Watching the Nigella Lawson cooking show on TV is an act of sheer decadence for me. A strikingly beautiful woman, spilling out of her dress, she makes gluttony look like a form of art. I sigh as I watch her pour cartons of double cream, slabs of dark chocolate and a generous dash of rum – forbidden pleasures for most of us. And as she gleefully adds a slab of butter, your eyes pop out in horror.
But she is unperturbed by your extreme reaction as she continues to whip her heavenly concoction in a bowl and closes her eyes in ecstasy as she takes a lick. Nigella takes erotic pleasure and delight in her cooking and eating.
Later as she opens her mammoth refrigerator to fix up a midnight snack for herself, you can feel her rapture as she puts a spoonful of bacon in her mouth. You derive vicarious pleasure in watching her surrender herself to her gastronomic indulgences. You sigh wistfully as you munch your bowl of roasted gram. Here’s a woman who loves her butter and carbs and is not apologetic about it.
Very different from the woman of today. Let me rephrase that. Very different from the woman that society insinuates, directly or indirectly, that women be today.
At one level, the new millennium femme has emerged triumphant after decades of struggle against a social order that asserted man as supreme. You are but a mere extension to him... is what she was made to believe. Smothered by a long list of don’ts imposed by society and religion, her rights were denied, opportunities curtailed, her voice silenced. Not anymore.
I know what I want and usually get it – I have learnt my lessons from History. She is now aware of her reproductive, marital and political rights and doesn’t hesitate in asserting herself. She fights for what is due to her at her workplace. She is unapologetic about indulging on herself. She is focussed and wears her many hats effortlessly. Yet, at another level, she struggles to conform to stereotypical notions of beauty imposed by society at large. She toils at the gym, gets her hair re-bonded every few months, prefers French manicure. She starves, goes under the knife, takes painful injections in her eternal quest for beauty. As Germaine Greer has so succucintly put A woman lives in the terror of her bum looking big. I hate my nose, change it please. My laugh lines make me feel older, I want them erased. Flabby thighs, crows feet, close set eyes....they all dent my self-esteem. With beauty, I have the world at my feet.
But how many of us can be that woman? A friend of mine dreads meeting her friends from school. Every time they do, all they can exclaim about is her post-baby weight. Barbie with no individuality or character is the beauty icon of today, transcending the oriental and the occidental. Teenagers starve themselves because they want to look like Katrina Kaif. They want bikini perfect bodies and greedily devour their favourite star’s health gyan! Ooh I love lauki, I snack on seeds, I meditate for an hour....A pack of lies if you ask me. Most of them go on extreme diets surviving on just orange juice for days and work themselves to exhaustion with their fancy trainers.
But why blame them. Sushmita Sen is ridiculed for her yo yo weight. The media derives sadistic pleasure in highlighting a celebrity’s cellulite. An unwanted tyre on her midriff is captioned with a what was she thinking!! An actress in her 30’s is considered past her prime. Wrinkles, mismatched shoes, bed-heads are the new cardinal sins. Kate Moss makes a reappearance on the catwalk for her friend Marc Jacobs and all the world can talk about is her wrinkly, sagging behind. The world would rather go gaga over Demi Moore who spends millions on surgery!
The beauty industry thrives on our insecurities. Don’t go under the sun, harmful UVA rays will damage your skin. Did you know your face has dark spots that you can’t see! Your skin starts aging in your 20’s – some skin care company informs you smugly. Gosh you are 40 and you don’t use anti wrinkle cream? A bleak future awaits you. There are creams peddled for every part of your body, every hour of the day – there is one for daytime, one for night, one for under eye, for hands, for cuticles. Beauty is available off the shelf and for a price.
If patriarchy was the greatest con in the history of humanity, you just have to look at the starving bodies of female models walking on stilts on the ramp to know that women are still manipulated by men. The tyranny of patriarchy has been replaced by the tyranny of beauty. We are scared of our greys, we are petrified of sagging skin, we are consumed with the idea of youth and beauty.
Naomi Wolf has argued in her book “The Beauty Myth” that forced adherence to standards of physical beauty has grown stronger for women as they gained power in other societal arenas. She posits the idea of an "iron-maiden," an intrinsically unattainable standard that is then used to punish women physically and psychologically for their failure to achieve and conform to it. Pick up any magazine and the women look picture perfect – not a hair out of place, her skin glowing, her never-ending legs taut and perfectly bronzed. If something is less than perfect, there is always the air brush. She is not a woman, she is just an idea peddled by the fashion mafia! We see the glamour but not the frustration and the pain. And like a bunch of gullible fools we fall prey to it.
Is the woman of today truly emancipated? Isn’t she sacrificing her happiness and independence at the altar of beauty? To be truly emancipated she should be free to do whatever she wants with her face and body. Don’t let anyone have you believe that Men are seen and Women looked at.
I am not advocating that you gorge on kormas and let go of your fitness regime. I am all for healthy living. But don’t let others dictate beauty to you. If a man falls for your physical attributes rather than you, he is not worthy of your affection. You are not just a body, you are not mere statistics. Your warmth, your sunny disposition, your smile, the way you tilt your head, your ready wit – this is your inner beauty. Your face with its laugh lines, crow’s feet and creases on the forehead tell a story. Love your child-bearing hips and look at the mirror with your head held high.
The next time you meet a long lost friend, don’t gloat about her ample frame – she has a mirror at home, she already knows it! She is still that girl who made you laugh, was with you through your heartbreaks and was your closest confidante. Remember how happy you were for her when she won that singing contest? Love her for what she is.
Pulchritude has its place. But let it not compromise a woman’s right to happiness and contentment.
This article was published in the weekly B'khush column, Indian Express,(US edition)