Category Archives: Vanity Unfair
Beauty and all that it implies.
I think it would be fair to say that in my choices in the opposite sex, I’ve been a ‘brains’ person, a girl who liked geeks. In those personality quiz thingies, my answers have leant in the direction of Einstein & Socrates rather than Brad Pitt & Adonis. My men have all been talkers, thinkers even but not exactly lookers.
This month I tried something different – a good-looking, handsome hunkish, visual treat of a man. He fits all the acceptable norms of male attractiveness. Height – check, long legs – check, sharp facial profile – check, full head of luxuriant hair – check, long graceful fingers – check, nice butt – ooh, check, check, CHECK! Complete nayansukh as the ladies who tweet would have it. Bonus points for a traffic-stopping strut and a deep, warm laugh. And let’s be honest, my brain did the checklist on this long after he was out of sight and after much detailed *ahem* perusal. When he’s around, the most it manages is,
“Ooh, that is one nice looking man, that is!”
Well, it is true that he also is a good conversationalist and has an interesting opinion on everything from movies and food to quantum theory and religion. That certainly explains our great conversations. But when I ask myself what I like best about him, I have to admit that it’s that he’s so darn easy on the eyes.
For the first time in my life, I’m completely okay with it. He is so much *not* my usual type but I think I’ve had enough of heartbreak and drama from that type. Well, actually never mind the justification, who needs one to marvel at a piece of human beauty? It’s infinitely pleasurable and damn the accusations of shallowness. My eyes need as much nourishment as my brain, I’ve decided, and my brain gets more than adequate stimulation.
I wonder if I’m being disrespectful or condescending. After all, I would not like a man to think of me this way. On the other hand, I’m utterly frank in my open admiration of this man, not the kind of behaviour most women exhibit to most men. Is that not a sign of being treated differently, even specially? This association is too nascent and we’re too new to each other at the moment. But I could learn to savour this beauty; I am a lover of art after all. And then my interest which turned to admiration may turn to worshipful devotion too. Why should that be any less meaningful than the respect of the intellect? Both are things that human beings are born with, after all.
We are with other people because ultimately, they fulfil some need in us – companionship, boredom, respect, relatableness etc. If one can be entertained, charmed and even made happy by watching a movie, if one can be inspired by great art, why may it not be plausible that a perfectly satisfactory time may be spent with someone who pleases your eyes instead of your ears?
I’m still trying to decide whether my behaviour is decidedly regressive or aggressively feminist. Do tell.
“To all girls who die for a ‘ZERO FIGURE’, Sweetie remember real men go for curves, only dogs go for bones.”
I looked it up and found a Facebook page even dedicated to this ’cause’. I don’t have a problem with the statement itself. I just think that it misses the point.
Size zero is the fashion-friendly euphemism for anorexia (or dangerous inclination to it). Certainly there are more women falling prey it to. What’s really alarming is that it’s going down the age ladder as well, with younger and younger girls grappling with body image issues at an age when their worries shouldn’t extend beyond crushes and marksheets.
Let’s examine this at its root. The impossible notion of beauty is being foisted on us by popular media, fashion gurus and the beauty industry. This includes fair skin, light-coloured hair and the bizarre size notions of barely-there waists, hips and thighs. It’s the cause for unhealthy diets, starving and purging (inducing vomitting after eating).
But you know something? It’s not physical. In order for a human being who is normally curvaceous to get to the hallowed size zero, the ideal has to have penetrated to a frenzied level, which takes it into the realm of the mind. The size zero issue is an issue of self-esteem, not one of body measurements. Victims of anorexia are known to have distorted perceptions of their bodies.
Now let’s look at that statement, in context. It may be true that men prefer curves to angles. First of all, that’s a fact that’s been parotted out for decades now and it still hasn’t stopped women from wanting thin bodies by dieting, exercising, surgery, drugs, smoking or purging. Secondly, even if it does have immediate impact on a size zero-obsessed woman, I fear that this is a superficial, if not foolhardy solution.
