Category Archives: Vanity Unfair
Beauty and all that it implies.
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Of the many wars a woman fights, body image issues are some of the hardest to tackle. Because they’re always fought by an army of one against the whole world inside the dark battlefield of one’s mind.
I have a form that fits a few popular beauty standards, enough for me to grasp onto them and fight against the attacks on the parts of me that don’t fit. Do I believe it’s harder because of this? After all, I’m not large, I’m not small, I’m not visibly asymmetrical. Well, we all find our pains hard to bear, don’t we?
I speak often about being a dark-skinned person in a country with a colonial hangover in the form of a fairness fetish. But I never really talk about my stomach. Add a layer of shame and another of silence to deep-seated complexes. Imagine a perfect well-shaped pot with a tiny hole in one side. That’s what body image is like. All the compliments, all the validation leaks out of that one part of one’s body that doesn’t fit. And that one part of you that feels imperfect becomes a clogged drain, lined with shame, resentment, fear and sadness. In my case, that place is right in the centre of me, in my stomach.
I have never had a flat stomach. Not as a toddler, an adolescent or an adult. It has stayed un-flat through swimming, crunches, aerobics and gymming. I’ve been advised to give up eating rice, cold water, dairy products after sunset, fried foods. Nothing works.
I do want to say that nobody has ever shamed me for my stomach. Among all the insults and attacks that came my way, the stomach never featured. If anything a boy long ago called it ‘cute’, another one said it could make a guy feel better about himself knowing that I wasn’t a perfect marble statue and recently a friend called it ‘Madhuri Dixit chic’. While these compliments made me laugh and glow with pleasure, at some level I did not really buy into them. I just shrugged them off as affection for me/crab mentality/funny kink. My relationship with my body is tightly locked away inside my cells. It’s hard to see yourself the way others see you.
11 years ago, I won a few battles when I got myself a tattoo. My dragon, emblazoned across the left side of my waist, breathing flames all the way to my navel was my victory flag. I used to wear short tops and croptops often then. The dragon tattoo was also the very first symbol of IdeaSmith, my online alter ego.
Somewhere in the last few years I stopped. I succumbed to the easy shortcuts that smart styling offers to ‘hide my flaws’. I experiment a lot more with clothes now but I instinctively gravitate to looks that emphasize the things about my appearance, that are permitted to be called beautiful. Most days now, I don’t even remember my dragon tattoo.
But this Monday, I took out this top that’s been lying unused for nearly three years. It’s short and because it ties at the back, it (in my head) emphasises how rounded my stomach is. The words that form in my mind when I usually see myself this way are PODGY, UNHEALTHY, CHUBBY, FLABBY and that dreaded euphemism – MUFFIN TOP. Truly, I do understand what body image issues sound like inside one’s head.
I draped on a trenchcoat over as a security blanket and travelled, my head held high, the body language I assume when I’m faking it till I make it. Then I met Neha and we stopped for a bathroom detour before proceeding. I ruefully and reluctantly stared at my stomach in the mirror in the ladies’ toilet and said,
“It’s not umm….flat.”
Neha didn’t laugh at me (like people often do when I admit to feeling uncomfortable). She didn’t tell me I didn’t have the right to feel diffident about my looks (again, like a LOT of people like to tell me). She just said,
“You know, most women don’t have flat stomachs.”
We spoke briefly about adolescent fears and things that we battled growing up. I mean really briefly, because it was just the time it took to climb one staircase. Maybe it was because it came from a woman as glamorous as she is. Maybe because she didn’t look at me any differently for having an unflat stomach. Maybe because she didn’t judge me for worrying about something as stupid as that. Maybe it was just because she was kind. But I felt a surge of courage go through me. Sometimes you need people to believe that it’s okay for you to be scared, to stop being scared. My dragon awoke again.
And when my name was announced, I left my coat behind and went up on stage. Just me, my ideas, my dragon tattoo and yes, my stomach.
