There’s a wave of contradiction and hypocrisy when we think about what the modern shape of women should be - and Indian women at that. Not being a woman, I’m aiming to be as objective as I can on this issue. I say ‘issue’ as it’s certainly something that the media is very mixed up about. On the one hand there are catalogues that promote the fuller figure - on the other, Bollywood actresses are becoming thinner than ever - a trend also prevalent with school girls. I remember the girls in my school had a stick-thin-black-leggings-straight hair sort of look about them, which unfortunately became synonymous with gangly inner-city ‘Indian girls’. This is a dangerous precedent, especially when it is generally acknowledged the men have a libidinal attraction towards a healthier figure.
If these girls are taking their inspiration from Bollywood - then is it also fair to say that Bollywood is taking its inspiration from the west? To be a ‘serious actress’ these days may mean ‘doing it all’ (all singing-all, dancing, all modelling). This idea is definitely exemplified with many younger actresses in LA, and is a far cry from the women I knew growing up.
As I child, I recall when women filled out their salwar kameezes, they ate well - but by no means excessively. I’d prefer being carried around by an aunt with some ‘cushioning’ as opposed to a bonier one. Admittedly there was a rich quality to the cuisine with no limit to sugars and ghee. These were aunts and women of the family who had been used to hard domestic work - so a sturdy diet was only natural. Usually, they’d burn off enough calories to maintain a full healthy figure. Lifestyles, have changed - women are busier - they’re pushing the boundaries on both ends of the scale and are ironically skinnier and larger than ever - perhaps because no one can agree on what is a suitable medium. A size 10 was once perfectly aspirational. However, there’s often talk of sizes that go much below this - pressurising women to adapt. It’s more than just a change in shape - it’s a change in mindset. Smaller clothes imply less clothing. Women are being encouraged to be proud of their bodies - the flipside of which means being able to show more flesh. In order to do this, women are growing apprehensive about their flesh - furthering mental anxiety.
On matters of flesh, I wish we could revert back to life as it was in older times. Not the conservative past of the last several hundred years - but the ancient past of India. The art of southern India (carvings of Karnataka) are testament to the idea that a pot-belly on both men and women was a sign of a leisurely and comfortable lifestyle. Moreover, women were shown with bountiful hips, suggesting they were robust enough to be wives, dancers, travellers, mothers, companions, carers etc. Today’s aspirations on the figure should in theory not vary much from this, though we have to accept that our sedentary lifestyles by comparison - don’t always justify our consumerist attitude to food and drink - therefore maybe we should re-assign our thinking of what the ideal figure should be.
Often you will hear the terms apple and pear when it comes to women’s bodies; the idea that the pear represents elongated curvature and the apple represents ‘abundance’ at the front and behind. The health wardens amongst us will suggest that the pear is preferred over the apple - which I’d agree with - though I’d admit is difficult to measure. Another way of looking at the figure is the hour-glass shape. This is the popular and desirable image of women - shown typically through classical art of the west - and has been prominent in popular culture till the 1960s. The Venus De Milo as cited as a supreme example of the hour-glass shape, though we can use Marilyn Monroe, Kate Winslet, Aishwariya Rai, Rakhi Sawant as good examples of the chest to hip symmetry. Suggesting that these women are proud of their broader dimensions - yet through their slimmer waists still exert some discipline over their bodies.
Why is it then, that not all media will embrace such a figure? The answer probably goes back to the explosion of the global fashion scene. In particular - I think of Twiggy during the 1960s - as the skinny model changed bodily expectations for the woman in the west - though it took a while for this idea to show up in the east. Up until the 80s and 90s, many Bollywood item numbers featured women happily shaking around their ample behinds. In fact there are several Derriere Bollywood videos circulating You Tube in celebration of the fact. On top of this, there was usually a little Sari-muffin top action going on, which was always very endearing. These women weren’t exactly in the running for best ‘abs’ of the year - yet they were by no means overweight or obese, they were, in-effect reaching a happy medium; something I expect most Indian men were very happy with. To me - this ideal figure is perhaps epitomised by Madhuri Dixit in Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai (Khal Nayak, 1993). Since then, however, the Internet has had a burgeoning effect on us. We now live a global village where almost every website people go to has banner ads of women with super-shrinking waists. It’s only natural that this is creating a far-spreading sense of neurosis.
So where are we to go from here? Women who want to change, will change. Those that want to embrace their figures will also do the same. Yet a line has to be drawn somewhere. I suppose I’d refer to science to give us the answers. A lady’s Body Mass Index will be the best indication of where she is with her health. If she strikes the balance right, then she ought to slip in a two piece straight away - irrespective of a spare tyre or two. If, on the other hand she’s pushing above a BMI of thirty - not only may she want to reconsider that Sari - but also whether she’s burning off whatever she’s putting in. The actresses are dancing about, but what exercise are the rest of us getting?
A woman’s body used to represent her standing in life - the fuller her figure - the better. Today this ideology is ambivalent and out of the window. Some women diet excessively to exert personal control on their bodies others eat their feelings. These habits aren’t exclusive to women - yet it’s making people very confused as to where they fit on the spectrum. There isn’t every going to be a clear answer. One way of going about it may be to ask a man if he prefers Kareena Kapoor over Rakhi Sawant - whatever answer he gives - be careful to take it with a pinch of sodium-reduced salt (it absorbs less water).