The Shape of Things: As we judge them!
Bravely pushing forth and kicking aside all the layers which add meaning, purpose and definition to our life, enable us to buy beautiful things, indulge in sins and also pay our rent. Layers beautifully topped with loads of stress!
The last few months contained maximum chaos, to say the least, added to a life of drudgery, irrational deadlines, new experiences, new consequences, a whole new look and finally, a whole new set of questions!
How deep is being shallow? Is the beauty myth really relevant in 2006 and beyond? Why are we tolerating the pseudo-feminists who spout nonsense on TV shows?
And while my mind was plagued by doubts and wonder, my thoughts ran amok and penning them down posed a problem. Not one to ramble pointlessly on my blog just ‘cos I have one, I neglected it for a bit (And I wont make it sound glamorous by calling it a ‘blog-break’), till Annie and Megha tagged me and it seemed to hit the nail on the head. “Five Things Feminism Has Done For Me”.
Now, I’m not going to do the tag, but it sure got me thinking about a lot of issues that had been bothering me of late. Most people look very surprised and incredulous when I tell them I’m a feminist. Feminism is the most misinterpreted ‘movement’ ever. Most people think feminists are ugly looking shrieking harridans who’re out to get all men for merely existing. Often one has to simply bring up a women-centric issue even if it’s on the news to be labelled a feminist by ignorant/all knowing male acquaintances. I think being a feminist is something personal. For me to admit I’m a feminist means giving in to whatever the other person interprets feminism as. And then patiently explaining my version of it and how it usually makes so much more sense than theirs. I recently read The Female Eunuch again and was surprised to realise how shockingly outdated it seemed when placed in today’s context. Though, not wholly so. Or maybe, it’s just me, circa 2006, too jaded and worldly-wise to really get the huge impact of "If you think you are emancipated then you might consider tasting your menstrual blood - if it makes you sick, you've a long way to go, baby."
Often I don’t know myself. I do think we’ve come a long way. We’re closer to living the feminist dream now than ever before. Some issues remain, but then they always do. But now, I don’t know how much of my freedom of choice, independence, self-confidence and self-esteem comes from feminism and how much from a great education, great teachers, great family and great friends! To me, feminism has nothing to do with burning bras, hating men, waxing your legs, aspiring to look good and dressing sexy. It’s about equal opportunity. Fair and square. Though, for my MA exam I did write a paper called Starvation Imagery in Popular Media in preparation of which, I’d read and re-read all the feminist bibles, including The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. And until recently, I was genuinely bothered by young girls with eating disorders. Now I’m really bothered by the hordes of pseudo-feminists or as I’d like to call them, TV Feminists, we’re seeing on panel discussions in news shows wearing Fabindia kurtas or cotton saris and big red bindis. Who’ve completely missed the point as they ramble on incoherently in shrill voices, trying to out-scream each other, blaming the media and blaming the corporates.
In college, body image and the commodification of women did matter to me a lot. Then again, back then, I was naïve enough to think that all doubts about body image came from our infamous matrimonial ads and not that much from media images of thin actresses and models. I mean, our leading ladies back then couldn’t really be called thin, could they? Think Madhuri Dixit, Raveena Tandon, Pooja Bhatt, Karisma Kapoor and Kajol before their “makeovers”. Urmila in Rangeela was the thinnest body in our films in those days but we were too busy being surprised by the tiny-ness of those bikinis than feeling terribly complexed and throwing up our food. And we always called her curvy. Never thin.
But I guess we really have come a long way already. All those women are reed thin now more than ever. Even Rekha and Sridevi are thinner now than they were in their pre-teens! And the world’s sitting up and being forced to notice the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. No matter what we really think of them, they still manage to feature in every possible media, every single day. In spite of the Pseudo-Feminists still feeling threatened by Barbie doll and writing tomes and papers on how beauty is not everything and women are being commodified by the evil media, the men and even more evil corporates. How we’ve regressed into the dark ages where women are mere sex objects and the men all closet Neanderthal. Barbie doll sales have just gone up proving that the factory’s a long way from being shut down. And the bunch of Pseudo-Feminists outside Mattel are quite frankly wasting their time as, horror of horrors Barbie makes a feminist statement!
