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Rabia Chaudry on her memoir 'Fatty Fatty Boom Boom'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

One of the ways we honor and cherish our families is through food. And that couldn't be more true for lawyer, podcaster and author Rabia Chaudry. Growing up in a Pakistani household, she's familiar with the sights and smells of spicy biryani and sticky treats like jalebis. But as Chaudry chronicles in her new memoir, "Fatty Fatty Boom Boom," sometimes, that love for culture and family can become fraught. Rabia Chaudry, who is best known for her work on the Adnan Syed case and host of the "Undisclosed" podcast, joins us now. Welcome.

RABIA CHAUDRY: Hi, Ayesha. How are you?

RASCOE: I'm fine. Thank you so much for joining us. So before we just dive into your story of family and food and everything in between, I want to acknowledge the end of a different chapter in your life, the freedom of Adnan Syed. Syed was imprisoned in 1999 for the murder of his girlfriend at the time. Through your help, his conviction has been overturned, and now he's free. How does it feel to be on the other side of that fight?

CHAUDRY: Oh, I mean, sometimes, I forget. Sometimes, I still - my eyes will fly open, at night and I'm like, wait. What's next? What appeal do we file next? And when you've been carrying that around, like, your entire adult life, it feels quite amazing to be able to finally put it down and check it off your list.

RASCOE: So tell me why with your memoir you wanted to tell the story of your life through the food that you grew up eating?

CHAUDRY: You know, anybody can write a memoir of their life in so many different ways, right? It can be about my career. It can be about advocacy work. It can be about so many things. And I decided that those were a lot of stories I told all the time. But there was a theme in my life that I never spoke about publicly but was - has been with me since childhood. And that is issues around body image and weight. And so "Fatty Fatty Boom Boom" was born, which was one of my childhood nicknames. But, you know, at the same time, I can't divorce it from, you know, this issue about body image and weight from - like, my love for food and especially Pakistani cuisine and my family stories around it that bring me so much joy.

RASCOE: So, I mean, the book really walks us through how you developed your relationship with food from a very young age. You know, talk to me about the food you were eating and how you felt about it.

CHAUDRY: Yeah. You know, so when I immigrated to the United States, I was 6 months old. And I was the firstborn. My parents were discovering this country in a lot of ways. And one of the ways was through its food. And in my parents' imagination, nothing could be stocked in an American grocery store that wouldn't actually be healthy and wholesome and better than the foods we had back home in Pakistan. So we just dove right in into all of the processed foods. And I grew up eating just so much Bologna and, like, you know, crackers and processed snacks a lot of us grew up with.

RASCOE: I mean, you talked about how, like, even as a baby, kind of to fatten you up...

CHAUDRY: Oh, yeah.

RASCOE: It was some miscommunication, but you were drinking, like, half and half. And then also...

CHAUDRY: Oh, yeah.

RASCOE: ...Your mother had you teething on a stick of butter, which is quite the image, right?

(LAUGHTER)

CHAUDRY: Yeah. There was a tragic miscommunication. I had gotten jaundice, and I was really scrawny. And so my mom asked a friend of hers who was a nurse, you know, how can I chub her back up? And she said, oh, give her some half and half. She meant, like, a little bit, like, a couple tablespoons or something in my bottle. And my mom started giving me two bottles a day. And that's a lot of fat. You know, and again, you know, my mom is a mother here in the United States without her support system she would have had back home. Who would have told her, what are you doing? And she just thought, you know, a frozen stick of butter makes so much sense. She won't choke on it. It's soothing to the gums and, of course, delicious.

RASCOE: It's very delicious.

CHAUDRY: (Laughter).

RASCOE: I mean, butter, does taste really good. I'm sure as a baby, you were really enjoying yourself.

CHAUDRY: Oh, I did.

RASCOE: (Laughter). You know, you talk about in the book you didn't look at yourself as overweight as a kid. Like, when did shame come in?

