Aliya Bashir, GPJ India

Newly Independent and Inspired by Bollywood, South Asian Women Strive to Become Fit and Shapely

Students at The Danceworx, a dance academy in South Delhi, India, say they enjoy learning Bollywood dance steps while losing weight and becoming fit.  

South Asian women, exercising new freedoms and determined to hold their husbands’ attention, are working out as never before.

NEW DELHI, INDIA – Every evening, disc jockey Vertica Srivastava maneuvers through heavy traffic to get to her health club in Lajpat Nagar, an affluent suburb south of India’s capital, New Delhi.

Upon entering the club, Srivastava, 30, makes her way to a huge room with mirrored walls, bright lights and loud music where she works out for more than two hours a day to maintain her figure.

Before joining the gym in 2010, things were out of order for her, Srivastava says.

“My boyfriend broke up [with me], and friends would hardly spend time with me due to my fatty figure,” she says.

Now she never hesitates to pay 4,500 Indian rupees ($73) a month for her gym membership.

She is reaping the benefits of her new lifestyle, she says. Last year, at 5 feet 6 inches, she weighed 95 kilograms (209 pounds). Today she weighs just 63 kilograms (138 pounds).

“First, I was scared of people because of the way I looked,” she says. “But now I look confident – more confident than ever. Because I feel confident now. The gym has become part of my life. And I think I am getting what I was in need of.”

India’s Hindi-language film industry, known as Bollywood, motivated Srivastava to make the change, she says. Bollywood films typically feature extravagant musical numbers that showcase fit, disciplined dancers.

“Bollywood matters to me,” she says. “It gives me courage to seek what I am in pursuit of: a better body shape.”

Srivastava’s experience is common across South Asia. Middle-class women are working out in public for the first time, social observers in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka say.

While some South Asians debate the extent to which Bollywood is shaping the region’s new body image standards, many married women say they just want to lose baby weight and satisfy their husbands.

Women throughout South Asia are becoming more conscious of how their bodies look, agrees Shefali Jha, a professor at the School of Social Sciences of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

The shift has occurred in the past decade or so, as more women have begun working outside the home, Jha says. Previously, most South Asian women worked in cottage industries or on family farms.

“But now women are doing every kind of modern job that earlier used to be dominated by men, like corporate jobs, and also becoming self-reliant through entrepreneurship,” she says.

Women are becoming aware of their basic rights, Jha says. In addition to caring for their families, they are recognizing their need to look after themselves.

“They are becoming more conscious about looking after themselves in whichever way they define their attractiveness,” she says.

Many South Asian women acknowledge that Bollywood has influenced their looks and lifestyles, says Saima Saeed, associate professor at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.

“The concept of body image strongly permeates from Bollywood films,” Saeed says. “Bollywood sets a trend for women by creating an ideal image of body figure for women.”

In a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Tharushi Kalubowila, 38, is struggling to lose weight.

Kalubowila, a mother of three young children, has been married for 10 years. In that time, she has gained 10 kilograms (22 pounds), she says.

Last year, she took up exercise for the first time, but so far she has lost only one kilogram (2.2 pounds), she says.

Losing weight is proving more difficult than she had expected.

“I want to reduce the fat around my waist,” she says. “I feel heavy and tired. I am sad I have lost my body shape.”

Kalubowila became conscious of her weight gain when she needed to dress up for social events at her husband’s company, she says. Her fashionable clothes no longer fit.

“I don’t want an hourglass figure,” she says. “But I always dream of wearing some of my favorite dresses again to those functions.”

Over the past decade, women in Sri Lanka have become more independent in their thinking and earning capacity and more confident in their social behavior, says Yasanjali Jayathilake, senior lecturer in sociology and anthropology at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in Nugegoda, a suburb of Colombo.

“We had never seen or heard of a young woman going alone to a gym after 6 p.m. in Sri Lanka earlier,” Jayathilake says. “Today, they are jogging alone in public recreational areas and go to gyms even at 8 in the night after work. I see this trend widespread among middle-class women.”

A middle-class Sri Lankan is one who earns more than $3,658 a year, or $10 a day, according to the World Bank's 2013 analysis of the nation’s economy.

