Anjana Bapat On Being A Plus Size Belly Dancer And Why People Are Triggered By Women Who Are Confident About Their Bodies
Ever since I discovered good plus size clothing (from America; puh-lease, in India it is shittier than the Trump presidency), it has helped me be more body positive and empowered. I don’t hate shopping anymore. I have clothes that are so flattering on me. I receive compliments. And I don’t shy away from taking photos because they’ll make me look fat. Yep, let’s use the word like it is, because there should be no shame. But recently, when I put on weight in the lockdown, some of that “Don’t wear this, don’t wear that” wala body shaming from my parents returned. Intended well, and out of concern. But for a moment there, it was like I was jolted awake and made conscious of all the things I loved to do but couldn’t because of my weight—sitting without a pillow across my tummy, eating contently, and even dancing.
Luckily, while social media has the power to bring you down, it also has the power to uplift your spirits and offer you encouragement. When I see the hordes of body positive influencers for all shapes and sizes, it fills me up with hope that we’d someday reach a point where we don’t body shame people to bring them down. If that’s the kind of hope you seek, Anjana Bapat’s Instagram account might be a delightful place for you. Anjana is a plus size model, a body positive influencer and a belly dancer!
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When you say the words belly dancer, the image that is burnt into our brains is that of a Nora Fatehi-esque woman. But Anjana Bapat is breaking those stereotypes with a flourish and her fire moves! Clearly, it can’t have been an easy job, not just because there’s a world out there that’s judging plus size women. But also because to be as confident as Anjana is about her body, you have to first love yourself. And love the art form enough that you don’t let anything deter you from pursuing it passionately! Anjana has managed to do both and how!
We spoke to her about her love for dancing, being a plus size belly dancer and a model, how she tackles trolls and why she thinks people are afraid of women who are confident about their bodies. Read closely, you’re bound to find oodles of inspiration there!
Q: We can see you love dancing. How did you know it was your calling?
A: I do love dancing! It’s with me in joy and in grief and in calm, quiet silences. I likely get the dancing gene from my mother. We have always been a family that loves to sing and dance. Like the younger sibling in most 90s households, I was the willing bakra, to do the “Beta, aunty ko dance karke dikhao….” Watching steps on TV and attempting to copy them, some music training and a really small bit of Bharatnatyam training as a kid set the course of passion and imbibed some rhythm early on in me.
School was unfortunately a place where equal opportunities did not come easy. Most of my classmates realised I can dance only at the school reunion! But when I entered junior college, I got informally trained by Karishma Chavan and Anisha Shah, both brilliant dancers and instructors, then and now. I’m extremely grateful to them for pushing me way outside my comfort zone and making me a much stronger dancer.
Q: When did you discover belly dancing?
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A: More than four years of Latin American styles like Salsa, Bachata and more, and then I discovered belly dancing. The timing fused beautifully with a period in my life when I was learning to accept how I look, to accept and love the things I knew will be permanent, no matter what anyone said, and to genuinely let go of shackles and fly free of prejudice.
More than five years down the line, I’m still loving every bit of this journey. Miles to go and a million styles to learn and re-learn! I knew that teaching dance would be something that interests me, when in Level 4 of belly dancing, the first time my instructor Sanjana Muthreja saw me dance and told me that I’m dancing very well. Something clicked in that class, and I knew I’d someday want to teach while I continue to learn this stunning dance form.
Q: You’re a plus size model and dancer. Does the body shaming affect you?
A: At first, it used to affect me. But gradually, when the trolls are screaming at you from every platform, you realise it’s not in your hand and you tend to focus on the positives. There is a small amount of success in making someone so uncomfortable that they feel the need to react. We have to get uncomfortable with the normalized standards to then allow our thinking to change. Some of the best messages I have received come from that space, where they were repelled by how I look initially, they saw some more of my profile and their thinking changed. The rest is just noise.
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Q: How do you deal with the trolls?
A: The solution is in the volumes of trolling one gets. I’m going to call it ‘herd immunity’ 🙂
On most days, I block and/or report. If the comments are sexist in nature, that infuriates me as a feminist. I post about these people in my stories and/or report to the cyber cell if I deem fit. Again, they’re blocked and reported before this action is taken because a social media hater fits the Narcissistic Personality Disorder model, and no contact and no reaction is the best way to ward off that person.
Oh and when I’m feeling sassy, it’s a free open mic session! When you realise the troll has no power if you give them none, it’s the best place to exercise your sarcasm, get a good laugh, and spread laughs around at their cost. They truly do make it so easy at times. This saam daam dand bhed comes very naturally to me now, for the virtual world. And the positive messages that are in good quantities are like beacons of light.
But more importantly, on some days, I allow myself to feel bad about something someone said. It is not normal to have to train my mind to become thick-skinned. It’s actually really sad, albeit necessary. So even when I let my guard down and let myself feel bad, I keep in mind that it is not out of shame that I am upset.
