Sadly, much depends on how a woman looks rather than what she has done or achieved.

It was indeed disturbing to read in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine section this weekend, Sarah Elizabeth Webb’s article on the groping and sexual harassment she is constantly being subjected to in India as a western woman.

Working as a teacher in a school for the tribal and underprivileged children in Tamil Nadu, she obviously got the courage to write the article titled “Sexualisation of the Western woman” after the spontaneous outrage from thousands of Indian women, and men as well, on the heinous Delhi gangrape last December.

Sarah says that, as a western woman in India, she dressed conservatively, even wore a fake wedding ring, tried to ignore or shrug off unwanted attention from men. But nothing has worked and she finally feels as though she is living in a “human zoo”; she can’t escape the “stares or offensive, sexually charged comments”, and has had enough. “The comments — the attitudes — towards western women are disgusting, degrading and totally unacceptable,” she concludes.

Always about looks

While this is shameful enough, the much more detailed coverage of the sexual violence that Indian women, and minor girls, themselves are being subjected to in their own country, tells a sordid story of the Indian mindset on the “second sex”.

Physical violence and sexual harassment are one matter; there is something pathologically wrong and sickening in the way we look at a woman’s body.

Sadly enough, it is not only men, but also women, who set store by stereotypes of beauty, and how a woman looks, rather than what she has done or achieved.

A very close friend’s sister is a trained psychologist and now works overseas. Each time she visits India she is appalled to note how people’s first response to women is always about their appearance… whether they have put on or lost weight, look radiant or tired, what they are wearing… is the styling of their clothes hep or old-fashioned.

“It amazes me how a woman is made to look/feel small by comments on the weight she might have put on or the ill-fitting clothes she is wearing. Never mind that she is a pioneer or outstanding achiever in her field of work… if she looks good, nothing else matters.”

Vidya Balan targeted

That she is bang on was once again reinforced this Monday when Hindi cinema’s exceedingly talented actress Vidya Balan was trending high on Twitter.

I thought it must be because she had just wrapped up yet another award — this time the Filmfare award for her role in Kahaani. But no, the Indian Twitter fraternity — living in India and overseas — had suddenly become interested in her because she had come through as “fat” while receiving the award! For this sin, she was called “the national football of India”, a “sofa”, and the like. Somebody wondered if she was pregnant; another jerk even suggested somebody should get her a tent.

One twit said her “films have to be watched on IMAX coz she wont fit in a single 35 MM frame”. Pishachina tweeted: “Nagaland Home Minister blames Vidya Balan and Sonakshi Sinha for famine #Filmfare”, and Tinu Cherian Abraham @tinucherian, obviously feeling not enough people had joined the Vidya-Balan-is-fat bandwagon went as far as to say: “I am sure many are avoiding from (sic) making any twitter jokes on Vidya Balan, of the fear being seen as sexist. :)”

There were scores who made fun of the talented star’s dress sense; there was a clear North-South divide here. In most such award functions, Vidya is seen in gorgeous (“awful” to some though!) Kancheepuram silk sarees, often wearing jasmine flowers in her hair in typical South Indian style. Obviously this is too “desi” for some people!

So what if she opts not to wear the glitzy gowns that divas like Priyanka Chopra or Katrina Kaif wear? But in our scheme of things, somebody who dares to be different has to be crucified.

Contrarians

Thankfully, twitterdom was saved by many tweets lambasting those making fun of Vidya’s extra inches… imaginary or real, and pointed out that what really mattered was that she was such a versatile and talented actress.

And hence we had BoySuperior @Peanutbut tweeting: “I don’t care how Vidya Balan, or anyone else, dresses or weighs as long as they are best at what they do and/or are expected to do. Period.”

My vote goes to this tweet from The Bad Doctor @doctoratlarge: “Making fun of Vidya Balan because she’s fat? Nice.

Shall I make fun of you for being ugly? Or for being dumb, boring and non-talented?” By the evening it had been retweeted 70-odd times.

It’s comforting to know that if there is one actress in Bollywood who can dismiss all this and march ahead to greater glory and acclaim through her work, it is this woman.

But how come no overweight Bollywood stars trend on Twitter for their weight, the pistachio green, mithai pink or mauve checked atrocious trousers they don on and off screen?

The Beauty Myth

Unfortunately, this obsession, stereotyped, straitjacketed approach to an oppressive definition of a woman’s physical beauty gets reinforced over and over again. It makes me wonder how nothing much has changed since Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book The Beauty Myth that talked about how the more progress women make in different spheres and excel in a myriad of professions, the more they are expected to conform to standard definitions and accepted norms of physical beauty and form.

In her introductory comments Wolf had written: “The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us... During the past decade, women breached the power structure; meanwhile, eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty.”

She added that pornography had only flourished and, in a study, 33,000 American women said they’d rather lose 10 to 15 pounds than achieve any other goal.

“More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

It’s scary how, on the one hand, women are expected to conform to accepted norms of ‘beauty” and, on the other, they continue to get sexually harassed, at home and outside.

We now have some women councillors in Delhi complaining in a letter to the Lieutenant Governor that they undergo regular sexual molestation inside the Delhi Municipal Corporation building.

So not only do women have to face sexual aggression; they have to look physically good to warrant it!

Responses to Rasheeda.bhagat@thehindu.co.in and blfeedback@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on February 18, 2013)
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