Apr 11, 2009

Am I So Pretty?

A cute little girl peers into the mirror and asks her father if he thinks she is pretty. She tells him that nobody looks at her (possibly due to her obviously visible spectacles). She remembers how she willed the little boy seated beside her to look in her direction, but he doesn't. The next day, her father arrives at school in a brand new Maruti Suzuki "Dzire", and picks her up right from the middle of her classes. As the car moves out of the school porch, she is delighted to see scores of her fellow students clamouring for a look at her (or was it the car?). She asks her father, this time in a thoroughly upbeat tone, with just a tinge of vanity, "Am I so pretty?" The background score goes, "Take a look at me now."

Now this ad left me shocked, and not to mention disgusted. Shocked because the ad had one of the cutest little girls I have seen on TV saying those lines and portraying those feelings. A child - who should be spending her time playing and studying and making new friends and discovering new wonders, instead of fussing before the mirror or vying for a classmate's attention. Disgusted because of the advertising world's obsession with the feminine to sell any and every product. Never mind if this time it was a little girl instead of another of those models with unrealistic bodies and unrealistic emotions.

Every channel we flip to and every show we watch is interspersed with a plethora of ads. Almost all of them (and the exceptions are right on top of the 'highly endangered ads' list) use women and their body parts to sell everything from food to toiletries to cars to men's underclothes. Any women's magazine one may open is full of articles earnestly proclaiming that if a woman can only just lose those so many 'extra' kilos, she'll have it all - a perfect marriage, a doting spouse, loving children, amazing sex, and a rewarding career. Bliss lay all this while in the race to size-zero (or even negative), while I ran after chocolate and friends and fun and love. How naive of me! Phoo!

Discriminatory, unrealistic, and even insulting standards of beauty are imposed on women, a majority of who are naturally larger and more mature than any of the models. Ever wondered why? The roots to this practice are clearly economic. By presenting a target of outward appearance that is obviously difficult (sometimes impossible) to achieve and maintain, the cosmetic and fitness industries are assured of growth and profits. It is no coincidence that flawless youth is increasingly promoted as the most essential criterion of beauty. Either all women need to lose weight, or they are ageing. If nothing, their complexion has yet not reached that perfect shade. According to the industry, age is a disaster that needs to be dealt with.

The stakes are huge. On one hand, women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy the products that promise them socially acceptable standards of beauty. On the other hand, a deliberately constant exposure to images of stereotyped female bodies that are presumably deemed acceptable by society's yardstick may culminate in loss of self-esteem and the development of an alarmingly unhealthy lifestyle in women. Worse, the age profile of these women gets younger every passing day; it has begun to influence girls as young as 5. The evidence - the ad I mentioned at the start.

What is perhaps the most disturbing facet to this image-consciousness is the fact that media images of female beauty are unattainable for all but a very small number of women. Recently, researchers in the USA generated a computer model of a woman with Barbie-doll proportions. The study found that if such a woman were to exist, her back would be unable to support the weight of her upper body, and her body would be too narrow to contain more than half a liver and just a few centimeters of bowel. Incidentally, the small and large intestines together are a total of upto 8.5 meters in length. Such a woman would therefore suffer from perpetual chronic diarrhoea and eventually die from malnutrition. Frightened? Here's more. A Mattel study also indicates that 99% girls aged 3-10 years own a Barbie doll, or at the least have seen one.

The deluge of overt and covert messages about warped ideas of beauty tells 'ordinary' women that they are always in need of adjustment, that their body is an object to be perfected. These overwhelming reminders mean that real women's bodies have become invisible in popular media. The real tragedy is that many women internalize these stereotypes and begin to judge themselves by these standards. They learn to compare themselves to other women and compete with them for male attention. This focus on beauty and desirability insidiously destroys any awareness and action that might help to change this situation. Women across ages and ethnicities get and stay trapped in this vicious circle, a proverbial catch-22 situation.

Like a whiff of fresh air comes the Women's Horlicks ad with Konkona Sen Sharma as the face of the product. The film shows Konkona waking in the morning and beginning her day with running down a a list of things to do. She is shown taking up one task after another - from household chores to professional responsibilities. As the day passes, she looks at the myriad notes that she had made at the day's start, and realises that she forgot about herself. A voice-over says, "Aaj is badi si list ne chhoti si baat ka ehsaas dila diya. Apni hi list main apna naam nahin." Konkona enjoys a cup of the drink and indulges in a variety of pursuits for her health. The ad ends with her proclaiming, "Because your body needs you too."

It is high time we women (and our men) begin to look at ourselves as a whole person and not focus on body parts. We deserve to do things that we enjoy, no matter what shape or size we are. We can begin by understanding that images and stereotypes portrayed by the media are created for a commercial purpose and are not reflections of reality. This understanding must also be shared within our family and other social units to avoid misconceptions and dissonance in thought. We can encourage ourselves and each other to think beyond traditional stereotypes. For instance, instead of complimenting someone or ourselves by saying, "You/I look great/ pretty today", we can actually say, "You/I did a great job today". This would help widen the range of appeal beyond the aesthetics to grounded realism. Lastly, everyone should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.

