Globally, the conversation about women’s issues peaks around Women’s Day on March 8 and is being taken more seriously of late. Almost every year, since my college days, I have participated in some way or the other in Women’s Day events or marches. And over the years, I have heard women’s voices getting louder and being increasingly heard. Yet, an Indian woman’s life continues to be marked by many forms of violence and indignities, even before she is born – be it foeticide, infanticide, gender disparities in health and education, sexual abuse, child marriage, dowry harassment, domestic violence, rape, trafficking and more.

As I am currently travelling in the United States, the distance is perhaps freeing me from getting overwhelmed by these narratives. When I look around at women here and think of those that inhabit my world back home, my attention is drawn to everyday pressures of “looking good”. So, I am choosing to voice my concern about it, with full awareness that in the larger scheme of things we have bigger issues to grapple with. While it may seem unimportant in itself, the idea of beauty creates an insidious environment that women have to face every day and that affects our other struggles too.

My tour of eight top universities, including Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Yale, is almost coming to an end, at Cornell. I have been screening Manto and sharing the journey of making it. It triggered many conversations, around identity, censorship and nationalism. But before every event I had to think about was what to wear and how I should look. And such thoughts always make me uncomfortable. How one is to “look” is fairly low on my list of priorities and definitely even less on a tour such as this. Therefore, I am choosing to share something more personal and seemingly insignificant.

Nandita Das speaks at an event during her university tour in the United States. Photo courtesy Nandita Das
Nandita Das speaks at an event during her university tour in the United States. Photo courtesy Nandita Das

Not just for actors, but even for a professor at a university, an office clerk, a scientist, or a presidential candidate – if you are a woman, the burden of looking a certain way is disproportionately higher than on a man. While his looks also matter, he has a much wider range to draw from – whether it is the beard and disheveled hair or the clean-shaven slick look, they all fit in with the perception of masculinity. Whereas for women, beauty and definitions of femininity are getting more and more standardised across the globe – light skin, high cheekbones, plump lips, smooth thick hair, flat tummy, thin body and more. Moreover, if you have the money, these looks can also be bought. The growing disparity in wealth means expensive creams, cosmetic surgery and makeover outfits are more affordable to the rich, making them look more “perfect”.

Layers of dilemma

How did we get to this point where women unconsciously define themselves by such narrow standards? How did it start, what perpetuates it, and who curates the evolving standards, constantly glorifying them? A woman friend recently commented, “The fact men want to see women at any age, with no body hair and with rosy cheeks and a skinny frame, makes me believe that there is a fetish for prepubescent attributes.” Whether this is true or not, there is no question that many obvious industries – cosmetics, advertising, clothing, films and media – as well as those with less overt connections to women’s appearances contribute in making that certain look compulsory. So much rides on appearances that even those of us who seem to have more agency are unable to escape it. Women at large seem to have internalised these expectations. And this makes it so insidious.

'Before every event I have had to think about what to wear and how I should look. And these thoughts have always made me uncomfortable'. Photo courtesy Nandita Das
'Before every event I have had to think about what to wear and how I should look. And these thoughts have always made me uncomfortable'. Photo courtesy Nandita Das

When I began peeling the layers of this dilemma, with that same friend, I assumed someone with her intelligence and beauty would have had similar coming of age experiences as I had. She must have grown up with confidence, freedom and enough attention. But to my surprise, she had a completely different story to tell. As a teenager, the hair on her face and body, which did not fit into the standard notion of feminine beauty, was a major obstacle. She adopted the grooming practices late which significantly altered her sense of self and therefore her experiences. What hit me was when she said, “Right up to my twenties, I felt inadequate. At the time, all I longed for was something more encompassing – not just dating, but the development of my core identity as a ‘legitimate’ woman. This deeply impacted my ability for a rather long time to feel free, unselfconscious and confident in all social settings, not just in romantic or sexual relationships.”

Research shows many young women feel some form of anxiety or depression about their bodies. I, as most women who multitask relentlessly, have yet another thing to juggle, manage, optimise and worry about. It is easy to say looks don’t matter when you somewhat have them or have the resources to acquire them. The rest have to struggle to fit in, in the best way they can. So while we navigate through these pressures of fulfilling desires, making choices, struggling with how much or how little to pander to the male gaze, some fundamental questions continue to trouble me. Can we redefine femininity in a way that gives each of us more freedom to be and look the way we want? Can we not be seen as two-dimensional objects but as complete people who are more than a face or a body? More importantly, can we not break the stereotypes of gender binaries and embrace its fluidity? Many questions and too few answers. March 8 could be a day when we can be ourselves, fully and unapologetically. We will have to begin somewhere, sometime.

Also read: Dye another day: Why more and more Indian women are embracing their grey hair

Watch: This short film calls out toxic gender and racial stereotypes in advertisements