The Pursuit of Skinniness: Building a Path to Self-Acceptance, Love & Confidence

Growing up in a continent where the ideal body type is thin and fair, Riva Hiranand struggled to embrace her short, curvy and dark body. In this candid and upfront essay, she details her pear-shaped path to loving, accepting, nurturing and feeling confident in her own skin.
22 Jun 2022
Words by: Riva Hiranand

Throughout my life, my body has been called several things: curvy, pear-shaped, big-boned… “thicc”. So it’s no surprise that I started dieting at the age of nine. Even then, before high school and reading the advice I religiously subscribed to from wellness columns in Teen Vogue and Seventeen, I was acutely aware that my body was different, and I carried that weight on my shoulders for many years to come.

I had always been surrounded by thin, tiny bodies that looked nothing like mine. In magazines, on billboards, on mannequins. Growing up in Hong Kong, finding clothing for curvy bodies was (and still is) immensely difficult.

It’s not a secret, nor is it a stereotype, that being fair and thin is the gold standard in Indian culture. So as a short, dark girl with thick thighs who already wore a B-cup in primary school, I never thought I could never love my body as it was. Somewhere along the line, I picked up on the idea that weight loss, by whatever means, was a normal, requisite part of being a woman. I looked at women in magazine ads and on TV, their white teeth glinting, their legs stick-straight with no ounce of cellulite, their taut arms – perfectly happy. I believed that once I looked like this, once I was thin enough, I too would be perfectly happy.

Cosmopolitan magazine and Victoria Secret Bombshell Perfume bottle on paisley bedsheets
Photograph by Andreia Cismasiu

Get Thin or Die Trying

During college in Australia, I lost 15 kilograms after six months working with a nutritionist and trainer to completely overhaul my diet and exercise habits. It was not grueling or restrictive, and allowed me to learn about exercise and physiology for the first time ever. Gone were the days of struggling through warm-up runs around my high school soccer pitch or – kill me – partaking in mandatory group sports. Exercise became fun, a way of discovering my strengths and challenging myself. I started cooking for myself for the first time, which I loved. My nutritionist and trainer put the focus on making me feel good and strong, ensuring everything I did also supported my menstrual health and did not flare up my endometriosis.

I had never been happier, and I was finally at the skinniest I’d ever been, having gone from 65kg to 50kg… and I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to lose what I had worked so hard to attain. So I started working out three times a day, I ate less – or sometimes not at all – and pushed myself to not only maintain my figure, but to lose more weight.

Unsurprisingly, this was not sustainable, especially when I moved back to Hong Kong and struggled to balance enjoying the city I’d been away from while also upkeeping a strict diet and exercise regime. Having recently been promoted to writing about F&B at my magazine job, I felt destined to fail. So I resolved to diet harder. Master cleanses, Dukan, Atkins, keto, paleo, South Beach, cabbage soup, grapefruit diets, juice cleanses – name it, and you can bet I tried it. I signed up for trials at trendy new gyms I could never afford. I ignored my limits and injured myself. After a heavy meal, I would drink until I threw up. My endometriosis flared up more. I got sick often. But, haunted by the increasing numbers on my weighing scale, I persisted.

It took me years to realise that I was trapped in a damaging cycle that started with overindulging, hating myself for doing so, burning out with a severe diet and exercise routine that I didn’t enjoy, losing weight, going back to former habits, gaining weight, feeling depressed, and repeating it all over again.

I was exhausted. And eventually, I knew I had to approach it differently, even if I did so in a bigger body.

Close up of stretch marks with nude fingernail
“What I’ve learnt is that life is about so much more than the pursuit of skinniness – and that is a liberating thought that has allowed me to embrace life at any size.”

Screw the Haters

Body positivity is not easy when you live in a place where it is perfectly normal for friends, family, colleagues, or even your barista, to make comments about your weight. For some, it’s unfathomable that you would choose to exist in a larger body without actively pursuing weight loss through extreme dieting and exercise. When I first tried explaining to people I didn’t have a timeline for losing weight and instead was focusing on building strength, overall fitness and reforming my eating habits, I had to field intrusive, unnecessary questions.

The sad reality of living in a bigger body is that you will have to defend yourself from people who judge you before they even know your story. Whether it’s strangers on the internet, or people close to you, when you’re bigger, people feel comfortable – almost obligated – to share unsolicited advice, as if you have never considered it before, and don’t know how to take care of yourself. Family members regularly size me up and are not afraid to discuss – often at length – my appearance to anyone in earshot. Last Christmas, another aunt asked my mum if I had hormone issues, because of my weight gain. Before I left for Australia, another relative remarked that the Australian lifestyle would encourage me to lose weight.

