“Historically, feminism and fashion have been pitted against one another,” writes Manjima Bhattacharjya in her book, Mannequin. It’s a dilemma the fashion industry has struggled with for decades – being perceived as flippant, or existing in a vacuum. The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman, who frequently writes about feminism, began her career at the paper’s fashion desk and says the legitimacy of her views is still questioned because of it. “This idea that fashion is fair game for accusations of idiocy has long intrigued me,” she wrote in 2016.

This polarity is something Bhattacharjya personally grappled with. She spent seven years as an activist with Jagori, a Delhi-based feminist group, protesting against the objectification of women’s bodies. She spent the next few on a sociological study of female models in the Indian fashion industry.

In 2004, the Mumbai-based researcher was watching a show on a primetime news channel that was debating whether beauty pageants are an exercise in futility. The panel included a women’s rights activist, a pageant organiser and a former pageant winner. While the organiser spoke about models’ empowerment, the model said that she had been faking her life since she was fourteen to put food on the table. It led Bhattacharjya to ask the question: “How much does a beauty queen actually work?”

New areas of work

Mannequin takes a deep dive into the Indian fashion industry through the stories of the women who work in it. The book is an extension of Bhattacharjya’s doctoral research on the subject. “For my Phd, I was interested in looking at the new areas of work that women were being drawn into in post-globalisation India,” she said in an interview with Scroll.in. “The phenomenon of young women coming in large numbers from all over the country to participate in beauty pageants and the modelling industry was one such area. It was extremely understudied as a social phenomenon – it was interesting how they were so visible everywhere at the time, but also so voiceless.”

In the mid-2000s, Bhattacharjya conducted in-depth interviews with models in different stages of their career, fashion magazine editors, show choreographers, representatives from retail giants and model co-ordinators. A large chunk of the book, based on these interviews, focuses on the models – from the first generation who often came from privileged backgrounds in Mumbai and Delhi to the younger women from medium-sized towns like Agra, Varanasi, and Bhopal. The ethnographic research – studying people by observing them in their natural surroundings – to understand their desires, motivations, their work and how they negotiated public perceptions of who they were, also led Bhattacharjya to immerse herself into the world of female models in India.

“Listening to people tell their stories is a very powerful thing,” she said. “It’s certainly not easy in our country for a girl to do something as simple as move from a small town to a big city and become a model. There are so many levels of negotiations and hoops to jump through. I learned how important financial independence was for these women.”

Barriers and aspirations

Many of the models’ stories highlight a significant fear shared by many successful, independent women in India – getting married and giving up what they do for a living. In her book, Bhattacharjya references the “missing female labour force” and how more and more girls are getting an education in India, but are not joining the workforce or formal employment. “Limits to this kind of independence are set by many barriers, especially gender roles and social norms that decide what women should do – the primary role is to be a dutiful wife and mother, rather than have aspirations and a job,” she elaborated.

In the titular chapter, Bhattacharjya assumes the role of an imaginary agony aunt responding to difficult questions that came up in her conversations with models – the popular perception of them being dumb, family acceptance, equal pay, and “sexploitation”. While being a sociologist meant listening and documenting without giving her opinion, the writer says this format allowed her to respond to many of the things the women shared with her – at least on paper, start a dialogue. “I did face counsellor-type moments, but they were not related to modelling. One woman asked how her friend could deal with an abusive parent, another on tips to travel solo, and another on how to study further. But it was also a two-way street....I received unsolicited advice on how to manage my frizzy hair, my skin, where to go for Tibetan medicine and a good pair of jeans,” she said.

Swati, one of the models that Bhattacharjya spoke to, said she is used to her physical space being invaded by people who come too close to measure and clothe her, or do her make-up. But what really bothers her is the hair loss she’s had from the constant tugging, pulling and styling: “Don’t they realise we are human?”. What it will take, Bhattacharjya asks, for them to be seen not just as a canvas for designers to work on, but as collaborators in a creative project.

A chapter in the book, “The Fantasy Body”, details the pressure to achieve the “model” body, from nose jobs to painful dental treatments. Swati’s quest for perfect teeth has meant that she can no longer bite into apples and her favourite, corn on the cob. For days after her nose job, Mita had difficulty speaking and could only breathe through her mouth. “It sounds like a a superficial process – the market has made it sound so easy,” Bhattacharjya explained. “But the testimonies brought home that these are serious medical procedures with blood, stitches, pain and a lot of painkillers. They have been de-medicalised and brushed up to sound pretty. There’s still so much we don’t know – what a breast implant feels like, or even just Botox fillings.”

In Mannequin, Bhattacharjya writes that India currently stands fourth worldwide in the number of cosmetic surgeries performed, after USA, Brazil and South Korea. Many people believe changing the way they look through surgical procedures results in material benefits – jobs, promotions, or getting married. “Market-driven ideals continue to promote this. Remember the problematic Fair and Lovely ad, in which a girl is able to realise her dream of being a sports newscaster only after using the product and getting a lighter complexion,” she added.

Has anything changed?

Much seems to have changed in the decade since Bhattacharjya embarked on this project. In the book, she writes of an India where conversations about feminism, gender equality and slut shaming are part of the mainstream. But somehow, “we are still where we were.”

“Do models have a union today or mechanisms of redressal for complaints? Have the contexts of the lives of girls changed?” she asked. “Last year the stories that came up when Manushi Chillar from Haryana won Miss World showed how things have changed but are still the same – the stifling patriarchy that continues to exist. Every year I see pictures in Bombay Times of girls lining up to audition for fashion weeks, and they still look like they stepped out of my book.”

Towards the end of the book, Bhattacharjya charts a brief history of feminist movements and moments in the country by speaking to older and younger feminists and writes that “fashion and feminism are, for the moment, allies”. Fashion is being viewed as a mode of creative expression, and there’s greater value placed on women’s agency. As one activist puts it, feminism is more diffused now – the focus has shifted from beauty pageants and objectification to the everyday battle against persistent sexism and discrimination.

“The questions that feminism asks of fashion – about the problematic body images it perpetrates, the pressure to look a certain way, being complicit in mindless consumerism – still stand,” Bhattacharjya said. “But I feel we are living in a time when the bigger picture is more important – right wing conservatism, increasing control over what women say or do or wear, the attack on democratic institutions, a politics of violence and hate. And in this sense, they are allies in challenging these.”