In person, I have had a few conversations with family and friends who I thought might understand, and they did empathise and change their ways, just as I did too. I have also grown up with a prejudice towards fat people, myself included. Some loved ones have grown with me through my page, learnt with me as I learned and continue to each day. And some relatives and friends simply lost meeting privileges with me. My mental health comes first—that has become very clear to me over the years. I safeguard that space and have beautiful supportive people around to pull me out of a bad place if needed.
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Q: Do you find that more hate comes from men or women?
A: In absolute numbers, it is men, due to the skewed sex ratio in my followers, which is 70:30 approximately. But when I have seen the hate in compilation pages where they post my dance videos, it is 50-50 I think. The way the reaction is presented is slightly differing, but again, social media is after all a sample of the society we live in, so the existing patriarchy is very evident via both men and women.
Men tend to react from a disgusted, “This is not what I paid for though I didn’t pay and I don’t own her or her page” space. Brute power assertions (if I may say so), for example. “Yeh moti ko hatao video se shi!” or “Yeh haathi ki bacchi ko kaun leke aaya, pura video kharaab kar diya.”
When women hate, it makes me extra sad, because it almost seems like they are talking to themselves. “Didi acha nahi lag raha hai pet mat dikhao.” “Thoda weight lose karogi toh aur acha lagega.” These are very generic examples based on my impression of the matter, of course there are women who get repelled (not exaggerating their sentiment) and there are men who try to impart patronising unsolicited gyaan. The desire to induce shame comes up equally, irrespective of gender; so does the entitlement and the so-called “concern” for my health.
Also Read: Holistic Fitness Coach Sudipta Mondal Talks About Her ‘Bald And Bold’ Photoshoot And The Crucial Message She’s Trying To Impart
Q: Why do you think this is?
A: As I said, it’s a true reflection of the society we live in. As men… not all men, but there wont be any celebration from me until it is ‘not any man’…. As men, the entitlement and misplaced feeling of power in telling the woman what they like and what they do stands out. Especially if she is dancing, and that too a misunderstood form like belly dance, objectification seems to them to be their birth right. I get song requests, outfit requests, sleazy compliments, DMs for paid private show. I even get DMs about being offended when I did not respond or called out their sexism or fat phobia.
With women, it seems to come from a place where we are conditioned to compete for the male gaze. The beauty parlour simulation, where the attendant is trained to pick on your insecurities or establish that something is a flaw to make a sale. It took me a while, and it requires continued effort to not judge myself and others. To put it in one sentence, it comes from a place of (non-existent) power for men and a place of projecting insecurities for women. This is again, broadly speaking, in my lived experience.
Q: Why do you think are people so triggered by plus size women who are comfortable with their bodies?
A: I think survival of the fittest is very imbibed in us, and I do not refer to physical fitness here. The mistaken parallels between size and fitness is a whole other essay. I mean to say that competing for power, attention, glory, is a part of everyone’s psyche at different levels. Picking and writing off some sections of the crowd makes it easy for the rest to enjoy the privilege. Seeing a woman comfortable in her body shatters this stereotype to pieces.
The discomfort is what gets a strong reaction. “What? I now have to treat her as an equal? If I can’t bring her down, how then will I feel powerful, strong, good about myself? Why is she not feeling shame? The shame I feel, it’s not okay for her to be immune to it, I’m not comfortable with her feeling this liberated.”
It comes down to, one, power in this sense and, two, the conditioned standards of beauty, from Jane Austen stories to Mills and Boons to Twilight to Geet (Kareena Kapoor Khan) in Jab We Met, Naina (Preity Zinta) in Kal Ho Na Ho to Naina (Deepika Padukone) in YJHD. It’s a vicious circle feeding the norms unto itself. Same toxicity applies to men too, though I’m citing the leading ladies here. There’s always a fat best friend who is the comic relief to the plot, the low-hanging fruit, if you will. When you restrict access to this easy option, the trigger is surprisingly strong and, eventually, quite amusing.
Also Read: Coolie No. 1 Is A Regressive Film That Insults Our Intelligence. The Women Are Dumb, Body Shaming Is Rampant.
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Q: You’re a plus size model, a belly dancer, a body positive influencer. What’s next for you?
A: More activism for body positivity, but in my style—simple, fun conversations, some sincere heartfelt spoken word poems, a lot of dance, a lot of Q&As. I definitely intend to teach more Bollywood workshops this year. A thing that has been on my mind since a couple of year now is that I want to try my hand at a few standup comedy open mics this year. And yes, paid modelling opportunities, as and when these present themselves. Hopefully more brands do away with the hypocrisy of using thinner women for the plus size collection and don’t just talk big on inclusiveness. Of course, the customers will also play a role in this change, so fingers crossed.
More singing videos too! Though I suspect I lose followers every time I sing on the ‘gram 😉 . But like I always say, I don’t cater to the needs of the ‘gram, the ‘gram is here for me to post my authentic reflections.