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Fashion, frills and feminine farce

Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that women will buy things for the body if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing and insecure state of being aspiring beauties ... . Surely, there are greater crusades in life than fighting acne and wrinkles, says VISA RAVINDRAN.

THE tiger-striped blouse coiled round the model's neck like a reptile making a detour to arrive at the back while leaving much of the upper torso on one side and the bony shoulders exposed to the camera's gaze. The similarly-patterned sari wound tightly round the model's "perfect" curves and the pallav snaked below to join the reptile's dorsal quest. A large artificial flower of the same brown (a brown flower? They used to be seen on dust heaps; not on a woman's crowning glory) sat on a shell-like ear — probably maiming the function for which ears are meant — and a mass of carefully-frizzled, professionally-untidied, brown locks framed a painted face with regulation pout ("who's watching your lips today?" says a lipstick ad. Elsewhere) and arrogant mien as crystals shone from every fold. The designer's name was the only other presence in this paen to attention-seeking through theatrics rather than taste and elegance.

"Feline Fashion on the Prowl" says the title to pages of lingerie "combining sexy style with freedom" and captions rivalling each other in double entendres about nightly pursuits and cats on the prowl ... . The gap between real beauty and a painted doll does not seem to exist at all on the pages of many women's magazines today. Despite their declared intentions to reflect the changes brought in by second wave feminism and some laudable attempts to include data and information really useful and empowering to a wider cross-section of readers, the main focus is still a schizoid emphasis on "beauty" and sexuality bordering on porn (what else would you call such kissing-advice as melting chocolate in your mouth and retaining it on your tongue and then transferring it to your partner's, in the new-found and legitimate freedom to talk about sexuality?). Swarovski crystals are described as "showers" of glamour and accent and "the look" is one of unabashed sexuality and appeal to the opposite sex rather than good grooming or positive personality enhancement. They don't seem to be even recognised as two different things any more, let alone editor or advertiser — even reader — selecting fashion stories appropriately.

The "packaging" of the user is as callously, and inanimately, conceived as the products — the perfume container is described as an art collector's item, the user a scalp-collector's dream, if not worse. Fragrance for men is described as "cool, aquatic, sportif or spicy", for women as "exotic and sensual". Your toiletry bag, of course, must be trendy, branded and cost the earth. And to keep up with the times, you have "action fashion" and "multi-tasking make-up"... Whether it is because "badalthe hai Bharat ki awaaz (India's voice is different/changing") or "dil maange more", it is necessary to spend a little time in introspection and discretion before going on (or advocating) fashion "safaris" and "image statements" that clothe, or unclothe, the body and package style, stultifying the mind and wounding the feelings of those who do not "measure up" or cannot conform for financial reasons. The matter is not one of self-expression as some radical feminists, advertising gurus or marketing pundits project it, or breaking free of parental restrictions or social norms as adolescents would have it, but far more serious. It is misdirecting a whole generation of youth and future parents and teachers in an already complex, and confusing, world of agonising frustrations and sharp disparities.

That these are just a couple of examples from a widely-circulated women's magazine avowedly catering to the middle classes — one need not elaborate on how diverse a group this is — read not only by "women of substance" (pray what is Generation-W?) but adolescents not yet sure of how to handle the changes their bodies are going through and more than a little timorous of how to handle the situations that college, and then career and adult life, are going to throw them into. This same magazine has started a foundation to help the girl child around the same time as a free supplement for girls, consisting mostly of fuss and fizz — celebrity news, fashion tips and couture. One recent example: "... Inspired by the hip-hop culture ... . Grunge meets couture, and funk is da way to go." Where, is my most pertinent question besides querying the commerce of "beauty" destroying true values even while tokenism drives a few "empowering" pieces in many popular women's magazines.

Mary Pijher, Ph.D., author of Reviving Ophelia, uses "Hamlet's" Ophelia — who was mentally sound till she fell in love but then grows confused, depressed and finally kills herself because she is torn between her father's expectations of her and her lover's — as a metaphor for what happens to many girls in early adolescence. "They become confused by others' expectations of them and their true selves are lost." The delirious celebration of beauty and the body and the tendency to keep women constantly captive in a state of "becoming beautiful" at great expense of time and money, is a direct contradiction of all the gains of the women's movement. The ridiculous procession of anorexic, semi-nude bodies on the ramp, all with the same comic gait of gambolling, knock-kneed colts (Madhu Kishwar put it rather pithily on TV when she said "you'd whack your kid if she walked that way") is yet another societal ritual from where Generation Next sometimes picks its impossible role models. The tyranny of the slim body has lead to physical and psychological trauma and death and one can imagine how recent discoveries like hormone infusion — which "sort of simulates a fake meal, fooling the brain into thinking it has already eaten" — and an American company's weight-reducing device — implanted near the nerves in the stomach wall to send electric shocks as an alternative to stomach-stapling — can be misused.

Cosmetics apparently generate more money than the sale of armaments.