If a woman is starving herself to achieve an impossible notion of beauty, it is because she values what someone else tells her about her body over her own self. To tell her that a man actually likes her body another way is simply diverting that desperate need for outside validation from one source to another. Now, whether she gets her cues from Cosmopolitan or from the men in her life, isn’t it just as unhealthy?
Here’s another dimension to that above ’cause’. I’m a thin woman and fat doesn’t stick to me. I come from a lineage of lean people, male and female. I am a small eater but I’m medically fit and normal in my food habits. Does this mean that I should feel less than beautiful because I don’t have the curvaceous ideal that men desire? Should I feel like a second-class citizen because I’m a skinny woman in a land of well-endowed women? Any look can be disparaged and I’m sure the phrase, “She looks like a thirteen-year-old boy” isn’t unfamiliar.
I respect my body because it functions in every respect. I value my body because it is mine. I feel beautiful regardless of whether popular media or the men in my life think so. And you know something? When I believe it, the world does too. I know this because I’ve experienced body image issues too and I’ve come out of it on the other side – feeling beautiful and happy. That had nothing to do with measurements or validation and everything to do with looking into my mirror, thinking,
“Hey gorgeous, aren’t you lucky to be you?”
I have a friend who looks into every mirror, glass and reflective surface that he passes. The pater is best known to the dhobi as the source of endless lectures on the perfect way to iron a pair of trousers versus a pair of cordruoys. The boy thinks any suggestion towards a health regime is an insult to his body image.
It mayn’t be obvious, but these aren’t so different from what my gender has been accused of, for years. But since the men will have to take umbrage at this, let me give it another name. It’s Manity and it’s worse than vanity because its bearers believe that they possess no such flaw (errr…virtue? Since everything male has to be glorified and paraded around?).
Let the peacocks preen now.
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I saw a tweet by UnfairAndLovely recently (don’t you just love that handle, btw?)
“Here’s my question to women. And only real answers please. If you had to choose between breathtaking beauty and Einstein-like brains…?”
In my teens, I’d have picked brains. Yes, I was that girl. The one with an annoyingly unconcerned attitude about things of grave importance to other teenagers, such as acne, skin colour, waist size and hair length. If anyone wants to debate that, just take a look at the latest Nokia ad which tells us that, being young is not as easy as it looks. (Life’s epic drama being a teenage girl torn between red shoes or green and finally, after polling all her friends, picks purple).
I always held a superior attitude above such frippery. For after all, wouldn’t my brains (read angsty poetry, weird art and heavy books) establish me in a far more solid, fulfiling life than the Barbie dolls around me? Not only would I have a better education & a more secure future, I’d also be an independent, respect-earning, awe-inspiring, equal citizen in the world.
Ah, how have the mighty fallen!
Over a decade later, I’ve flipped over to the other side. Breath-taking beauty (if one had a choice in such matter) seems to me the sensible choice for a woman. The world does treat you differently if you are fairer, slimmer, taller and in any other way better on the current norms of beauty. Service staff is a little extra genuinely ‘happy to serve you’ (especially if you don’t carry an attitude along with that face). Studies have shown that it affects your employment prospects positively too. And the men, need I even go there?
On the other hand, let’s look at what happens to a woman who is an absolute brain and euphemistically speaking, not much elsewhere. In her younger days, she’s put into such choice social roles like ‘the beautiful girl’s ugly best friend’, ‘fallback option’, ‘just one of the guys’ (notes-taker, proxy-giver, ego-booster, shoulder to cry on). There’s also the delightful ‘stooge to be played as part of Grand Master Plan to snag another girl’. No amount of Einsteinian grey is going to keep the average girl from falling into at least one of these pits. Unless of course, she’s one of pop culture’s horrorshow geek girls that is sexless, emotionless and robotic in every way.
