Editor’s Note: This month, that is July 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism And Body Image, where we invite various articles about the diverse range of experiences which we often confront, with respect to our bodies in private or public spaces, or both.. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Dr. Neha Nimble
The ongoing celebration as well as the backlash surrounding the dropping of the word ‘fair’ from the brand name ‘Fair & Lovely’ is suggestive of the possible progression of our collectively colonised mindsets beyond colourism. I am hopeful that the rebranding may perhaps be a step towards reducing colorism and the backlash against mere semantic changes might also move the discourse forward. However, what troubles me is that the whole push for such rebranding originates in the notion that beauty matters and in the discourse which asserts that dark is beautiful too; and that fair does not equate success and conversely, dusky does not mean failure.
In other words, it is a fall-out of the belief that ‘everyone is beautiful’. Fat persons (yes, I am comfortable using the word fat because fat is a value-free word for me), trans persons, dalits (how often have we heard, ‘looking like bhangi/ chamar’) people with disabilities, persons with burqa and skull caps, aged and ageing persons (and all axes of physical differentiation) are all beautiful. While I believe people are saying this out of very good intentions to show they care about us, they value us (no matter what our BMI is), I agree to disagree.
Not everyone is beautiful. There are people who are not beautiful and it is okay. Everybody is born with different attributes and beauty is just one of them. Not everyone has an athletic body or imaginative mind. Naomi Wolf in ‘The Beauty Myth’ asserts that while beauty is undefinable, an objective measure of beauty exists and we are all conforming to and contributing to construction of a very narrow definition of ‘beauty’. The world has already defined and limited the value accorded to the word ‘beautiful’ and therefore, the more we use it, the more we are adhering to the normative value attached to this word. In this context, the moment we attach value to physical traits and call them beautiful, we are saying that beauty matters.
When different aspects of varied body types (for instance, greying hair or wrinkly skin) are called beautiful, ultimately what we are doing is reducing bodies to their physicality and undermining the other capacities and performances that bodies are capable of. And that is not okay. What is rather okay is that one does not have a ‘beautiful’ body. So, I don’t quite agree with the body positivity movement and would rather push for body neutrality which accords value to other aspects of life rather than appearance. Can we see beyond how bodies look and stop our desperate attempts to compartmentalise every ‘body’ and its parts into the bracket of ‘beauty’? Because, it is not the kind of inclusion which matters.
Why is ‘beautiful’ perhaps the most or one of the most used words to positively describe a woman?
All of us have a lot many other traits that can be used to compliment us, to make us feel good about ourselves. We don’t use other words because the value attached to ‘beauty’ is owned, controlled and manipulated by a powerful capitalist world (for which semantic changes are the best they can do). When we are attaching value to beauty, we are empowering a culture that thrives on shoving beauty on everybody. Beauty does not exist in isolation, it is instituted and sustained by the systems of patriarchy, varna system, racism and capitalism. In beauty and its normativity, these systems have found a tool that commodifies and governs gender.
One might argue that increasingly men are being called beautiful too. But we also know that most of them squirm at such a compliment and would be rather called smart, muscular, handsome and other traditional ‘male compliments’. When targeted at a male, beauty continues to be an accepted trait only until a very young age and I have seen many pre-teen boys being uncomfortable seeing ‘undoing’ of their other physical traits when called a ‘beautiful child’. So, somehow, the inclusivity of non-physical, gender neutral traits in common usage of the adjective ‘beautiful’ is laid bare.
Being beautiful is thus a performance attributed primarily to female gender. Our obsession with making (and marking) women beautiful is an act in performativity (as explained to us by Judith Butler) and such obsession normalises this attribute as belonging to female gender and cis/queer persons. In our never ending pursuit of ‘beauty’ for all (dusky persons, fat persons, trans-persons, elderly persons, and other identity categories), we are constantly engaging in identity performance to alter appearance. The danger is that while we attempt to mark many and varied axes of physicality as beautiful, the others that are left behind (and there always will be some that will fall out of this pursuit) are marginalised as bodies as well as people who inhabit them.
So, it is okay if one is not beautiful. One cannot do anything about it, one does not have to. I am not arguing against someone being called beautiful, I am arguing against the notion that beauty matters the most and we should just treat it as one of the attributes people are born with. Physical attributes of my body are given; I can only accept and focus on those aspects which matter (a functional hand or a thinking brain). Let’s compliment our achieved traits and increase usage of compliments like well educated, creative, kind or imaginative or articulate; after all, we work very hard to achieve these!
Based in Pune, Dr. Neha Nimble is a feminist researcher. She has undertaken researches on issues relating to gender, social exclusion, livelihood vulnerabilities, domestic work, juvenile justice and human trafficking. She has published research papers and academic content modules. In her free time, she finds herself travelling, baking or gardening. You can find her on Facebook or write to her at email@example.com.
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