It’s maddening and painful to listen to, especially when people outright disrespect your boundaries, and no matter what point you’re at in your journey, it can take you by surprise. Last year, for example, I was feeling confident after a day at work wearing a new outfit. I rarely wear tank tops because I have a complex about my arms, but that day I did. After work, someone expressed their disgust towards larger-sized Olympians, questioning why they were there and mocking their “batwings”. I put my jacket back on, hiding my own batwings, immense embarrassment and shame creeping over me.

A lack of body and size inclusivity further reinforced the fact that my body type was not the ideal, limiting my self-worth and making the path to self-acceptance that much harder. It’s terrifying to exist in a larger body when there is so much inherent fatphobia around you – to know your body is not the ideal, and to also feel the pressure to conform to a thinner standard. Listening to people around you – especially the people you love – make unfounded judgements makes it more difficult to stay positive and to make positive choices. What I’ve found is that when people do this, it’s more about their beliefs than yours, and it’s important to draw a boundary and remember not to succumb to the thoughts and beliefs of people trying to put you down. What I’ve learnt is that life is about so much more than the pursuit of skinniness – and that is a liberating thought that has allowed me to embrace life at any size.

Greta Futura for Vogue Portugal April 2021, Kybelé, ‘Mother of the Gods’,  shot by Angelo Lamparelli
Photograph by Angelo Lamparelli

Battle Scars

It’s not easy to unlearn years of damaging behaviour, so learning to exercise and eat without the goal to lose weight was bizarre at first. But I also knew that every diet I had been on was not sustainable. Removing exercise and healthy eating as things to only do when on a diet, and making them fun, actionable parts of daily life is challenging but rewarding.

I’ve now moved to Australia, where I have access to incredible, seasonal produce. I focus on cooking nourishing food that fills me up. Inspired by a chef I interviewed once, who told me about how weird he found it when his customers forced themselves to eat items on his menu they didn’t like just because they felt they had to order the “It” dish, I never eat anything I do not enjoy eating, even if it is an Ayurvedic superfood that will cleanse my chakras.

I used to exercise with the goal to burn the most calories possible. But I learned the hard way that high intensity does not support my condition, and have focused on doing low intensity workouts that keep me engaged, challenged and feeling the burn, without flaring up my endometriosis. Making exercise a non-negotiable part of my routine was a huge step to overcoming my exercise obsession and removed the preoccupation I had with what was going to make me lose the most weight.

Setting goals for exercise became difficult once I removed the link between working out and losing weight. Six years ago, my goal was to run 10 kilometres every day – though I could hardly run one without stopping! I’ve now made my goals actionable and enjoyable, focused on learning new skills: Catch one wave. Learn to ride a bike. Go stand up paddle boarding once a month. Find new ways to move my body in ways that make me feel good, strong and empowered.

I start every morning with some yoga, and then my husband and I walk down to the beach, breathe in the ocean air, and get some squats in by dodging the angry seagulls that fly way too low for my comfort. The beach is at the bottom of a very steep hill, and though I walk this route every day, each day is different. Some days I struggle up, other days I power through. It’s a reminder that your body feels different every day, and to go at the pace that makes you feel your best.

Size Doesn’t Matter

Once I gave up pursuing weight loss and instead found sustainable ways to create balance in my life, I started living my life better. I truly believed that unless I was skinny, nothing I did mattered. It wasn’t that I was unhappy when I was bigger, but it was that I did not let myself be happy. I didn’t buy the stunning outfit because I thought I would look better in it when I was skinny. I didn’t go to the group workout class because I didn’t want to be judged. I stopped taking photos of myself. I let myself stop living, and refused to accept life in a bigger body as my reality.

My experiences weren’t valid because I didn’t want them to be. I felt like I lived in a suspended state, waiting for the desire to get skinny to kick in before living life again. Until one day, I realised that life doesn’t stop when you gain weight, it keeps on going. I used to think that existing in a larger body would limit me, but since I’ve learned to accept and embrace my body as it is, I’ve achieved so many things I never thought I could do. My weight in no way determines my worth.

Being bigger does not make you less of a person. It also does not mean that you are promoting obesity or unhealthy lifestyles; you can be a bigger person and do healthy things. Health and wellness are not just for skinny people. Choosing not to lose weight does not mean you are giving up on being healthy – for me, it means it is not a value underpinning my decisions, it means living life without limitations. And damn, it feels good to do so.

Portrait of Riva Hiranand against wood, shot by Amanda Kho
Riva, photographed by Amanada Kho