Friday, December 22, 2006

This business of beauty

This business of thin women... is an awkward business.
We could begin with the feminine shape itself, and how beauty has been interpreted differently in different cultures. All cultures recognize the difference between fat and thin, but traditionally, not all cultures have longed for thin, or fair, or blonde or tall.

We could talk about the statues of goddesses found at ancient excavation sites and point out that they do not look like Kate Moss. The feminine ideal (goddess) was fat/pregnant, sometimes depicted in positions of giving birth, or in the act of coitus, and at other times, simply being herself: thick-limbed, fertile.

But there is not much point talking about ancient excavations. Civilizations change, people's aspirations change, goddesses change.

(Go to Durga Puja pandals in any given year and you will see what I mean. This year, at CR Park, I could have sworn that the statue of the goddesses were modelled on the picture of Aishwarya Rai in the nakshatra ads. They were very white, with long flowing hair, straight at the root and waved just so towards the end. Full bosoms, but narrow frames, slight arms, delicate wrists, colours all pastels.)

The point is that now, the feminine ideal is, unfortunately, firmly, unescapably, the screen goddess, who - sadly - is not fat, not pregnant, and definitely not doing anything as overtly sexual as actually having sex, or giving birth.

From a feminine perspective, I find this change fascinating. Not only has the shape of the ideal changed, the value system associated with her form has also changed. Therefore, the feminine ideal that beckons - lashes laden with a desire that is more yours than her own - from magazine covers, from music videos, from movies, is never completely naked. She will have a towel, a bodysuit, a bikini, a micro-mini, hotpants, etc. In the mainstream, (let us, for the moment, not discuss porn; that has never been mainstream) the new ideal feminine is not naked.

Consider this paradox. A body that looks lovely naked is never quite allowed to be naked. Even when there is not a stitch of fabric visible, the body itself is used as a drape of modesty: legs crossed, arms wrapped round herself, eyes half-closed, face half-averted.

Read the above para again, you will notice that I used the phrase 'a body'. Without meaning to, I used the word 'body' instead of woman, or even 'model' because that is how I thought of it. A body... Is this what they mean by objectification? Is this what it means to stop short of being a person, like all other persons, and turn into something desirable? Some-THING desirable. More importantly, do I have a problem with this sort of objectification?

But we could turn this around so easily.

Delhi is plastered with hoardings advertising a new health magazine. The cover has a picture of a boyish male model with a very flat, gym-hardened stomach; one hand is pulling up his vest to expose his crafted abs. It is a nice body. You cannot see the face. His face is thrown back, upwards, so you only see the man's jaw. This is not about men, or health; this is about the body.

The magazine is not targeted at me. I might have (if I had the inclination and money to spare) picked up a copy to look at the pictures. No nudes, but idealized, oiled, male bodies on show - perfect curls on the head, perfect white smiles, perfectly shadowed chins - tall, slim, young, alluring bodies.

Is this what you call objectification?

I don't know if it is such a terrible thing to look at a person as a thing. I don't know if this automatically translates into an assumption that this thing does not feel, does not speak, need not react, does not carry the threat of getting up and walk off and leave you with your empty desire.


But let us, for a minute, return to the original business. This business of thin women.
I have always been troubled by this question - if thin women are more desirable than fat ones, or like we now like to say 'real' ones, does that make the rest of society culpable for the unhappiness of all women who are not thin?

Are we (especially the media, who constantly generate and flood the public sphere with images of beauty) guilty of breeding a world of eternal physical dissatisfaction - where men are never male enough and women are never feminine enough?

Vijayeta says: '..."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?'

This too is a creation of the media. We describe Ms Lopez as curvy, though Ms Lopez is absolutely thin. The bits of her that are rounder - well, compared to Kate Moss - are genetic. If you don't have that kind of genetic shape, you're not going to acquire it through eating more or working out more.

We (the media) airbrush models' skins and shapes. We invest large amounts of money in photo shoots that make an ordinarily pretty woman look like a flawless goddess. We construct myths.

Does the average magazine reader know about airbrushing and money?
Well, thanks to reality shows, we can see how glamour tools transform a face. We know there is an almost 'real' woman out there behind the make-up, beyond the camera. But still, we get taken in by the myth.

