [And food is such a glorious escape.] I will certainly get around to keeping fit. It is part of my recovery. I just do not need the casual reminders from the most random people that all they see of me—a person of so much more complexity—is my weight.

Most people I know never do this, I’ve noticed. It is only certain people, and I feel they are guilty of projection: the unsolicited remarks on people’s weight feel like shields to their own insecurities, deflecting their own deficiencies by lobbying petty grenades first. When I think of that, I ultimately forgive them. [But I do not forget.]

A good friend’s boyfriend told me, “You’re fat!” We were in Adamo and I had not seen them in six months, and this was how he greeted me. I forced a smile. Was my hello not effusive enough? But I thought: He has bigger problems than concerns for my weight. In the middle of the pandemic, he opened a milk tea café near downtown, which promptly closed within six months. I must understand. So I just nodded and said, “I know.”

An older woman from a social circle I used to run in told me, “You’re fat!” We were grocery shopping in Lee Plaza and I had not seen her in a year, and this was how she greeted me. I forced a smile. Was my eagerness to see her not sincere enough? But I thought: She has bigger problems than concerns for my weight. She found out her daughter’s a lesbian and had called for a hasty intervention that doubled as a threat—because it was apparently an embarrassment to their tony family. I must understand. So I just nodded and said, “I do need to go to the gym.”

An acquaintance from school told me, “You’re fat!” We were at the Pantawan of Dumaguete to see the Christmas lights and I had not seen her in two years, and this was how she greeted me. I forced a smile. Was my fist bump not cordial enough? But I thought: She has bigger problems than concerns for my weight. Her husband is having an affair with their driver, and she knows all about it—but can’t do anything because her husband is also an abusive prick. I must understand. So I just nodded and said, “I’m going on a diet.”

(I have of course changed details in these blind items so as to spare these people embarrassment—a courtesy they did not extend me. I know they are probably reading this. But they do have bigger problems than my weight.)

Extend understanding, be a bundle of love, and know with all of your heart the difficult circumstances of our lives in these fraught times.

We’re alive! So far! That’s what matters most, I think.

When you meet someone you have not seen in months because of the pandemic, say: “I’ve missed you. And despite everything that is wrong in the world, you look fabulous.”

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