Bollywood and body image

I have a friend who regularly trashes Sonakshi Sinha by calling her names such as haathi. Every time, I defend Sonakshi Sinha and argue that we should commend her for embracing her body, rather than giving in and losing weight as convention demands. Sadly, it’s not just this one person who makes such comments and the comments are not restricted only to Sonakshi Sinha. We feel entitled to judge Bollywood actors for their bodies and we hold them up to standards which are incredibly narrow: The women must appear slim and toned. They must not appear too muscular and definitely should not have six-pack abs. On the other hand, abs are totally, absolutely, completely mandatory for men. And unlike the average Indian man, they must be as hairless as a plucked chicken. I remember Kajol in Mere Khawbon Main – No Bollywood actor would dare to wear something like today without losing that flab..Perhaps Vidya Balan when in character. When did we start accepting a certain body type as the norm in Bollywood? It seems to have kicked off in the mid 1990s, when Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen made the transition from modelling into Bollywood. Around the same time, Rangeela released and we were taken with the style and costumes. Bollywood styling really took off after that and female actors portrayed an urban elite that existed in a parallel universe, where slim, stylish women could walk the streets in their teeny meeny clothes. Bollywood became a great platform to showcase local design talent, but there was suddenly a demand for a certain body type… one that could model these clothes effectively. Now, the industry is inundated with people who look like models and Bollywood is seen as a natural progression for models. It was probably the release of Dhoom in 2004 that started the bikini trend in Bollywood. Suddenly, everyone wanted their heroines to wear a bikini. This was purely sensationalist and sexist behaviour but the bigger problem was that filmmakers demanded that their heroines lose weight for a bikini scene. This is what happens when boys grow up looking at swimsuit calendars and go on to make films as adults. They think all women should look like that in a bikini. The audience learned quickly from this and bikinis and belly-baring became the sole right of women with toned tummies. Then in 2007 Kareena Kapoor and Yash Raj gave rise to the idiotic size zero trend and we were flooded with size zero diets and work outs. Such behaviour was admired because Kareena “did it for the role” but let’s be real – Tashan was no Cast Away or Black Swan. Shahrukh Khan also suspended his acting, dancing skills and charisma to get abs for Om Shanti Om. It’s not enough to be the most successful actor in Bollywood, you must now also look like a Mr. World contestant. The endorsement of products by Bollywood actors has also perpetuated this mindset. Deepika Padukone was pushing Special K in an advert recently, saying she used it to lose weight for a wedding (I highly doubt she relies on Special K to look the way she does). This sends so many horrible messages: 1) You need to lose weight to look good 2) Forget about wearing a sari unless you have a flat stomach 3) Special K is an acceptable way of losing weight (it’s not – It’s like eating dessert for breakfast). Jezebel featured a useful piece on the Special K diet. I do feel that the female actors have it worse. As a man, you can be ordinary looking and be considered a serious actor (Eg Irrfan Khan, Arshad Warsi, Boman Irani) but in most cases, the women are expected to look a certain way. If you don’t match the convention (as in the case of  Vidya Balan), people will comment on your physique. They may eventually accept you  but not before much commenting and finger pointing. This is not just an industry thing – If you look at the comments sections of Pink Villa and High Heel Confidential, you will see ordinary people commenting, “She is in the public eye now, so she needs to look a certain way. This is her job”. What’s worse is that a lot of these comments come from women. Why does this happen? We have been conditioned to a certain body type. First, girls and women judge their own bodies by these narrow standards. Then, Bollywood repeatedly gives them the message that they can’t get the man, money and lifestyle without being slim. When the women inevitably fail to meet these standards, they feel bad about themselves. Inevitably, there will be a backlash when they see a plump female actor taking a shot at “having it all”. Am I reaching for the stars? I am not arguing that Bollywood actors should look like “real, curvy” women – After all, what does a “real woman” look like? I’d just like for Bollywood to represent good actors – Including those that are fat, thin, plump, skinny, muscular, short, tall, bald or hairy. So, what are the consequences? This trend is making us more healthy and fitness conscious but this is a positive side effect of the bigger negative issue at hand: Bollywood is giving us a body image problem. Men want women like Deepika Padukone and women want men like John Abraham. What’s worse: in-laws are demanding that their potential bahus should look like Deepika Padukone. Our patriarchal society gives in-laws a power that they abuse shamelessly. Losing weight is seen as a prerequisite for girls who are “ready to get married”. Well, 99% of Indian people do not and cannot look like Bollywood actors. What can you do? Don’t buy into the Bollywood myth and think twice before judging Sonakshi Sinha.

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2 comments

  1. I feel the same and have had a series of first hand incidents when people have stressed to me that if I lost weight I would look pretty. Let me share :-
    I had to meet a suitor and his dad for coffee a couple of months ago. This meeting took place at a coffee shop in a mall. I had no idea what I was in for as this was the first round of “potential husband” meeting that I was experiencing. While getting ready for this event; I thought to myself I am a confident young lady with much to offer, I should meet this prospect with an open mind and see how things could work out in terms of our lifestyle, career goals, shared interests etc. My mother and me were made to wait for the father-son duo at the coffee shop for around 30 odd minutes. As soon as the dad approached towards he gave me a quick x-ray look that made me feel un peu uncomfortable. The 4 of us made our way to the coffee table and the son went to the counter to place our coffee orders. This is how the conversation went as soon as we took our seats-
    Father of the boy : “Have you seen my son?”
    Me: “Uhh, yes uncle”
    Father of the boy : “Do you see how thin he is?”
    Me: “uhmm, yeah”
    Father of the boy : “Do you think you would be able to look good standing next to him?”
    Me “I’m sorry I didn’t get what you mean” (I REALLY DIDNT!!)
    Father of the boy : “You know we are from Spain and in Europe people are fit; just being frank and open with you – you wont be able to fit into our society like this.”
    Me: “Thank you sir judging me on how I appear in order to fit your son’s marriage criteria. Definitely not my criteria. Today if I wanted to become thin I could go about and do something about it. God forbid tomorrow there is a physical irreversible change in you/your family member please do realize that what goes around, comes around”
    Of course there was a lot more banter after this; and while I tried not to get affected by what happened I realized how much stress our society puts on pretty being equated to thin and maybe even unhealthily skinny. Its been over a couple of months since this, I have always wanted to be a “fit” girl but never really gave it that much of attention or time. I have moved back home from North America and my lifestyle here permits me to eat healthier food, have time for exercise at least 4 times a week. I would be lying if I said that the above incident did not put a fire towards my fitness motivation, but I try not to let consume me. Its a little alarming how people think if you are thin you are pretty and you are fit. Both beauty and fitness have got nothing to do with being size zero. Fad diets that are promoted by celebrities are a hoax. If you read the nutritional value of Special K its like eating cardboard. High on sugar; highly processed and extremely low on essential nutrients. What cereals like this actually do is give you the perception of being “full” (obviously with the sugar, fructose) and then give you a sugar crash which actually makes you crave and kill yourself for not getting “real food”.
    Recently I met a family friend. I was not well on this day and it quite reflected on my physical appearance. Nonetheless I was also around 5-6 kilos lighter since she had last seen me. The first comment my family friend spurts at me is “You look stunning”. Truth being said – no I didn’t. I was weak with a high fever inside; fighting a bad viral infection, not showered for 2 days and in my hobo sweats and tee.
    I truly hope people start seeing fitness and health in the right way. Being thin or size zero is definitely NOT being pretty, or a pre-requisite for marriage, or being fit, or a criteria for a man to decide how to chose a suitor for his son. Thank you for writing this post Rowdy-Rani 🙂

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