Things really ought to get better as adulthood approaches, right? I mean this is the path of delayed gratification reaping big results later. But no, wait! What is the true measure of a woman’s worth, socially speaking? Is it how successful she is? How accomplished or talented or successful?All of that is nice, of course and hey, it could even add to the girl’s matrimonial prospects! Has it occurred to anyone that ‘single’, ‘unmarried’ and ‘unattached’ are labels more commonly hung on women? Not that there aren’t men who are these things but does a man’s relationship status really form as big a part of his identity and how society sees him, as it does for a woman?
Who are the biggest female icons around? Are they scientists, entrepreneurs & writers? Or are they supermodels, socialites, filmstars and manufactured pop sensations? A nice-looking photograph gets more social value (attention, compliments, awe, nice behaviour) than a well-written story. The new hairstyle is of more interest than a book deal.
We were told that it would be an equal world for us to grow up into but honey, it’s not. I speak as someone who has ventured at least a bit into each side. I’m not Einstein and neither am I a supermodel. But between ‘Smart Girl’ and ‘Babe’, I’ve laid my claim to both labels. And I know which one works better.
Pass me my compact please.
Call it eve-teasing, call it street harassment or just talk about SlutWalk. I’m adding my voice to this cry.
I live in Mumbai, famed for the crowds, the fast pace of life…and how safe it is for women. I am thankful for it. The city I call home, gives me the safest possible space to live with some degree of freedom. I have stayed in Delhi and in Chennai and I know the horrors of eve-teasing in both these places. Mumbai is too crowded and too busy for these. I can and do travel alone, at most times of the day (and night). I use public transport and don’t require to be dropped home most of the time. In a lot of ways, I wonder if what I have to say is significant considering the much worse experiences that women face in other cities.
What I have to say is this: There is nothing called an absolutely safe place for a woman.
I’m not being paranoid or overly feminist. I have grown up in safe Mumbai and I can testify to the harassment that this ‘safe city’ metes out to its female population. I am not going to talk about the rising rape statistics or the recent surge in horror cases, each more gruesome than the last.. I am going to talk about small ways that a woman is made to feel cheap and small, every day…every single, damned day. Harassment happens in Mumbai, just like in every other part of the world. And it has no face. Like everything else, it is swallowed up in the teeming masses of this city.
Mumbai’s train travellers have a code of conduct of their own. There are rules to get in, to positioning your bags (and yourself) and getting down. When the train arrives at the station, the crowds draw close to the track, getting ready for the run. And as the train nears, the tension is palpable. One section of the crowd moves back a good two feet from the train. Those waiting to enter the ladies’ compartment. It just is not safe to stand within arm’s length of the train. Of the crowds hanging out of the train, hands reach out to grab, to slap, to grope…to just touch any woman. And there’s no way of knowing who did it. There is a reason the women are willing to forsake the coveted spot close to the entrance of the train.
When I walk down the road, virtually unconsciously I assume a certain posture. My bag is held in front of me to cushion those blows. There are times I wish I could wear some kind of armour with daggers lined down the front to stab those big, hard bodies that deliberately collide into mine when I’m walking. My elbows point out to keep those shoulders from brushing mine and I know I look menacing and angry. It could be coincidence but there is the fact that my softer, gentler looking friends frequently get prodded and groped up in these same situations.
Auto-rickshaw drivers amuse themselves at signals by staring into passanger seats of the autos next to them, cruising alongside never taking their eyes off and on occasion singing along. I particularly detest auto-rickshaws that have a mirror above the driver’s head and pointed to the passenger. I’ve taken to glaring into that mirror to ensure the driver keeps his eyes to himself (and on the road, hopefully) because it is almost a given that the mirror was put there for a reason. It doesn’t always work.
Incidently the ‘safety’ of this city does not take into consideration the starers, the whistlers and the singers. Harassment happens with hands, elbows AND with the eyes. I can’t begin to explain how it feels to be stripped by a total stranger. Does it matter whether he actually tears my clothes off in public, or does it in his mind and makes it very clear what he’s thinking? The fact is that he does it with utmost DISRESPECT, with no fear of being pulled up. He is willing to demean me mentally and he would, physically too, if he had a chance. Staring is rude, we are all taught as kids. Why? Because it makes people uncomfortable. This is someone who doesn’t give a damn about making me uncomfortable and what’s more….he wants to watch me squirm.