CHAUDRY: I just didn't think it was a big deal, you know, what I necessarily looked like or weighed. But I had so many other interests in my head. It wasn't until, really, my first marriage that it became top priority because I was constantly shamed in that marriage by my ex, who was an abusive spouse, but also by his family that we lived with about my weight. And that's when I really internalized the shame and the self-loathing and hatred and all that stuff. And my relationship with food got really, really contentious.

RASCOE: And because at that time, you realize you were eating when no one was around.

CHAUDRY: Yeah, yeah. I would eat in secret. But even as I was eating, even when I was done, I would constantly feel like I was starving. And there was a different kind of emptiness that I was trying to fill, for sure.

RASCOE: We know how people who are overweight, fat people in this society are mistreated all the time. But, like, is there a difference when it comes to being within a Pakistani household, particularly for women?

CHAUDRY: The real big concern in a South Asian household then - I mean, now it might not be as much but at least then - was that, will or will she not be able to get married? Like, if you cannot get your daughter married, she has failed life. You have failed life. What is she going to do? That fear lurked in the back of my head. And frankly, I think it fed into the fact that, like, kind of the first guy that came along that seemed interested, I leapt at it because I thought, I might not get another chance at this.

RASCOE: I think about your mother. She would be concerned about your weight. Like, how did, like, that relationship with your mother evolve when you think about weight and food and all of those issues?

CHAUDRY: You know, when I started writing this book, I didn't realize that I was almost, in a way, kind of journaling about this issue. And I don't really journal. And it helped me connect so many dots, including understanding my mother's eating patterns. My mother, her entire life, including to this day - and she's in her 70s - won't eat with us as a family. She'll eat alone. And I was lucky enough to be able to interview her and my father, understanding how she grew up and why she would have done that. I noticed that I picked up, obviously, some of my mother's patterns throughout my life. At the same time, nobody tells it to you like your mom sometimes.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAUDRY: And she read maybe the first 10 pages of this book. And she put it down. And ever since then, she just refers to it as the book I wrote about her because...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Well, it is kind of about her. Like, she plays a very big role.

CHAUDRY: She does. She does. She's always been very blunt. She's tells it like it is, for better or worse, and it seems a little unforgiving. But what I realized as I wrote this is that the reason it is because she is kind of unforgiving to herself, too.

RASCOE: You've done a lot of work to get where you are today. Do you feel like right now you're in a sustainable place, in a safe place when it comes to food and weight and fitness?

CHAUDRY: About four or five years ago is when I had a turning point. I was going through just a kind of a personal difficult time, but I started therapy. And that therapy itself didn't do it, but it just kind of came at the right time. And I started doing circuit training, like, strength training. And I had never done that before because everybody told me I just had to run and run and run and do ellipticals and, like, cardio. And the strength training really changed my understanding of my body. I really felt like my body - like I was a failure on this front, like my body didn't respond to anything. And strength training showed me I didn't even know what to do with my body. The thing about strength training is when I was doing it, my trainers were like, you need to eat more. And nobody had ever said that to me in my life because all I wanted to do as I started the strength training was get stronger and stronger. And my trainers were like, OK, well, you know, eat some more dates and nuts and protein. And I was like, OK. And it all kind of just fell into place at that time.

RASCOE: You know, when you say that you've gotten to this sustainable place and that you clicked when you did the strength training, is there anything that you have recognized writing this book? Is there an epiphany, like, oh, the light bulb?

CHAUDRY: The idea of a goal weight or that number on a scale is just completely ridiculous. Like, that number doesn't matter at all - at all - because two people have the exact same weight, might have completely different body compositions. And so the idea of that number, us being held hostage by that number, I have completely - I just don't care about that number anymore. So I don't have a goal weight anymore. I just have a goal, like, way that I want to live.

RASCOE: Rabia Chaudry is the author of "Fatty Fatty Boom Boom." Thank you so much for being with us.

CHAUDRY: Thank you so much, Ayesha. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.