Even health news is a lot about building the perfect body or toning muscles to perfection rather than achieving true well-being. Good grooming and healthy bodies are goals to achieve but they are given undue importance to the detriment of self-esteem and the realisation of one's true potential. Nutrition advice (in one issue) to those on the fast track, really takes the cake, or salad if you will. A Diet file says: "in your food bag you must carry two small cartons of fruit juice, one small box of fruit salad, one small box of veg. salad — with your dip of course." And in your desk drawer, a small container with mixed nuts and raisins, a small packet of plain crackers, a packet of low-fat, instant vegetable soup. It gives you the recipe for a yoghurt dip too, just in case. You, the harried working girl, who has no time for breakfast, but obviously all the time in the world for cleansing, toning, chemical peeling, and other time — devouring beauty rituals and to transform yourself into a mobile grocery store/food joint — is exhorted on the way back from work, on the train, to chew on your fruit salad or munch on your carrot sticks with yoghurt dip. Anyone familiar with Mumbai and its packed rush-hour trains will know how impractical and snooty this sounds, not to mention the treatment meted out recently to a deaf and dumb 12-year-old, and others, preventing what should rightly be what those interested in empowerment of the vulnerable could more fruitfully be engaged in.

Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique) in the 1960s, and Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) in 1990, have brilliantly explored the myths surrounding beauty, female obsession with outward appearance and the factors contributing to it, in which they have included insightful analyses of the role of women's magazines and advertisements in keeping women avid consumers. Friedan demonstrated that advertisers made a "religion of domesticity" to make women buy domestic gadgets and now, "the Beauty Myth in its modern form, arose to take the place of the Feminine Mystique, to save magazines and advertisers from the economic fallout of the women's revolution," is one of the points of departure from which Naomi Wolf moves to build her case that, now, beauty takes the place of domesticity and replaces the myths of motherhood, domesticity, chastity and passivity which are no longer able to keep women controlled in society, and quotes Germaine Greer describing the Stereotype — "To her belongs all that is beautiful, even the very word beauty itself ... she is a doll ... I'm sick of the masquerade."

"Behaviour that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into a social virtue," says John Kenneth Galbraith, explaining the reasons behind trapping women in the Feminine Mystique. Before the Industrial Revolution, when cottage industries thrived and the family was a productive unit, women's work complemented men's and "work skills, economic shrewdness, physical strength and fertility" were important requisites, argues Wolf, and "beauty as we understand it was not for ordinary women, a serious issue in the marriage marketplace" till the Industrial Revolution created literate, idle women, family sizes shrank, the middle class expanded and capitalism exploited women to keep them submissive, first by enforced domesticity and then by the beauty myth. She goes so far as to argue that every time women won rights or liberties for themselves, patriarchy resorted to devising new ways of controlling them. "To paraphrase Friedan," says Naomi Wolf, "why is it never said that the really crucial function that women serve as aspiring beauties is to buy more things for the body? Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that they will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry and sexually insecure state of being aspiring beauties."

The Channel 4 website traces 100 years of make-up, with its slyly tongue-in-cheek L'Oreal-like title "Because You're Worth It". In the early 1900s, suffragettes wore red lipstick as a mark of defiance as they struggled to win the vote, and when Selfridge's decided to sell powder and rogue openly it pleased the women but not the men; in the 1940s (wartime), make-up was seen as an affordable morale-booster and instant feminiser, red lipstick as defying hardship by maintaining appearances; then denouncing make-up became a feminist statement with the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch and the backlash against the concept of prettying oneself to please men; moving to the materialism of the 1980s and expertly-groomed trophy-wives but paradoxically, around the same time, ecological values also emphasise avoiding cruelty to animals and using natural ingredients. But into the 21st Century, the obsession is at fever-pitch. As the population ages, anti-ageing creams, cosmetic surgery, quickfix treatments like collagen implants and "Botox" anti-wrinkle injections that can be taken over a lunch break vie with facial skinpeels and electric wave therapy (

Makeup, they say, generates more money than armament sales. The exploitation of the willing consumer will increase with expanding markets and increasing choice. But when magazines catering to widely-differing readerships project expensive clothes, holidays and lifestyles to keep the beauty myth alive in a developing country — whose priorities should be different and value scales not so skewed by commercial propaganda, they are perpetuating a grave disproportion, widening the rift between the haves and the have-nots. What is worse in the pursuit of outward perfection emphasis is placed on the fleeting and the ephemeral to the detriment of self-confidence and the realisation of true individual potential. As Wolf says, "over the ruined barricades" of the women's movement, "a revolution has come upon us and changed everything in its path; enough time has passed since then for babies to have grown into women, but there still remains a final right not fully claimed." It is a secret "underlife poisoning our freedom". Because women continue to be vulnerable to outside approval instead of banking on their inner resources. Surely, there are greater crusades in life than fighting acne in adolescence and wrinkles in old age.

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