By Devki Jayanti Pande
The pressures that people feel are reflective of the culture that we live in. If a man feels pressure to be strong and rich, it indicates the standards for masculinity. In prehistory a woman was valued if she was of proven fertility, if she could weave tight baskets out of grass, or if she had skills in healing. It was once believed that a woman’s sexuality was like an ore in the earth- naturally occurring in women’s psyches and bodies. Today, validation is no longer something sought by the self. A majority of women no longer adorn themselves to feel good about themselves but for visibility. One runs not just for fitness, but to avoid self-embarrassment during a shower. Certain guilt has begun to cripple us and subject us to the cycle of damaged self-esteem.
Sukanya is the younger daughter of an upper class South Indian family. She has an older brother. She told me that when her family gets together they pick at her. They pick at her looks; they tell her that she would be beautiful if she was taller, if her skin was a shade lighter, if the space between her eyes was less, if her nose was arched. Her brother and male cousins get none of this; and she is not alone. I myself have had sessions about the blemishes on my skin, about my shoulders, about my lack of waist. My friends have told me that their parents forbid them to go out in the sun because they will start resembling the ‘Sudanese’. Girls suffering from acne have had grandmothers telling them to look away because their faces make them uncomfortable; that they should take better care. Imagine women standing in front of mirrors, drawing a new body within their own: guilt. We will go to any lengths to reduce it; even knife ourselves on purpose. In 1991, the average professional American woman spent 8000 dollars a year on what she termed as ‘maintenance’. The numbers are crucial here because if we did not feel guilty about the way we looked, we would not contribute to a billion dollar cosmetic industry.
The Iron Maiden is a medieval torture device. It is a box in the shape of a person; the insides are narrow, nail studded and designed to suffocate. Similar is the beauty ideal of today: unforgiving and relentless. It is designed in a way that it shifts over the years but is always out of reach. In 1915, a doctor in a Belgian field hospital began a strand of medicine. He moulded, in the bloody trenches of Flanders, British soldiers’ jaw and facial injuries. In 2014, 20 million plastic surgery procedures were undertaken, including 50,000 pairs of buttocks augmented in Brazil; 107,000 pairs of eyes being widened in South Korea; 1.35 million Americans having breast enlargements and 705 British men having their gynecomastia (male-breasts’) removed. The ideal has been created in such a way that it provides no area for slippage; whatever does not fit inside is lopped off. The iron maiden is not bland; she is also brightly painted, showing everyone what the surface should look like. She is also no longer female, as statistics show that ‘Manorexia’ is now on the rise. The number of males being diagnosed with eating disorders rose 24% between 2000 and 2009- almost twice the rise among females.
This is the age of advertising and media culture. For decades, the advertising industry has portrayed the ideal woman as tall, slim, fair skinned, and photoshopped to ridiculous proportions; proportions which cannot be attained in reality but which women mutilate themselves trying to anyway. Advertising and media create our iron maidens. Women are under immense pressure to be physically “perfect”; and the use of their bodies as objects for advertisements is on the rise. This is worrying because we are in the age of image overload.. This is what we see: an image of legs wrapped around a bottle as an advertisement for a popular liquor brand. A woman’s naked body as a shoe stand. A battered woman is falling out of a car for an automobile brand. “Are you beach body ready?” asks a poster with an image of a model with golden skin and impossibly thin arms and legs. “If your hair isn’t beautiful, the rest hardly matters” declares another. The age of the models and the target group is reducing rapidly; which means that young girls start being influenced much earlier with these images. While children in advertisements are increasingly sexualized, grown women are increasingly infantilized – and these are images that occur in popular magazines like Vogue.
The problem with the objectification of the female body is the inference and implication that women internalize- that being beautiful is the way we speak to the world; that beauty is the most powerful thing a woman can possess; it is the way that she looks that gives her social status. It tells us that the female body is always up for display and evaluation, and that anyone can comment on it, and therefore, worth the worry. It is hammered into us- we see women with public personas pilloried for not adhering to certain traditional standards of beauty. There are days when I am unable to connect with the world because I am constantly worried about how I look like to it. Is my skin clear? I ask myself. Is my hair straight? Does my face look fat? I keep glancing at my mobile phone screen; keep adjusting my hair on the basis of the reflection that I see there. According to Renee Engeln, beauty sickness is when as women, we are unable to think about the economy, about world hunger, poverty, religion or the environment because we are too worried about our skin care regimen, our weight loss goals, the state of our thighs. And as she says: What kind of power is so short lasting that we need to fight to hold on to it after a few years? What kind of power is negatively correlated with wisdom and life experience?
When I was fifteen years old, this is how my appearance was analysed:
You’re pretty. …you are…yes you are! Like, you have a long neck, you have nice eyes….you’re kind of tall….you’re pretty in parts.
Our body is not something that is to be put into a glass case and looked it. Our body is not just a collection of pieces; it is unified and whole- and I speak for both men and women. It is our tool for exploring the world. Beauty will never stop being important to us, but we can change the parameters of discussion. We can splinter the iron maiden by refusing to be affected by it anymore. Whether you are brave, strong, hardworking, focused, generous, empathetic, is what matters. Whether the parameters of value for everyone is the same- that’s what matters. Scars, grey hair and wrinkles are seen to enhance men, but on women, they are perceived as damaging. Very rarely is a forty five year old woman allowed to retain her natural look in magazines, often erasing her wrinkles, and history, from her face.
Devki Jayanti Pande is a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, intern at Contract Advertising Ltd, has worked for Essel Vision Productions Ltd, and developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures.