Stigma cannot be easily scrubbed away. Neither can it be surgically removed. Instead it must be managed through a series of clever time-tested ploys: having a stage name (Erving Goffman, the stigma theorist once said “the average chorus girl changes her name as frequently as her coiffure”), constructing sympathetic biographies, hiding what they do from strangers and the landlord, having a disclosure etiquette (“I model sometimes” or “I model for friends”), maintaining a physical distance from neighbours, relatives and hometowns, marrying smart, using “dis-identifiers” that help break the stereotype (wearing glasses, “I come from a family of doctors”, “I love reading’, ‘I wear a salwar kameez and no make up otherwise’), and when all else fails, shutting themselves out, wearing dark glasses all the time.

I think often of what the 27-year-old Ruhi described to me. Ruhi lived in the satellite town of Ghaziabad and had been modelling for about six years. To come to Delhi for her meetings and auditions, she would travel to Delhi in the local bus. She needed to be fully covered and as inconspicuous as possible, as a way of avoiding stares or harassment so she would wear an extra jacket or shirt over her audition outfit, and have a scarf to cover her face up so the make up was hidden. If she got harassed in the bus, she said, she would get off and take an auto to another bus stop, and take another bus from there.

But there were other problems too: “The problem is that if you’re standing in a bus stand for a long time, people start noticing you...” So Ruhi would take another auto to another bus stop, to avoid this. This was hard, given she was usually carrying a big poly-bag containing her work profile, heels, shirt, jacket and so on.

As she reached her audition venue, she would ask “if there is a loo somewhere” and go into the toilet to comb her hair, put on makeup, take off the multiple coverings and wipe clean the evidence of the journey: the dirt on her face, the sweat, the wind battered hair. And be ready to be the cynosure of all eyes.

How much longer can we live like Ruhi, between “spectacle and surveillance”? Like so many other young women in India, she stands between being a spectacle for the media, clients and potential clients where she is encouraged to present herself as a subject of desire, but under surveillance by the general public, even family, relatives, community which is ready to punish her for the same.

When can we stop being different people in different places to avoid stigma and its devastating impacts?

In the end, one question at the heart of my research remained. Are women in the glamour industry, like the illusion created by the Sushmita Sens and the Aishwarya Rais, empowered? Is it really about “women’s empowerment” as the Managing Director of the Miss India pageant in the television debate insisted? Even after all these pages this is a difficult question to answer. To quote economist Amartya Sen “Given the many faces of gender inequality, much would depend on which face we look at.”

We’ve seen that the glamour industry gives women models a lower status, and Indian society, with its double standards doesn’t hold them in very good stead. They often have a troubled personal life because of this. Despite this, most of the women I interviewed were economically independent, socially visible, role models for many young women, enjoying material comforts, travelling the world, supporting their families or occasionally their own lifestyles, with many of them living their own lives as they chose and, challenging many traditional norms.

But the stigma associated with their occupation (displaying the self, body parts or posing sensually) charged their personal relationships with a damaging current. At the same time, many also unlearnt years of socialised shame about their body, learning to look at it, care for it and display it objectively. Sometimes, this sexual subjectivity over the years turned into a tendency to make independent sexual choices in their personal lives.

Yet the stigma that won’t rub off led many to have an ambiguous relationship with their occupation: proud of it and ashamed of it at the same time.

Female desire or a feminist understanding doesn’t find place in advertising or fashion as such, and the glamour industry largely confines itself to the enactment of female sexuality for male desire at the macro level (or enactment of class for female consumers). But at the micro level it still involves engagement with self and sexuality that challenges patriarchy and offers women the potential to discover sexual autonomy, dismantle patriarchal shame and experience sexuality as a site for some sort of liberation from traditional strictures and roles.

Empowerment means many things, from the dry language of policy to the visible evidence of resources or independent living. There are umpteen items in this laundry list: economic independence, quality of life, sense of self-worth, security, autonomy in decision making, opportunities for skill building and so on. What isn’t on this list though, and never has been, is something more visceral and less tangible. Something that renders the empowerment of even the most empowered, incomplete. That missing element is respectability.

Being perceived and judged as immoral, hypersexual, deviant, public, available and the like leaves most models with a deep sense of what can be described as “hurt”.

Recent feminist literature has started recognising that like pain (a powerful concept to understand the unsaid in women’s lived experiences), hurt too has a role to play in keeping women away from living fulfilled lives. “Hurt” is beyond just a sense of sadness, it can be a violation of the spirit, “an everyday unspoken and yet nonetheless frequent aspect of resistance and constraint in women’s lives”.

Even after everything is said and done, a void remains. This void is the absence of respectability, played out with words and gestures, the slut-shaming that shuts women up and locks up their key to being free. Women don’t want to subscribe to the old patriarchal notions of shame, honour or respect, but there is a longing, a searing anger, a deep deep well of desire to be respectable, to enjoy a sense of dignity and self-worth that is not challenged by strangers or suspected by lovers.

Excerpted with permission from Mannequin: Working Women In India’s Galmour Industry, Manjima Bhattacharjya, Zubaan.