Of the many wars I fight, body image issues are among the hardest to tackle. Because they're always fought by an army of one against the whole world inside the dark battlefield of my mind. I have a form that fits a few popular beauty standards, enough for me to grasp onto them and fight against the attacks on the parts of me that don't fit. Do I believe it's harder because of this? After all, I'm not large, I'm not small, I'm not visibly asymmetrical. Well, we all find our pains hard to bear, don't we? I speak often about being a dark-skinned person in a country with a colonial hangover in the form of a fairness fetish. But I never really talk about my stomach. I've never had a flat stomach. Not as a toddler, an adolescent or an adult. It's stayed un-flat through swimming, crunches, aerobics and gymming. Eventually, I gave up. 11 years ago, I won a few battles when I got myself a tattoo. My dragon, emblazoned across the left side of my waist, breathing flames all the way to my navel was my victory flag. I used to wear short tops and croptops often then. The dragon tattoo was also the very first symbol of IdeaSmith, my online alter ego. Somewhere in the last few years I stopped. I succumbed to the easy shortcuts that smart styling offers to 'hide my flaws'. Most days now, I don't even remember my dragon tattoo. But this Monday, I took out this top that's been lying unused for nearly three years. I draped on a coat over it for a security blanket. But @pwneha said something that gave me courage. And when my name was announced, I left my coat behind and went up on stage. Just me, my ideas, my dragon tattoo and yes, my stomach. So this then is me. Just as I am. Complete. Thanks, @tuningforkstudios for the picture! #body #selfesteem #bodyimage #bodyissues #bodylove
So this then is me. Just as I am. Complete.
Thanks, @tuningforkstudios for the pictures! And thank you, Neha.
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I’m a vain peacock in the most obvious way possible.
I love my hair. Unlike skin and other organs, it has never given me reason for worry. It’s straight, silky and has stayed black longer than most of my peers. It echoes my personality remarkably well (distinctive, shiny, healthy). It’s malleable to all my commands. So I’ve had several different hairstyles over the years.
As with most things about my personality, my hair preferences wage war with popular notions. Most Indian men like long hair. This preference is less about aesthetics and more about conformity to the Indian demure little woman kind of beauty. It also fits the Saadgi concept. I’m always surprised by the fear women show in trying out a new shorter hairstyle. So what if it doesn’t look as good? It’s hair, I say, dead cells, it’ll grow out soon enough. I know because I have gone short and lived to tell the tale. And I prefer short hair. It’s fun, low maintenance and lends itself to more variation than long hair.
Here’s something I got from watching America’s Next Top Model: Short hair and/or completely slicked back hair shows confidence because a person can’t rely on wild hair to mask facial blemishes or imperfections. The TV show Glee pointed out the distraction value of hair in an episode titled ‘Hairography‘. Given my dark skin, most people probably think I should be hiding behind long tresses that at least fit the popular standard of beauty. And why not? Hair’s primary use in beauty tactics, is as a concealing device or distraction measure. It is never celebrated for itself.
Anyway, earlier this month, I decided single or otherwise, I wasn’t going to use my hair as bait to trap men. If a man liked me, he’d have to like me with whatever hair (or not!) I had. Besides, it’s part of my body. I don’t think anybody, let alone an unknown man from the distant future should have any say in what I do with it. So I went under the scissors. And I’m very, very excited with the result! I don’t know if I’m more or less or just as attractive to members of the opposite sex but it doesn’t matter. Not in that angry I-don’t-care-about-what-men-think way but in that I’m happy because I’m doing something that delights me. Look at me fab!
Fun fact: I got my hair chopped off at Mad O Wot, which run by Sapna Bhavnani. Look at what she posted on Instagram a little later! 😀
…only in that I have a smartphone app called ‘PhoneBooth’ that lets me change clothes at lightning speed.
No, this is serious. I am friend, businesswoman, creative thinker, socially aware voice, family woman, hot single girl, gal pal and a host of other things. Each of these come with their own dress code. I exercise my individuality adequately in each uniform. And I exercise the rare privilege afforded to few Indian women, in just being able to be so many things.
In addition, I’ve come around to accepting and then even embracing vanity. I am a woman and impressions about me are formed and sustained by my physicality a lot. How I look determines a large part of the response I get. I’ve been a marketing professional in another lifetime. It would be silly to forget the lessons from then. When packaging plays such a large part of reactions and hence relationships, I would be a fool to disregard them. Also, it’s not worth the effort of dealing with the backlash of wearing something that people don’t deem appropriate for an occasion.
I’ve found a comfortable zone now, where I know what to wear that is the right blend of appropriate, individualistic, practical and eye-catching. To almost any situation that I find myself in. I’m also a compulsive organiser and juggle several engagements as efficiently as I can.
Where it gets tricky is when different uniforms jostle for consecutive time-space on my calendar. Time planning now involves not only figuring out optimal routes of travel, energy level/mindframe required for that particular engagement and location feasibility, but also what I can wear that will cover everything adequately.
Take last week for instance. I had a semi-casual meeting with a friend who I’m helping out, professionally. Lunch was on the cards with some old colleagues. After that, I was to have a conversation with a prospective client. Then, I had to proceed to cultural event with a networking session among artsy/business people. All of this on a scorching day in Mumbai, at locations clean across the city. What could I wear that wouldn’t crumple or drench me in perspiration, look formal but not severe, would be casual enough to be friendly, seem cool and also arty? I thanked my stars that I’d begun wearing sarees last year and picked out a Kalamkari cotton. Sarees work like Superwoman costumes (complete with capes). Nobody in India questions a saree. It’s considered dignified for any occasion. I was counting on my personality and general rarity of women in sarees to pull off the individualist vibe. It did surprise my colleagues a bit but overall I think it worked.
My last two jobs had little to no dress restrictions, which allowed me to practise, even perfect this perfect-for-every-occasion look. I managed to go seamlessly from train travel to client meeting to afternoon-behind-computer-screen to partygoer a few times. Accessorising helped, as did layering with such delightful things like scarves, dupattas, shawls and shrugs. Summer brings its own challenges though.
Next week, I have a casual date, a feminist play and a kids birthday party to attend. It’s not for a few days but I’m going to need that time to figure out what I can wear that will work for everything. Sarees are out (I could work a draped length of cloth anytime with safety pins but NOT around toddlers). So are jeans (what, are you crazy in this weather?). What does that leave? Dresses or skirts? Hmm, mostly okay but these might bring in more undue attention than required, while travelling back. I still have some time though.
*Sigh* That’s why I wish I had a phone app, that allowed me to dart in and out in a matter of seconds, rocking a new look each time. Tech-entrepreneurs, are you listening?
Western feminism talks about the infantalisation of women. Childish behaviour is rewarded, glorified and in some cases, forcibly attributed too. I think the Indian counterpart is a bit different – but there is an Indian counterpart. The Indian culture, across states idolizes the Plain Jane.
In general conversations among my extended family, I’ve often heard disparaging references to women who wear make-up. There is a strong implication that a woman who cares about her appearance beyond a very antiseptic ‘clean and tidy’, a woman who actively beautifies herself is wanton, cold and manipulative.
Pop culture is a good barometer of social attitudes. Bollywood & television routinely typify negative female characters as painted, overdressed women. The heroine in contrast, is fresh-faced, virginal (untouched even by make-up brushes) and given to more dutiful pursuits than caring for her beauty. Saadgi is a shining ideal for the Indian woman. ‘Saadgi’‘s verb form is saada which translates to plain.
If you think this is an exaggeration, look at the number of acid-throwing attacks, a crime unique to India. They’re almost always perpetrated by men whose attentions have been scorned and who feel like they have to right the balance by taking away the woman’s power – her beauty. In their defenses one hears statements like, “She thinks she’s so beautiful. She needs to be taken down a peg.”
Beauty is required of an Indian woman, but in an unobtrusive, apologetic way. As a woman who loves dressing and consistently flouts fashion norms in favour of my own personal style, I can testify to the heavy disapproval I have to deal with. This isn’t just restricted to when I wear ‘revealing’ clothes but also colours, accessories or other things that just aren’t ‘what is usually done’. I feel the constant pressure to conform, to be punished with derision and mockery if I don’t. Indian women are not supposed to be individualistic.
Plain Jane is a non-threatening image for a woman. A woman who is not a Plain Jane indicates that she thinks, that she is able to see herself as distinct from the social structure & the role she plays in it. It shows that she is aware of her personal desires, her rights even – most importantly, that she is aware of the concept of ‘personal’ and feels she has a right to it.
This goes completely counter to the patriarchal system that sees women only as the roles that they play – their relationships & their duties. No wonder India loves saadgi and hates a woman who aspires to beauty.
Update: The Restless Quill writes a thought-provoking post on the appeal of Malayam TV personality, Ranjini Haridas and why she’s shaking the system up – What the internet gave to the Kerala man (apart from p0rn)