Do I deserve to feel bad?
To be embarassed about my gender?
To downplay my appearance?
To move furtively and quickly when I am alone?
I used to get my salwar-kameezes tailored by a popular darzi close to my colony. At one fitting, his young assistant groped me all over, on the pretext of getting my measurements. I had been seeing this guy at the shop for a couple of years and he had measured me before. I didn’t say anything. I tried to forget the episode and hoped it wouldn’t happen again. It did. And I stopped going to him.
I wouldn’t call it street harassment. Because it doesn’t stop at the street. It follows me into train compartments, where the men in the bogey adjoining mine leer through the grill and whistle. There is a reason I don’t stand next to the grill…too many fingers and eyes, too close for comfort. It follows me out onto the roads, where truck drivers speed up their vehicles and brush by me, making me jump, when I try to cross the road. It shadows me in the guise of the bus conductor who hands out tickets to the people behind me, each time ‘inadvertently’ brushing my breasts. It sneaks up to me when the security guard who lets me into the office leans over my shoulder to flash the card at the door and tries to look down my neckline. It is all around me all day with people whose eyes stay fixed to a spot about 3 inches below my chin….they are canteen boys, watchmen, courier boys and yes…even friends and colleagues.
I don’t often tell my family about these things. They would tell me to come back earlier from work, not go out at night, not wear certain clothes, not talk and laugh too loudly, not attract attention…..for all purposes be demure, unobstrusive and as hidden away as possible. I know they worry. Which is why I keep my silence with them and find ways to deal with it myself. Its like trying to fight a school of piranha fish that are hidden underneath the depths. I don’t know where the next blow will come from. I don’t know whether it will be a blow or yet another tiny bit of my dignity being shredded away. I haven’t the energy to slap every hand that gropes, silence every lewd comment and out-stare every humiliating look. I try and avoid getting too close to the source. There is a reason I look angry most of the time.
** This post was featured on BlogAdda’s Spicy Picks, July 16, ’11.
Among other things, I’ve been discovering the joys of vanity since I quit my job and have had a lot more time to myself. It’s quite wonderful, caring for oneself and looking good-feeling good. Mr.Everyday, on the other hand, is determined to win the title for ‘Most Likely to Be Mistaken For Shrek‘. It’s not that he’s bad-looking…duh, not at all! But his persistant efforts just might win him that crown. The faded-to-unrecognizable-colour tee-shirts, the facial hair that if it were modern art would be titled Scotchbrite Tarzan, the chappals (chosen over a clean pair of sneakers and brand-new floaters)….yes, this has to take some serious effort.
So last night we had another one of our ‘talks’, which is just politespeak for ‘I rant on and on while he fiddles with the new PS2′.
Me: Please, please, please get a shave!
Mr.Everyday: I’ll think about it.
Me: Please, please, PLEASE!!!
Mr.Everyday: I’ll think about it.
Me: Listen, you know what you look like, right? Huh? Huh? Are you even listening to me?
Me: God, just get it, won’t you?!
The Boy: *Muffled yell*
Me: *Happy he’s finally gotten it*
Me: *Realization that he’s whooping over a PS2 win*
Me: Listen, you look really good with that French beard thing. Why don’t you get a trim now?
Mr.Everyday: I’ll think about it.
Me: It’s been over a month since you got it and it’s growing out like weeds! What do you have against a trim where someone else does that for you?
Mr.Everyday: I’ll think about it.
Mr.Everyday: I’ll think about it.
Me: One of these days I’ll find something to wear that you’ll absolutely hate! Then I’ll wear it everyday…for….for…a year!!
Mr.Everyday: You’ll always be beautiful to me, no matter what you wear.
Okay, if this were a comic strip, the last panel would have me shrugging my shoulders. Well, really, what is one supposed to say now? I know, I know, he’s thinking about it.