After my MA, when I started working professionally in entertainment and fashion it was shocking. The people were selfish and insecure, the business unforgiving and the 20% discount small comfort. And being shallow was acceptable. Cosmetic surgery was everywhere, though a little hushed up. I still remember the day when I met an actress on a shoot and as I hugged her I felt something strange, which I thought, must be some kind of reinforced bra. Now, I know it was my first brush with silicone and after that I was totally stripped of my naïveté. I realised that everything was all about packaging. All the time, effort and energies being poured into creating that perfect outer shell. Be it for films, for television, for cosmetics, for books and newspapers and finally, even for ourselves. So much for all the bookish feminist beliefs about a woman’s body image and that fantastic idea of “inner beauty”.
I was shocked to see the latest edition of The Female Eunuch in a bookshop, all candy pink and looking like the token chick-lit novel. So now we need to sell THAT hidden within the standard chick-lit look? Are we, really, as a society gravitating towards being shallow? Nothing sums it up better than the trite Bollywood aphorism: Jo dikhta hai, woh bikta hai! And while the Pseudo-Feminists go blue in the face ranting, it doesn’t amount to anything really. India still is the place where people put in matrimonial ads desiring tall, fair, slim women. No matter how much is written and ranted against it. We’ll crib about commodification of women by the media, chomp on diet cookies and in the same breath bitch about Rani Mukerji’s weight gain, Kareena Kapoor’s large thighs and rave about Aishwarya Rai’s newly acquired thinness. Talk about double standards. And we’ve all done that. Though we like to think of ourselves as the most progressive person on earth, it turns out we are a lot more similar to most people than we care to admit: We, like everyone else, are so accustomed to looking at skinny, skinny women in magazines, on television, in movies, and virtually every place else that when we're confronted with someone with a little extra flesh or jiggly thighs, she seems completely freakish. So insidious, so poisonous is the tyranny of the super-thin that if we take a look at a movie from the 1960s with the quintessential beach or party scene, those women, considered so delicious at the time, look just plain plump now.
I really wonder if all the doubts and concerns about body image really hold. Shouldn’t they be revamped? Why? Well, recently I’d lost weight. (The healthy way! Working out and eating 6 meals a day!) My BMI was down to 23, I had more muscle and an awesome sense of self-confidence. Suddenly, there was nothing at Mango, Benetton, Be: or Wills that wouldn’t fit me or highlight unsightly bulges. Stepping out in the world in skinny jeans and a size S wardrobe was actually no big deal, but suddenly I sensed a world of difference in how people now treated me. I was never grossly overweight. Nor was it a dramatic before and after story where I’d whittled down from 110 kg to a mere 50. Yet, somehow I felt like I had. People who’d known me for a long time professionally seemed to hang around chatting just a tad bit longer, I was getting complimented much more and believe me, when I met new people, the reactions were totally different than before. It left me totally confused because I was sure my new size didn’t necessarily mean I’d become a better human being. But I wasn’t complaining. From my new improved outer shell, the world indeed looked like a better place.
But then my own vision is usually skewed. I’ve always admitted to being shallow and believing rather strongly that looks do matter and not even for a second have I fooled myself into believing that “Inner Beauty” was anything more than a fabulously ambitious phrase filled with depth and meaning signifying nothing. If it did, then it would too, be a multi-billion dollar industry and being endorsed by the “It” girls all over the world! I obviously wasn’t true to my feminist side, for I should be feeling horribly objectified instead of shamelessly ecstatic.
