I am looking at Aishwarya Rai’s photos. She’s at the launch of her new film Jazbaa. As a woman negotiating the path back to work after childbirth and as one of India’s legendary beauties she knows shape and size – hers – will loom over the buzz that follows. She’s taking no chances. In every single image recorded that evening for posterity she stands with her legs crossed. I tried it at home, it slims down the thighs, neatens the silhouette.
Recently a leading fashion magazine invited me to a power lunch. I entered the convention centre and realized I was the only one in a sari, that too in a blouse with sleeves and a back that wasn’t cut out. In that room full of dark suits and tailored pencil skirts, I looked like what I am sure they imagined a housewife from Chittaranjan Park looked like.
Everyone was most encouraging, happy to see that someone who looked like me could have a day job. Nobody bothered to ask me those “business to business” questions that accompany the main course at networking events. I gave out more visiting cards that afternoon than I have ever done in my entire career. Just to prove not only do I have a job…but baby I am on top of it. That I have huffed and puffed up every rung of that corporate ladder with these arms and thighs.
But things could be worse for me in South Korea. It is estimated that between one-fifth and one-third of women in Seoul have received plastic surgery; this figure for women in their twenties is pegged at fifty percent or higher. In Lebanon, where anecdotal evidence suggests 1 in 3 women have been to a plastic surgeon once, even five years ago banks offered loans of up to $5000 for cosmetic surgery.
Knowing English is the first prerequisite of being cool in this country. Ask Kangana Ranaut, who has said in interviews that when she started out and didn’t speak English well she was “treated like a dog”. Similarly the white body, narrow hipped woman with pointy breasts and long legs has become our dream body image. The sinister lie that female worth depends upon looks, and a certain kind of looks, has become a universal truth validated by the global culture machine.
In magazine after magazine we read about how to eradicate wide hips like polio. How technology in 10 years can make cellulite disappear like small pox. Soon we will dream up anti-flab vaccines to be given to babies before the milestone ‘anna prashon’ ceremony where they are first fed the bad carbs known as rice.
But when did beauty become all about shape. Isn’t ‘shringar’ a mood, a feeling, a moment ripe with possibility? Anxiety, insecurity, fear, self-hate and shame inimical to this delicate feeling. Unlike the all-pervasive global machine that starts with calling parts of your body problem areas, shringar starts with celebrating your best feature.
From long wet hair snaking down the back to the mole that sits sentinel on the chin; wide hips that sway gracefully like an elephant’s walk; the glint of a dimple, a flower tucked in the hair, the shine of a nose pin; the jangle of bangles; the intricate mehendi on your hands. In the land of shringar there is no grid for beauty. Here a pale Sita could co-exist with the dusky, wild-eyed beauty of Draupadi. Now we all want to look the same…wear the same cropped t shirt as our 15-year-old…and have people tell us “you guys look like sisters.”
Last year I had gone to Dhaka to film a documentary and fell in love predictably with the Bengaliness everywhere.
After dinner every night we’d sit together on the terrace and somebody would say “Swati apa kichu gao na amader shathe” (Sing something with us, Swati didi) But I didn’t have a single song to sing. Not one.
I don’t know Rabindra Sangeet or Nazrul or any Lalan Fakir not even a Bengali nursery rhyme. The chalk-and-duster revolution of the empire has taken away my Bengali voice. Growing up in Delhi i thought listening to Dylan and Dr. Hook was way cooler than listening to Baba Dwijen Mukherjee. And now it is as if speaking white is no longer enough. Now we want to look white.
But now I am older and wiser.
I know better.
I know where I come from.
It’s still not late. We can curate a different set of dreams and conversations. Let’s be lovely instead of perfect and let’s not shrink to a size that’s not ours. We are from the United States of Shringar. And in this satisfactory factory we make okay all day.
Swati Bhattacharya is partner at Mamalabs, India’s first specialist communications consultancy connecting brands and moms.
Photo credit: Renu by Evonne, CC by 2.0