Is the media really to blame, in that case? Assuming that airbrushing is a deception of sorts, and assuming that society has outlawed media deception of all kinds - would it be okay if the media continued to use pictures of thin women? Only of thin women?

What exactly is the media guilty of?
Of promoting, agressively, relentlessly, the idea of beauty as a thin body? Of not allowing for diversity of shape and size? Of giving in to the whims of fashion designers who want live, walking-talking clotheshorses, instead of women to show off their clothes?

Whose is the real deception, then?

Are fashion designers deceiving you by pretending that their clothes are fantastic? The clothes are just... what they are. They are meant for a buying public. The public comes in all shapes and sizes and, ideally, a designer should be catering to all of them. Or at least, to the majority, which is not as thin as ramp models. And yet, by using very thin bodies to show off the clothes, the designers imply that their clothes are desirable - if only the woman would lose some weight! The fact that, to most women, these clothes are actually not desirable is hushed up, buried under the hoo-haa-hoopla of just how lovely the models look.

Truth is - most models are rather ordinary. And about as real as the next woman, though possibly anaemic and deeply, psychologically stressed. Fashion designers decide that this woman/this shape/this length is the definition of beauty. Photographers - who get paid to do this - play along and create beauty from an image that is, at best, ordinary and at worst, pathetic. The media buys these pictures. And in doing so, subscribes to the view that this picture/this woman/this shape/this length is beautiful.

And we - ALL of us - buy this view... this woman/this shape/this length.
Why do we do this?
Why do we ALL do this?
Because we are all idiots without an opinion of our own?

Or because, beauty itself is a myth?

Or because, what is beautiful just is beautiful - and we cannot bear to accept it?

Or because, beauty is the sort of thing that has no intrinsic value, unless it is matched by an acknowledgment of desire from somewhere outside of us?

12 comments:

Anil said...

You might be interested to know that Italy has/is implementing a new law (Spain has one already) where fashion designers are forbidden by law to use women models who are below 16 years of age and have a BMI lower than 18. The law is apparently meant to encourage fashion designers to design clothes not just for an 'idealized' (read anemic woman) but more for the average woman. I don't know of the law is an adequate solution for the problem but would be interested to see if it has any positive results.

Fat or rather chubby is still considered beautiful/healthy in many cultures but it is mostly in the context of babies.

Crazyfinger said...

Not only it is that I find your posts harder to respond to, but I also think, for that same reason, you write in the true spirit of what a blog is, i.e., a personal journal. I mean the entries in a personal web journal are indeed meant to be read by others not with a premature impulse to respond, but with a patience to introspect along the way. Having said that, no one will know if a tree is introspecting alone in a forest, so here's introspecting back at you:-)

The fact is, by and large it is the case that whether it is the picture of an attractive woman or an attractive man on a hoarding, the target audience is first and foremost a woman.

A picture of an attractive man which appeals to women may not stir any feelings in a man, but a picture of an attractive women stirs feelings and emotions in both women and men. Advertizers - those peddlars of popular culture - and artists with a genuine longing to express their feelings both get this intuitively, though it may lead to entirely different results in each case.

You are implying it, but in my view the feminine "ideal" that you see around you these days is not necessarily the ideal that a culture holds it to be. And whatever do you mean by "culture"? I think you are speaking from a way too narrow world of magazine covers, of the popular media and of celebrity idolization. At the same time it is true that in modern cities this narrow world is all one gets; it is especially true of popular cities in India, so I guess by "culture" if you mean media culture, then I'd agree but will say that that phenomenon is really not new. Everyone but the head-in-the-sand-media knows it.

Are we (especially the media, who constantly generate and flood the public sphere with images of beauty) guilty of breeding a world of eternal physical dissatisfaction - where men are never male enough and women are never feminine enough?

This too is a creation of the media. We describe Ms Lopez as curvy, though Ms Lopez is absolutely thin. The bits of her that are rounder - well, compared to Kate Moss - are genetic. If you don't have that kind of genetic shape, you're not going to acquire it through eating more or working out more.

We (the media) airbrush models' skins and shapes. We invest large amounts of money in photo shoots that make an ordinarily pretty woman look like a flawless goddess. We construct myths.


The "media" as referred to in the above post excerpt may be main stream to India, but in a larger world of world media, such stuff is published mainly in celebrity media, wouldn't you say so?

