Two interesting phenomena intersected at the turn on the last century. Just as Indian women were becoming globally visible as winners of several international beauty pageants, the racialised body (non-white, brown, along with Arab) became visible as the Other in the aftermath of 9/11. This stark polarity marks the subject of a new book on South Asian diaspora community that studies how appearances make and unmake attitudes about beauty and what sort of people become public icons.

In her book Fashioning Diaspora, Vanita Reddy focuses on the study of appearance to understand how beauty and fashion, in the context of the South Asian diaspora in the United States, between 1989 and 2010, come to be explicitly linked to citizenship and belongingness. Her transnational feminist critique looks at certain South Asian American fiction and visual “texts” because these are symptomatic of the cultural, social, economic and political impact on the community.

The diaspora community offers a lens to explore the “itineraries of beauty and fashion”. This diaspora, being simultaneously both South Asian and American, is murkier for the tension it creates in tagging something as one or another.

Apart from showing that migration is a gendered experience and process, Reddy discusses beauty and fashion as domains of femininity that explicitly reflect that experience and process. Reddy argues and, indeed, demonstrates that gender and femininity, specifically beauty and fashion, explicitly affect the experience and process of migration.

Indian beauty versus American expectations

Bharti Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine, the starting point of Reddy’s study, depicts Indian beauty as closer to American features and equips the protagonist, an illegal migrant, with American citizenship. Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri weave in other aspects of globalised version of Indianness – characterised by a proliferation of beauty products and cosmetics and by the sexiness of the archetypal Bollywood heroine.

After the opening up to, and adaptation of, Western, consumerist make-up, there is an examination of “Indian” notions of beauty or ethnic sensibilities of dressing up in the texts Reddy studies next. It is also at this point that the book turns towards fashion –concrete instances to pinpoint the abstractness of beauty.

The characters in Pallavi Dixit’s story “Pageant” turn to the singing of the ghazal or the modest, unrevealing lehenga as indicators of “true” Indian beauty at the pageant of Miss India America. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel Neela puts the idea of Western dress and make-up to Indian use and appropriation. This trajectory, Reddy shows, ends with introspection as to beauty’s essentials after passing through sweeping celebration via vivid sexualisation!

The politics and the patriarchy

After Reddy analyses these encounters with beauty, she presents Swati Khurana’s experimental video Dothead and Prema Murthy’s fake pornography website Bindigirl as instances of feminist rage. She finds these texts taking over the feminine domain and politicising it to register a discomfort with racism and the either-goddess-or-whore categorization of female body and desire.

Reddy brings in Shailaja Patel’s solo performance Migritude to extend this taking charge of political space through the sari, and with a stance against heterosexual, procreative marriage in Indian patriarchal sensibility. Bringing together the applauding and demonising of South Asian attributes of appearance, Reddy asserts that “migrants with an attitude” (in Patel’s phrase) is a stage of feminist journey that started in mystifying stories of elusive Indian beauty.

Reddy has used an “assemblage” of diverse “texts” – literary fiction, chick-lit, performance art, visual art, fashion doll, etc. – that she finds both solid and implicitly or explicitly relevant to her feminist examination of beauty, connections cut across both media and differing aesthetics.

Reddy bases her study on the empirically valid assumption that beauty, fashion and habits of attire are “social domains through which to articulate diasporic belonging in a new global economy”, in other words, that people use beauty and fashion to express identity in a world where definitions are multifaceted.

Whether perceived as good-looking people or as potential terrorists, South Asian Americans find themselves subject subject to a level of inspection that makes them look within and examine how that inspection dramatises the way they carry themselves, literally in terms of dress. On the one hand, they consume the globalised, modern notions of beauty, and on the other, they retain patriarchal attitudes towards their women. This peculiarity makes them an interesting case study of how to combine a sense of ethnic belonging with cosmopolitan, Western civic sensibilities.

The same connections allow Reddy to extend her analysis to possible studies of differing expressions of masculinity. She concludes with a brief discussion of the Sikh turban as another symbol of appearance (and an ideal of good looks and tradition) and its mistaken association with the terrorist masculinities. What such a study in attributes of masculine appearance like clothing and fashionability might reveal remains to be seen.

Fashioning Diaspora: Beauty, Femininity, and South Asian American Culture, Vanita Reddy, Temple University Press.

Soni Wadhwa is a research scholar based in Mumbai.

This review first appeared on Asian Review of Books.