She sings like an angel, but doesn’t make the cut in the looks department. So, Lin Miaoke, the cute, pony-tailed girl in a red dress at the Olympics opening ceremony, hailed by almost everyone as “spectacular”, and who became a national rage overnight, did so because she lip-synchs with absolute perfection.
The voice that captivates the planet is not that of Lin but of Yang Peiyi, a seven-year-old who, alas, has crooked teeth and chubby cheeks which are deemed to not be in the “best interest of the nation”. So, Yang sings like an angel, Lin looks like one and you have a perfect Lin-Yang equation.
Later, the ceremony’s musical designer, Chen Qigang comes clean: “We wanted to project the right image,” he is quoted saying. “The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression.”
Oh the outrage that follows!
“Unethical”, “fake”, and an “insult to talent” are some of the milder epithets. China is already taking a beating for faking a part of its opening ceremony fireworks display for a TV audience. And the bypassing of Yang for a more photogenic alternative really seems to be the last straw.
Somehow, all the sound and fury leaves me cold. I am taken aback by the obvious double standards over the fuss, much of it coming from the West where presidential candidates since the time of Richard Nixon wouldn’t dream of appearing on television without make-up, where image consultants make thousands of dollars by telling celebrity clients what colour best suits their personalities and where magazines devote pages and pages full of articles with such gems as dressing for success and what to wear on your first interview.
If anything, the Lin-Yang episode brings home our obsession with looking good; the globalization of image, as it were. From San Francisco to Shenzhen, we live in a society that judges us (women more than men, though nobody is exempt) on the basis of how we look—young or old, thin or fat. And we’ve begun increasingly to believe that the image we project will, in fact, determine everything, from our jobs to our state of mind. And increasingly the way we feel we should look is determined by global minders with little regard for ethnic or cultural disparities.
Last week also, a division bench of the Delhi high court upheld an earlier ruling that said our national airline, Indian, was within its rights to ground overweight air hostesses.
“If by perseverance snail could reach the Ark, why can’t these worthy ladies stand on and turn the scale?” asked justice Rekha Sharma in the earlier ruling. The division bench seemed to uphold the view and observed: “Statistics reveal that overweight persons face constant challenges including remarks from strangers, discrimination at work, lower self-esteem and poor body image.”
There is the argument that overweight airhostess (and surely also their male colleagues) might not be at their optimal fitness levels and this could have disastrous consequences in the event of an on-air disaster. Fair enough. But fitness is not always related to weight, and no one is talking about subjecting flying crew to fitness tests. So, private airlines have the “freedom” to hire little, wispy girls who can fit into tight skirts. And at Indian, we make do with, umm, matronly ladies whom we judge by the weighing scale, not skill and experience.
On the day, Chinese officials were getting roasted for foisting one girl’s voice on another girl’s face, I happened to drop by at Ansal Plaza. The south Delhi mall was celebrating a “Princess Day”, and sure enough the place was buzzing with anxious mothers and daughters dressed in lace taffeta dresses and bright pink lipstick. At what point would these little girls become commodities for the cosmetic and skincare industry? At what point would they chase impossible ideals of beauty to develop body image issues? And at what point would they begin to believe that if they were only slimmer, prettier, younger they would snag the ultimate prize of a great marriage, doting children and—as a bonus—a rewarding career?
But can you seriously imagine a mall celebrating Leadership Day or Compassionate Person Day? Would there be sponsors for such an event? Or, for that matter, even public support?
Yang Peiyi responded well to the disappointment of not appearing before a global audience. “I am proud to have been chosen to sing at all,” she is reported to have said.
Smart girl. In an ideal world what should count is talent, not appearance. But in the real world, we play by other rules.
Why blame China?
To read all of Namita Bhandare’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/lookingglass
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org