The fitness trend also has caught on among Nepalese women, says Ram Bahadur Chhetri, professor of sociology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.

“A decade ago, modernization was not as rampant as it is now,” he says.

The first gym in Nepal was established in 1953, but women only started joining gyms around 2003, says Narayan Pradhan, vice president of the Nepal Bodybuilding and Fitness Association.

But the fitness trend is growing, he says.

Most of the more than 300 health clubs in Nepal are in major cities, including Kathmandu, Pokhara and Dharan, he says.

Pradhan is the owner of Fitness Studio Nepal, a health club in Kathmandu with a membership of about 1,500 people.

Over the past five years, the ratio of men and women working out at gyms has been roughly 50:50, he says, adding that he believes 80 percent of his female clients are married.


When Chij Maya Rai, 30, got married in 2004, she weighed just 48 kilograms (105 pounds). But after the birth of her first child in 2006, she weighed 70 kilograms (154 pounds).

The weight gain took a toll on her marriage.

Rai felt inferior because she looked fat and had sagging breasts, she says. Her husband called her fat and began to talk about other women. 

“Not only that, my husband, who used to love me very much, started looking out for unmarried girls after we had our child,” she says. “I always feared that my husband may have an affair with another woman for sexual satisfaction.”

Last June, Rai, who lives in Kathmandu, started working out at the Goodlife Fitness Centre in Kathmandu in hopes of losing weight before her husband, who is working as a cook in Portugal, comes home next May.

“When in bed, my husband would always complain of not getting sexual pleasure due to my fat and loose body, and he always talked about girls with attractive bodies,” she says. “He will be coming home in May. I want to surprise him with my fit and attractive body.”

Rai is happy to pay 1,500 Nepalese rupees ($15) a month for her health club membership, she says.

Rai is not alone, says Buddha Singh Shrestha, vice president of Goodlife Fitness Centre.

“As society is heading towards modernity, fitness is very important to the young generation,” he says. “Women with slim bodies have more chances of getting the attention of men over women who are fat. Therefore, in recent times, married women come to the gym to make themselves attractive.”

While some women are joining health clubs with standard cardio equipment, many South Asian women prefer to engage in Bollywood-inspired dance workouts.

Women of all age groups have been taking dance classes at The Danceworx, a dance academy in the Greater Kailash neighborhood of South Delhi, studio head Tushar Bhardwaj says.

“Women who get inspired by Indian cinema want to flaunt and have a flexible body so that they can show off their bodies in a graceful manner and wear classy and trendy apparels, be that on personal or professional occasions,” he says.

Women studying dance at the academy range in age from 20 to 50, Bhardwaj says.

“They join our academy to better shape their bodies while simultaneously learning dancing,” he says.

Jha says Bollywood is a healthy influence.

“Bollywood actresses are role models for young Indian women who try to emulate them,” she says. “But these followers are understood to not just emulate their physical image but also their success, their ability to stand and inspire a career.”

Others, however, say Bollywood is forcing an unrealistic new body image on South Asian women.

Nandini Gulati, a lifestyle adviser and health coach at the Sanctuary for Health and Reconnection to Animals and Nature, a nonprofit organization that works across India, believes Bollywood is warping women’s sense of body image.

“We get so swayed through the portrayal of celebrities that we sometimes lose our power of decision-making about what to wear and which body type of celebrities we should follow,” she says. 

The sanctuary helps women to change their eating habits and learn to engage in exercise, Gulati says.

“Our goal is to inspire people to reconnect to their natural state through the type of food they eat and develop the habit of moving more in order to have a better relationship with the body,” she says.

Since 2010, SHARAN has trained more than 5,000 people, 80 percent of whom have been women struggling with weight and health problems, Gulati says.  

On her way home from the gym, Srivastava says she is optimistic.

“Our body is like a temple. One has to worship it,” she says. “There is no problem in following the Bollywood trend or any fashion statement by the celebrities, but one should be able to strike a balance between the real and the virtual world.”

Kalpana Khanal and Shanika Sriyananda of GPJ Nepal and Sri Lanka contributed to this article.

GPJ translated some interviews from Nepali, Sinhala and Urdu.