Monday, April 04, 2016

On Body Positivity: In Filter Coffee Column, Kindle Magazine

Read it on the Kindle website here or see below.


This body, lumpy and dimpled and creased and unsmooth and scarred, this body is beautiful. Any body, all bodies. In all colours and shapes and sizes and measurements. But look at us, us fools, dwelling in the hope for Utopia where every body would be seen as beautiful, secondly by everyone, firstly by the owner of the body. They won’t give us that, will they? A woman being happy with her body is the most dangerous thing for a whole breed of marketers and brand strategists now. Who do you sell creams and lotions and diet pills and makeup and Botox to, if a woman wasn’t constantly told she needed all that and more? #ThisBody

Recently, Lane Bryant, a US-based chain that focuses on plus-size clothing, released a lovely advertisement that features gorgeous plus sized women. The ad opens with close up shots of folded skin over large thighs, a love handle here, and a love handle there. The women look happy, unlike their skinny counterparts who are forbidden to smile on the catwalk or in ads, lest the focus shift from what they wear to who they are – another subtle manner in which women are told how they look is more important than themselves. The women in the Lane Bryant ad laugh and dance and tell you what #thisbody is made for. It is made to break the mold, it is made for love, it is made to rock denim, it is made for being bold, powerful and sexy, it is made for living, insists one model, her upper arms jiggling a little bit when she spreads her arms wide, embracing life. It features the gorgeous Ashley Graham and a host of others, all sexy, beautiful women exuding confidence and owning their bodies.

The story here is that several television networks refused to show this ad, terming it “indecent”. Naturally it led to severe outrage from some stray quarters – it wouldn’t do for mainstream media to waste airtime or column space on anything that gave women more confidence and believe in themselves. The question raised by the feminist, body-positive band was why this ad was termed indecent when those of skinnier bodies, Victoria’s Secret models were splashed across TV, on public hoardings and in print, irrespective of the fact that the latter not only objectified such bodies, but also reiterated, yet again, the age old narrative that only thin bodies are beautiful bodies. The Victoria’s Secret ads are where the models don’t talk but writhe around on high heels as the camera zooms into their come-hither pouts and to their cleavages. The banned ad shows women having a say, breastfeeding, dancing, boxing and being normal – something rather detrimental to the plan make up companies have for this half of the species.

Women have, for decades, been told that unless they are a certain size and a particular colour, they cannot be worthy of being called beautiful. The popular narrative in the English speaking media is Euro-centric, white and usually straight blond hair, though there is some leniency in the colour of hair these days. Even at times when fashion magazines and runways show models who don’t fit into this narrative, models who are Asian or African, not so thin, have afros or are golden skinned, it comes across as a tad condescending. More so when there is a big deal being made about that magazine cover or the ramp walk having featured models who did not stick to the strict requirements of the fashion industry. It cannot not be condescending until larger models, models who are “different” are included in the regular shows and ads and not be restricted to a separate segment for them. Until the bodies are mix and matched, not segment-ised like they don’t deserve to be in the same roll call, until the different body types are so much a part of the mainstream that you no longer stop to write columns that exalt the inclusivity policy of a fashion house, until you stop pointing out that there was inclusivity, these bodies – so normal a mix in the real world – will always be seen in separate compartments, most as “not beautiful”.

I often wonder if we live in a hyper politically correct age, where everything is a case for outrage. I grew up playing with Barbie dolls, just as much as with the more Indian ones, that, now that I think about them, still had blond curls and blue eyes that opened when you stood them straight and closed when you laid them down. When I read of the debate around Barbie dolls and how they promote a negative body image in young girls, I often catch myself wondering whether back then, we girls were so na├»ve or so dumb that we never thought about these things. Sure, once we got to high school, weight was on everyone’s mind but for the life of me, I can’t claim to have been influenced by the impossible proportions of a Barbie doll. A doll was just a doll and we never expected it to look like us or be relatable. It didn’t matter that Barbie had Ken, even when we were at an age when what a boyfriend was, was not something we too clearly knew. Or that she had breasts and wore swimsuits, when we were in small towns that never saw anyone in public wearing swimsuits. It didn’t matter that she mostly wore pink and high heels and had a lifestyle that was not like anything we were familiar with. It didn’t matter because we knew well that she was a doll. We still went on to become successful women in different professions.

When the new range of Barbie dolls that had various body types were introduced, I wondered whether the world was taking the idea of body image a little too seriously. I would want to believe that young girls would be smart enough to distinguish between a doll and the natural world around them. Or perhaps they cannot. Apparently, there are cases of eating disorders being discovered in girls as young as seven and eight.

I have long given up hope of the mainstream media cleaning up its act and starting to behave a little more responsibly. Maybe it is the responsibility of parents to bring up girls to be women who are happy to be “indecent” as above. Maybe it is up to them to tell girls there are dolls, and that there are real people, sometimes one might look like the other, but they are still very different. Maybe it is up to the girls themselves to fight back the negativity of this brazen fashion world and take up their bodies for themselves. Thin, fat, skinny, curvy, dimpled, cellulite-d, jiggly, wiggly, scarred, white, black, golden, brown, whatever the descriptions, every single body is beautiful.

Maybe one day we will learn that. It is very hard. There are big businesses that are hoping you never realize these things. But try, try we must. Nothing can be any less a pain to take to take back #thisbody.

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