You imply that beauty is a matter of a culture but I'd say that what is at play here is not the culture, but taste in the popular culture (a narrow sliver of culture). And taste is a matter of what one has tasted before. If you think pornography is not "main stream" then I think you have a pretty archaic notion of what pornography is: images in yesterday's pornography are the same as those in tomorrow's celebrity "mainstream" media. Or even today's, for that matter.

Whether one believes it or not, by and large all celebrity media is a tabloid media that is not that far off from pornography. If you are (not you Annie, but "you" in general) working in that sector, you may see yourself as a "main stream", but measured by a higher standard, your place in this world is roughly the same as a cockroach, crawling up and down and working off of someone else's flesh. You don't construct myths. You are not big enough to construct myths. You are not human enough to construct myths. People who read the stuff you guys print know that it is all false and yet submit to it, just like they submit to porn, knowing fully well that it's not "real."

What exactly is the media guilty of?
Of promoting, agressively, relentlessly, the idea of beauty as a thin body? Of not allowing for diversity of shape and size? Of giving in to the whims of fashion designers who want live, walking-talking clotheshorses, instead of women to show off their clothes?


We do have high-quality journalists, but we don't have high-quality media. The thing is, we have a big hole in the media which should be filled by a genuine camaradarie of cultural exchange. Culture, as in within the neighboring local communities within a hitherto generalized and homogenized region within a country. Instead, that hole is still there and like all holes go, if you don't fill them with a foundation-stone, then all the dirt and garbage goes in there. The fault is not with the garbage, but it is with the people who didn't put in the foundation-stone. Asking questions like "Is the media really to blame" (as you do in this post) is really an indication of how patronizing the current media is towards the readers who are its very bread and butter.

Whose is the real deception, then?

Are fashion designers deceiving you by pretending that their clothes are fantastic? The clothes are just... what they are. They are meant for a buying public. The public comes in all shapes and sizes and, ideally, a designer should be catering to all of them. Or at least, to the majority, which is not as thin as ramp models. And yet, by using very thin bodies to show off the clothes, the designers imply that their clothes are desirable - if only the woman would lose some weight! The fact that, to most women, these clothes are actually not desirable is hushed up, buried under the hoo-haa-hoopla of just how lovely the models look.

Truth is - most models are rather ordinary. And about as real as the next woman, though possibly anaemic and deeply, psychologically stressed. Fashion designers decide that this woman/this shape/this length is the definition of beauty. Photographers - who get paid to do this - play along and create beauty from an image that is, at best, ordinary and at worst, pathetic. The media buys these pictures. And in doing so, subscribes to the view that this picture/this woman/this shape/this length is beautiful.

And we - ALL of us - buy this view... this woman/this shape/this length.
Why do we do this?
Why do we ALL do this?
Because we are all idiots without an opinion of our own?


Because you (the ALL in the "ALL" above) are not literate enough to know the difference between a marketing campaign and a journalistic article, not skilful enough to act on that difference, and not morally intelligent enough to set the priority of one over the other and. Period. God knows what they teach at media schools/universities these days but the understanding of this stuff should be basic.

Or because, beauty itself is a myth?
Not if you think the truth is a myth. Not if you think love is a myth.

At the beginning I said your posts are harder to respond to. What I mean by that is this.

I believe that a good blogpost that invites dissenting opinions is better than a good blogpost that invites concurring opinions. Personally I think no blogpost is better than either of these two (seriously).

But a blogpost that is inherently poetic discourages both a concurring and a dissenting response and most of your blogposts are poetic, acidic, sarcastic, taut, fearless and vivid. In other words, they are GOOD and I like them. But a blogpost - such as yours - that is all of this is already overflowing with insights that a comment-response seems like a feeble whimper, exposing and embarrassing the comment-maker.

The profession of media that you work in is filled with mummies in the pyramid. The richness of expression in what you write is inconsistent with the dry cadaver you deliver and there are plenty of pallbearers to lift that deadwood called mainstream media so leave it to them!

