Racial and gender politics are simmering across the globe. This year has also been particularly intense for so-called body activists. A growing movement to counter the uncouth barbs of body-shamers, they rebel against long-seeded popular notions about the ideal (female) body.
Given the objectionable labelling that has come her way and the manner in which she has used her stature, talent, fame and personal resilience to slap back, tennis legend Serena Williams is the unquestioned poster girl of this movement. Not just through rhetoric.
Assertions about her positive body image and her anti-racist comments are now a part of her dialogue with the world of course. She also appears in couture creations that show off her extraordinary muscles. Even on the day she lost to Italian player Roberta Vinci at the US Open last week, she told Time magazine’s Sean Gregory why strong was beautiful. In fact, she named her body parts: legs, breasts, waist and butt while laughing and repeating how much she loved herself.
Plus-size American model and lingerie designer Ashley Graham, also a body activist went on TED Talks a few months back to make a similar point. Graham has been on the cover of many a magazine, including the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated this year. But as she rightly points out, in the never-doused craze for thin and beautiful, “only two per cent women find themselves beautiful” across the world. In her talk, Graham spoke about the incredulity of the global fashion standard where everything from size 8 to 16 is “plus”.
It is a moot issue of the female body in contemporary popular culture. So after the third edition of the Plus Size fashion week in London that just took place, fashion and political commentators wondered whether there should be a separate event for bigger women or if it would actually become a reason to discriminate against “otherness”. Shouldn’t mainstream fashion ramps involve models with diverse bodies, mirroring the body diversity in real life, they asked. France has a legislation against using fashion models below a certain body mass index (BMI).
In India though, there is no such talk. No whisper or concern about body activism. No prime time television debate, no fashion week conversation on body diversity. On the one hand is the unbelievable continuance of seasoned models walking for years with Noyonika Chatterjee symbolic of the “older” group. On the other is the unmemorable fading in and fading out of young, unexceptional Indian and foreign girls who take to the ramp every season after auditions. Their physical requirements remain the same: tall and thin. Let’s just leave fair out of the way for now.
On 10 September, at the auditions held by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) for its spring/summer 2016 fashion week next month, the audition dress code for aspirant models included singlet, short skirt, hot pants, stilettos, heels. Minimum height mandated: 5’8”. It was spelt out on the FDCI website. This dress code defines the type of body required to compete. The photograph of the selected bunch of lean, leggy girls posing with the jury is testament to the fact that there is no space for plus-size on the Indian ramp.
We are a peculiar fashion market, no doubt. Our irrepressible love for a certain kind of culturally comforting clothing while leaning out to the world (read the West) has given rise to hybrids like the lehnga gown, the trouser sari, the cowl pant among others. We like mix-ups, mashups, collaborations—a little bit of “them” and a lot of “us” is the tried and tested recipe. We clap loudly when star shoemaker Christian Louboutin joins hands with our couturiers or when an Indian designer wins an international contest.
But when it comes to voicing strong socio-political statements we become reluctant, even uninterested. Some designers bring “real people” to the ramp—singers, guitarists, painters, bloggers, but the nameless fashion model, the ultimate clothes horse whether on the ramp or on the fashion magazine cover remains barreled inside the same parameters. Never mind if the fattest segment of India’s consumer market comprises large-sized women who are happily indulged by designers in their retail roll out.
Visible divergence and the ownership of dissent are still not among the Indian fashion industry’s strengths. It may also be one of the reasons why it is so hard to pin down what’s new and what’s old in our fashion even as some new girls wear some new clothes every season.
This series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words. Shefalee Vasudev is the author of Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion.