I grew up in a traditional middle-class family in the immediate post-Independence years, when equality was the buzzword in families such as ours.
Women could and indeed were encouraged to do everything that the younger males were doing, except participate in sports. Taking part in a relay race or leading the Independence Day parade in our all-girl schools was as far as we went. Oh yes, there was also swinging from low branches and racing home with the siblings, up and down many twisting goat paths. But that was made possible by the fact that we were growing up in a remote hill town, and were usually not chaperoned while walking back from school. Most girls in our school were petite and pale and shunned the sun as it could ‘ruin’ a girl’s complexion and reduce her attractiveness.
Once we were out of school, we were packed off to an eminent university where we were to enter co-educational classes. Here, most of us became even more ‘proper’ young ladies. We moved about in little groups, took care of our complexion by avoiding the sun and were embarrassed if asked to run and catch a bus or train or jump over puddles like a villager. Games such as tennis and golf were only remotely charming to us, and if we went to see the inter-university matches, it was largely because some of the players, according to the hostel grapevine, were good-looking with supple, athletic bodies. However, sporty girls in university hockey and cricket teams were considered somewhat androgynous and plain (read uninteresting for men), even by the girls.
This is perhaps why most women in my generation grew up believing that the most important thing about our bodies was not fitness but how others ‘saw’ it. It was as if the power lay in our ability to appear almost physically challenged and thus bring out the atavistic Tarzan instincts among men to protect the weaker sex. Appearances, we gathered, were more important than robust health, and most girls’ hostels had their share of closet anorexics and bulimics.
Literature and cinema, I am afraid, also did not support the case for physical fitness among young women. Popular serialized fiction routinely described the heroines as seen through the male gaze. It stressed that men were always attracted to good-looking and frail women, not to strong-willed, assertive ones. Men, so popular wisdom went, were always more interested in women’s appearance: clothes, hairdos and accessories. In contrast to the heroes, whose desires were palpably physical and articulated matter of factly, the most popular and uncommonly beautiful heroines—Dharmvir Bharti’s Sudha (in Gunahon Ka Devta) and Sharad Chandra’s Paro (in Devdas), were ethereal beauties who seemed to live entirely within their heads. As we read the novel and later saw various film versions of Devdas, we wept over the genteel sorrows of Paro-like girls. Strangely, we ignored how the non-athletic bodies of the Paros were actually appreciated for being weak (ladylike was the term used, though), but later this very weakness which made them attractive trivialized their genuine urge to rebel and walk out of badly arranged marriages.
When I travelled abroad, I realized that while there may be cultural differences between us and European and American women, the male-female inequality templates as defined by popular culture were similar. All seemed to agree that good-looking women must not appear to be physically strong in the way men were. Even in Washington of the 1970s, around the time Ms magazine was launched, women were still valued for a strong character and a delicate build. The fashion icon those days was an impossibly thin, anorexic model called Twiggy, and most stylish women agreed with the saying that one could never be too rich or too thin.
Things, I realize, have not changed much over the years. In fact, the longer you live, the more you realize that the belief in great differences between the physical capacities of men and women is actually a part of a clever mindgame civilizations play. All women therefore, must be sturdy as vehicles of procreation and nursing young ones to adulthood. But if rebellion is to be forestalled, they must be made to revert to feeling weak and inadequate before and after procreation. Among the farming communities and cattle herders, especially, where all women are expected to put in hard labour in the fields during their childbearing years when their physical strength is most stretched, various other myths like that of the Earth Mother, eternally patient and steady, eternally suffering as Demeter, Medini or Sita have been circulated. But we find that the moment the Indian families get out of the poverty rut and become upwardly mobile, the women are made to revert to purdah and encouraged to emulate the physical appearance of their prosperous sisters by fasting and observing various rituals of self-denial.
Whether big-hipped or narrow, big-bosomed or flat, the popular female ideal remains man-made, ultimately weakening and therefore rationally unacceptable by women. It now needs a band of confident middle-aged women, past their childbearing years, who have also acquired a certain authority as grey-haired mothers, to destroy this particular myth for their daughters. But respect for real strength will take some time to be introduced to a country where more women still dream of becoming an Aishwarya rather than a Malleswari.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.