Of all the professions, I think the media is the least conducive vantagepoint from which to blog. When the impulse to write a blog-post strikes, it lodges itself in the consciousness like a bad tooth and extends in all directions. In this state, nothing irks one as an unfinished thought that presses towards further exploration, while the impulse to post drags the opposite way, i.e., to chronicle whatever is ready, now, because of the pressure to put out the article. Thus, our imagination becomes vulnerable. I think, without sufficient proof, that it is during such vulnerable moments that we feel – without ever admitting to it – as if all the good and evil in the world is flowing through our pen; that our writing is a call to all the good men and women to pick their sides, i.e., to announce their allegiance right here and right now. Thus, our chronicle itself – a result of our primal instinct, strangely, to connect – becomes a gunshot into an already hostile reader group, alerting them to partition, i.e., to divide. See how the rush to publish goes to the core of creating an artificial, divisive world?

Regards,
Crazyfinger

Anonymous said...

"Be curvy, not skinny is the new mantra." This is so true...

However, At the end of the day, i believe that beauty is about how you feel about yourself and about how others feel when they are around you...So many people may not be considered to be beautiful but once you spend time with them, they are attractive and appealing, largely because of the combination of their imperfections !!!

Incidentally, i wonder if people who consider themselves to be beautiful would respond differently about the questions you have raised as compared to those who do not consider themselves to be beautiful...

As always, your posts are well written and so from the heart, guess that make you beautiful !!! :)

Anonymous said...

"Or because, beauty is the sort of thing that has no intrinsic value, unless it is matched by an acknowledgment of desire from somewhere outside of us?" -- The answer is self-explanatory there! Its all jumbled -- whose hot, cute, pretty or beautiful.

erimentha said...

If beauty "has no intrinsic value, unless it is matched by an acknowledgment of desire from somewhere outside of us", how do you explain beauty in things like music, or dance? Or is that not beauty at all? Is it a different kind of beauty?

Sudha said...

this post is quite intriguing, but I must say u have made certain types of generalizations... not all designers design only for thin women, and models (ramp-models specifically) have always been preferred tall, only becoz that shows a dress better. I catch a lot of fasion shows on tv. I must say that as indians we do not need to worry about the anorexic = beautiful paradigm, becoz most of the Indian ramp-models r quite un-thin.and except for some girls we see in music videos these days which of the heroines are really thin???
about fair skin or dusky, well that is a different story.

annie said...

anil: i read about that, and I AM glad. though a BMI of 18 is actually slightly lesser than ideal. medically speaking, it is said that the BMI should be between 19 and 22, and after the age of 35, the minimum figure rises to 21.

crazyfinger: thanks for all all the nice things you said; that's quite a response! my response will have to be much shorter, I'm afraid. but -
i] most hoardings are NOT targetted at women. except those advertising clothes or tv serials. to assume that male images do not appeal to men is a huge (and faulty) assumption. i would also be interested in knowing just what sort of feelings are stirred up in a woman's heart, when exposed to female-image hoardings.
ii] i am as much the mainstream as i am the blog-writer. our role is to question everything, including our own role, which i am in the process of doing.
iii] you are very sadly mistaken if you believe that 'world media' is very different from what you see in this country. last year, the editor of the guardian was down from london, he delivered a lecture on how the media is changing. even the best-known media organiations devoted at least fifty times (or more) as much space and airtime to Kate Moss (and her drug problem) than it did to more pressing matters like environment or health.
iv] there is a huge difference between celebrity media and pornography. by way of example, nobody asks a porn starlet which corner of her/his house is her/his favourite, or what breed her/his dog is. also, their neighbours rarely complain (to the press) about the dog barking too loud. you may want to think about why and how.
v] porn is not real? well, its not quite virtual reality either. yet.
vi] do cockroaches really feed on flesh?
vii] when speaking about truth, do resist hyperbole.
viii] what are you calling garbage? whose garbage?
ix] to question one's role is not indicative of any attempt to patronize others, who may (or may not - since we are not big enough to construct myths) be influenced through one's work.
x] if the people (our readers) are not literate enough, not moral enough, not smart enough to know what's what... why should the media bother to educate them? (seeing as we are no diffeent?)
xi] for all you know, love and truth just might be what beauty are.

jay sun: that's a very valid question. those who fit the modern construct of beauty may not be bothered by it at all. the trouble is, there are so few of them. at least, natural-born ones. the majortiy just try to buy their way into beauty and fail miserably. or go through hell trying.

jerry: very jumbled indeed. i've always been fascinated by why people are attracted to certain other people, while others are not.

erimentha: actually, beauty in dance and song is as myth of a cultural construct as anything else. there are very few sounds or sequences that everybody finds equally sublime. you like some, you are indifferent to some.

sudha: the vast majority do design for only thin women. and as for tall models, it is the same irrational argument - designers pick thin girls because a thin frame shows off clothes better. point is - why tailor the woman to the needs of the clothes, when it should be the other way round? and i beg to differ - most indian models ARE very thin. many are seriously fragile. those who are not are (reportedly) under serious pressure to lose weight.

Opinionated said...

Hey Annie,

This comment page is almost as interesting as the post itself. While I came on to contest Vijeta's mistaken claim that J.Lo is thin, there's more here that I'd like to talk about.
First things first, J.Lo is not thin. I used to have a picture of her in a thong on a beach, and if my wife hadn't made me delete my entire bachelor's collection, I'd have posted it here as proof. There are parts of J.Lo that she struggles to fit into tight leather pants. Unless of course Vijeta is comparing her to Guddi Maruti. By those standards, J.Lo is desirably thin.
Crazyfinger seems like a rather modest nickname, if you get my drift. While I don't agree with the parts of his argument that I haven't read, I'll point out that despite being genetically challenged, Malaika Arora worked relentlessly on her Gluteus Maximus (while on protein supplements) to give it desirable shape.
French & American media does interview porn starlets and their homes are featured on media that targets their fans.
My question is: Why should thin not be in? There is proof that eating less (as COMPARED to gluttony) adds to longevity. Obesity or even a few extra pounds can cause health problems like infertility, diabetes, joint pains etc.
If we can openly proclaim that smoking is bad, if we can restrict alcohol in advertising, then I think designers are perfectly justified in promoting thinness.
It's nothing to get hyper about. It's not a good enough feminist cause either as obese (& bald) men are also the butt of jokes in advertising as well as plebian conversations.
Having said that, I believe that the choice is up to the individual. Like it is with all habits/shortcomings/vices.
If I want to lose weight, it is because I want my wife not to hug my stomach but me. It is because I desire to remain fit well into my nineties.
Just like I have cut down on my alcohol, I have also cut back on my butter, cheese & fried eggs. I don't eat ice-creams or chocolates or (the lone bengali thing I like) rasgullas, except maybe once in 6 months. My weight is in control because of these things. All these things (sweet, gaarhi lassi too!) were my favourites at one time. Given a chance I'd like to savour them once more. But there's something called self-control. There's something called aspirations. Why not aspire to look like Jessica Alba & Paul Walker in "Into the Blue"? If these aspirations didn't exist all husbands would be stuck with wives like Tuntun & wives with husbands like Bud Spencer! And they'd be widowed by 50 as well!
Why do women go to beauty parlours, buy clothes & wear make-up? Why do men shave, wear nice suits, ray-ban glares? To look nice.
I think I can rest my argument here. In a world where individuality and diversity is meant to exist & be respected/appreciated, I don't think I should say anything more.

annie said...

opinionated: you only need to see JLo's videos to see that there is NO extra fat anywhere. and if you try to fit into leather pants that are built for a frame two sizes down, you're not going to fit into it. the trouble is, you're expected to try. thinner people, incidentally, are not healthier. research shows that people who are a couple of kilos above their minimum weight are healthier.

Anonymous said...

.... research shows that people who are a couple of kilos above their minimum weight are healthier. ....

Could you pls publish the sources/ links?

Most of the info I had on this is that it is better to be slightly underweight than overweight.

And I do join the chorus of (male?) opinion that JLo is not thin. She may not be fat but she is definitely not thin. Maybe all that subtle media conditioning has gotten to us.

regards,
a fairly pudgy Jai

Idle Thoughts said...

In Victorian England it a light moustache was considered beautiful in a woman. Imagine the plight of women who were born with a smooth upper lip?

How do we know said...

One small thing the designers forget.. when i look at a piece of clothing, i think, "and how will it look on ME?" .. being the buyer, what I think is more important than what the next journo thinks.. and of course, if the dress doesn't have the right cuts for my rather un-pretty frame, well, out goes the order!!

If one was a store purchaser, one would think, "And how would it look on the rest of our collection?" NOT, "How well it looks on those pretty bodies!" - male, or female.

Ultra thin is in, but not for me or my daughter, thank you!

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