Recently, an international denim wear brand launched a search for a model for a new brand of jeans for women. We held auditions in 16 cities. Tonnes of young girls applied and three things stood out sharply. One, their confidence in themselves, irrespective of their sizes and looks and two, the desperation to be on TV and three, they were all professionals, with full time careers. In all there were some 500 odd girls and each of them thought they could be The One. With each girl we rejected on the basis of her size and looks I couldn’t stop feeling sorry for them and secretly hoped they wouldn’t go home and slash their wrists or puke away every morsel of food henceforth. But surprise, surprise! They were rather sporting about it! Cornering us afterwards to get tips on how to lose weight, how much larger does the camera make you look and how much is too thin!
So when L’Oreal comes to India and signs Aishwarya Rai on as their new brand ambassador to say she uses their products because she’s worth it, it’s NOT because they’re commodifying her. It’s because millions of women in India watch her and secretly wished they looked like her and think that using the products will rub a little of that stardust on them. And no, the same effect can’t and will not be created if they used a plainer looking girl right off the streets. No one would care if she was worth it or not. Those kind of “pretty real girls” are used for selling sanitary napkins or toothpaste. After all, women all over will have to buy these products for their sheer necessity, not for their aspirational value!
So what about body image insecurities that we keep hearing about and that I once felt so strongly about as well? Has it sneakily become a part of popular culture? A lot has been written on these issues by the high priestesses of feminism and media critics. So what about body image insecurities that we keep hearing about and that I once felt so strongly about as well? Has it sneakily become a part of popular culture? A lot has been written on these issues by the high priestesses of feminism and media critics. Every now and then, we see a flutter of concern. And usually, that’s where it stops. What happened after skinny models were banned from participating in the Madrid Fashion Week and everyone celebrated and counted that as a victory for “real” women? In actuality, all it did was make BMI a household word and nothing much. Plumper women are still not heralded as the new standard in beauty. And “curvy” is just another veiled reference to being thin. Look at all the women who’re popularly described as curvy. Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce etc. And while they are curvy indeed, they’re also super thin. Not a milligram of extra fat, unsightly bulges or spare tyres thanks to an insane diet and workout regime. Be curvy, not skinny is the new mantra. But how? Think about it. If you can’t think, Google it! The truth is out there. Being “curvy” is in your genes. And to really, truly highlight your curves, you’ve simply got to work out more.
Like in the year 1997 - when Omega pulled out its ads from Vogue UK for instance, and The Body Shop ran a series of ads with the tag line, 'There are three billion women who don't look like supermodels, and only eight who do'. Set against the vast portfolio of skinny images which make up the wallpaper of our lives, these trifling efforts have about as much impact as a bubble on the wind. What tends to emerge after the dust has died down is a whole lot of nothing. There are occasional forays into the fat zone though, like the Dove commercial. Let me blow the lid on its perniciously subtle way of inducing insecurities. Firstly, the ad was NOT for a shower gel or moisturiser (though large women too use those products). Dove is counting on the fact that after we work through our initial shock, we'll think "Yayyy!" find the ads empowering, and buy what they are ultimately advertising, which is, of course, not merely the right to feel okay about your body but a bunch of firming products they're pushing. A product to be used only by fat women with loads of cellulite, which promises instant miracles in terms of a thinner silhouette. There's no doubt that the ads are striking. This is, of course, entirely due to the casting choices of “real” women. If the styling, lighting and packaging remained the same but these ads featured gorgeous, size-0 models, no one would give this campaign a second glance. But there's a dirty little secret here. Because, in the end, you simply can't sell a beauty product without somehow playing on women's insecurities and creating an aspirational value for the product: I wish I could look like her… perhaps if I buy this moisturiser, I will! But Dove’s approach is: That girl in the ad sort of looks like me, and yet she seems really happy and confident… perhaps if I buy this Dove Firming Cream, I'll stop hating myself!
