Starved and Slender: Unpacking the Defining Role of Gender in India’s Nutritional Outcomes

Proceedings of The 3rd International Conference on Gender Studies and Sexuality

Year: 2023



Starved and Slender: Unpacking the Defining Role of Gender in India’s Nutritional Outcomes

Arpita Wadhwa




Marked by the challenge of food-insecurity, Third World countries are at the center stage of nutritional deprivation all over the world. The Global Nutrition Report of 2020 revealed that these countries were least likely to accomplish their yearly nutritional targets of reduction in the prevalence of anaemia, stunting, and undernourishment. One such country, India, has for long been under the global spotlight due to its consistently low levels of nutrition. In 2019, the World Bank recognised this nutritional problem to be India’s ‘Silent Emergency’.1 By presenting comparative statistics from Sub- Saharan Africa and countries with low economic growth, it argued about the role of poverty, sanitation, and unemployment in the depleting nutritional status of people.2 However, a closer look at this silent emergency generates patterns that reveal the intricate connection between nutrition and gender politics. 51% of India’s women are anemic, as opposed to only 23% of its men; a quarter of Indian women are undernourished; pregnant women in India put on merely an average of 5 Kgs of weight as opposed to the global average of  10 Kgs.3 4 These figures indicate that women in India show greater susceptibility to nutritional deprivation– highlighting a gendered component of this silent emergency. It is this component that the paper will explore. Situating the scope of its research to India, this paper thus asks: How does gender influence the nutritional status of Indians, particularly women?

By looking at feminist theories on the construction and performance of gender, the paper argues that gender, and the norms around it, play a constitutive role in encouraging behaviors and actions that result in the depleting nutritional status of women in India. To argue so, the paper has been divided into four sections. First, it will highlight the role that food and nutrition play in a country like India to establish the importance of a feminist inquiry into this topic. Second, by using insights from feminist theories, it will explain two broad themes under the topic of nutrition– a) Undernourishment (caused by eating less), and b) Disordered eating. Third, it will puncture the neutrality of medical institutions in diagnosing nutritional problems and argue for the reproduction of patriarchal norms by such institutions. Lastly, the paper will conclude by establishing nutritional deprivation as a political solution that seeks to restrict female liberation and maintain the patriarchal status quo.

keywords: Nutrition, India, Gender, Eating Disorder, Anemia, Political Theory, Psychoanalysis