Consider this. What would life be if not a melange of different people - truly different and not assembly-line products similar in appearance? Variety, as they say, certainly is the spice of life! So let us all be different and celebrate the fact. Surely, love and laughter, and not external appearances, make the world go round.

Now go watch this, rejoice the fact that you aren't there yet, and promise yourself you never will be.

"Then be bold and love your body and stop fixing it. It was never broken."

- Eve Ensler, "The Good Body

The comments on the advertisement of "Maruti Suzuki Dzire" do not necessarily become applicable to the actual product. The description is also not intended to discourage purchase of the same.

Source: Media Awareness Network
Video Courtesy: JaagoRi


Indian Homemaker said...

I saw that ad and had the same reaction! I am surprised it is not yet stopped, some of these ads are outrageous in so many ways...
This one was shockingly dumb on top of everything.

Indian Homemaker said...

And I always say, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, it is ridiculous to expect unhealthy Barbie clones to make the world a better looking place.

Nice post!

Surbhi said...

We have many more ads running that should be stopped. Shockingly, I find people seeing nothing wrong in this ad, instead accusing me of finding fault with everything! No wonder the ad still runs and girls fret over how 'desirable' they look.

Surbhi said...

Of course, we all have every right to do whatever we wish to with our bodies, including beauty and weight. Trouble begins when (a) it is done to please others, especially men, and (b) it starts becoming an obsession.

Anonymous said...

Dont fuss over everything. The ad is good and not all girls should look like konkana. Girls always fret over there looks and you cannot deny that. Its so basic human tendency.you write good and keep doing that but dont become hyper women concious snob. Naveen

Indian Home Maker said...

You were right Surbhi :)

I have moved to Wordpress, this is my new address, do drop in for a cup of tea :)


Indyeah said...

Good post Surbhi and yes That ad was just palin dumb! IHM has said it all...why do we have this need in society to define beauty?Beauty could be in so many faces,people ....why have one definition?:(

Indian Home Maker said...

Surbhi, please Guess and Win the 55 Words Fiction Correct Guess Award


Surbhi said...

Anon aka Naveen:
You are the one I was telling IHM about! So thanks for validating my comment!
You say, "not all girls should look like konkana". I can only feel sorry for the way you have been brought up to think this way! And tell me, since when did anyone give you the authority to decide how someone should or should not look?
As much as I appreciate your taking the time to read my post and comment here, I will not tolerate taking advice from you. Whether I am a 'hyper women concious snob' (whatever that means to you) or not is and should be none of your business. Don't tell me what to do or say or write, or what to fuss or not fuss over. Don't ever.

Surbhi said...

Thanks for the warm invite for tea! Did drop in a while ago, and the new space smelled just like home! (((hugs)))

Surbhi said...

IHM indeed said everything, and so did Mr. Anon! The latter is the ready audience for these stupid ads and everything else.

Surbhi said...

You said, "please Guess and Win". Just guessed. Now when do I get my winnings? LOL...

Indian Home Maker said...

Today the results should be out :)
I made it sound like all those spams we get,making us the lucky winners' offers :))

Surbhi said...

Awesome! Can hardly wait! Hooray!

Solilo said...

I watched it and have the same reaction. Not only this but many advts. just put women down. People come in all shapes and sizes. Some are naturally thin, some fat, some dark, some fair. Why this bias? So sad that it is always girls and women.

Recently there is an advt. of Loreal perfect whiteness endorsed by Sonam Kapoor where she maintained that it is something to clear blemishes but advt. is again to increase whiteness. :(
Hated that Ponds advt. by Priyanka Chopra too.

These women found success with their dusky skin then why the need to endorse a fairness cream?

Surbhi said...

You are so right. That Ponds ad by Priyanka, Saif and Neha was sick, not to mention downright dumb! I mean what the hell kind of achievement do you make if you are fair and/or slim, that you cannot if you are dark and/or fat?
There was this other ad for some stupid anti-blemish cream where an obviously dark girl with very obvious skin blemishes was berated and insulted by this insane screaming aunty who was in a mad fit of rage. The aunty, interestingly, was neither slim nor beautiful. Aunty threw stuff at the blemished girl, all the while screaming in a deranged manner, "Chehra dekha hai apna? Kaun shaadi karega aise chehre ke saath?" I mean, WTF? Really, WTF?

akshay said...

Hi Surbhi,
Just stumbled upon your blog!
Nice post. And i completely concur, and this phenomena is rampant across Asia (and i will personally vouch for this...i have been evaluating advertising for clients as well as to understand changing paradigms in masculinity and femininity across S and SE Asia)

What i find truly appalling is the fact that instead of communicating 'beauty comes in all shapes and sizes' the ad seems to be furthering the fact that one needs the crutch of a car to get attention rather than ones persona or 'real' self

Really admire Dove for talking about 'real beauty', celebrating aging etc...alas, the same organization makes horrible ads for Axe!!

Anyway, my 2 cents!