These Dove ads say it's cool to be round and hefty… so long as your skin is taut and firm and perfect. You love your real curves, but you've got a little cellulite? Those orange peel thighs are gross! Jeez woman, run out and buy our cream right now!
While the truth, the whole truth and the really bitter truth about cellulite and lumpy thighs is that nothing short of divine intervention or an insanely rigorous exercise regime could make us any firmer. But women, insecure beings that we are can go ahead and try it as it costs only about Rs. 500, in contrast to similar products by Chanel and La Prairie which cost almost 20 times more! Sadly, this is not a winning play for the long haul. If Dove keeps running ads like this, women will eventually (though perhaps only subconsciously) come to think of Dove as the brand for fat girls. Talk about "real beauty" all you want—but no one wants to be labelled as the brand for fat girls! Which is why, we’ve not seen a second instalment of that campaign yet. Or a follow-up. Or a mad scramble among other cosmetic biggies to do similar ads. Yet, no one will ever say those women were “commodified,” while, in my opinion, they were more commodified than the usual models and actresses. Why? Simply ‘cos the models get paid big bucks to look a certain way. These women would have got paid a fraction of what Kate Moss would have charged to get ogled at and torn to pieces in feminist discussions. A crucial part of a model’s job profile is to look good and be thin. The outer shell has to, has to, has to shine. No matter what!
But this isn't just about Aishwarya's health and happiness or that of any of the other hyper-thin celebs. These women, and their weight loss, have become an ideal, something to aspire to, for millions of women in India. After all, it’s these millions of women who discus the tiniest detail of the tiniest bit of flab on any celebrity. So is it really simply, just the old demand and supply routine? Do we, as a majority, want to see our models and celebrities really thin? And which is why advertisers, magazines and television supply the image that consumers want to see. Statistics show that if you put a beautiful skinny girl on the cover of a magazine you sell more copies. After all, what other reason would there be for People Like Us, to crib and complain about their being chubby? I mean, really! In my opinion, with a face like that, a few pounds really shouldn’t matter. And it’s not like they're HUGE! But that’s not the image of them we want to see. Remember our reactions to Rani Mukerji's Dominatrix look in KANK? And in the Nach Baliye song from Bunty Aur Babli? 10 kilos lighter and both scenes would have been hunky dory! So, it’s really confusing… So maybe, when asked about their diets and fitness routines, when all these celebs say: “Oh, I love food! I’m a complete foodie! I hate exercising, but I do yoga twice a week!” Are they just getting back at the people who judge them by pushing them into a delusional, amnesiac bubble with the idea that you can be as thin as them while shovelling down three square carb laden meals a day plus snacks and doing a bit of light yoga? Because, however many pizzas Priyanka Chopra says she eats, you can't.
So are the corporates really to be blamed for objectifying/commodifying the women? When super gorgeous women like Bipasha and Aishwarya shrank the moment they were jeered at by the masses, it tells us a lot about ourselves. As one of my designer friends puts it, “Clothes look better to our eyes on people who are thinner. In magazines, on the ramp, on TV and even in real life!” This also hit the nail on the head about what I couldn’t figure about myself when I lost weight. And in this day and age, it's moved waaay out of the realm of feminism.
But we persist, because weight has come to signify all that is desirable, because judgment of character is increasingly based on superficial appearance. The outer shell. We objectify celebrities, inferring all sorts of things from their physical appearance. Image colours everything, simply because, in a world overloaded with information, we cling to what is most obvious: and that's how things look.
We know the repercussions of it all. We know all about anorexia, bulimia and crazy diets. But does it stop us wanting to look like them? Don’t we still just choose to concentrate on their lovely slim arms and sleek thighs rather than the fact that they have possibly just chucked up their lunch. Funny how a brain can curtain off unpalatable truths and feed happily on the garnish.
But perhaps we should look harder. Not at the celebrities, but at ourselves. In the final analysis, doesn't the responsibility lie not with them, but with us?