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The Cult of Perfection

entertainment Updated: May 01, 2011 12:47 IST
Rukhmini Punoose
Rukhmini Punoose
Hindustan Times
Hrithik Roshan

“Can you see those awful stretch marks on Malaika’s stomach? What’s the point of looking so good in a dress if your skin looks like that under it,” a bottle blonde stranger in a leopard print jumpsuit whispered conspiratorially to me.

I was at a party in Mumbai, with a mad amalgam of artists, designers, bankers, filmmakers, businessmen and fashionistas in attendance. With Judith Leibers clutched tightly against Hervé Léger bandage dresses and Louboutin-clad feet being crossed, what was making the evening a little surreal was the free flowing Bollinger, the heady mix of cocktails and the tiny white pills that promised happiness.

It was then that I was accosted by what seemed like a big cat on the prowl who had decided to air her views on an unsuspecting guest’s body. This was typical at these parties where people you barely knew think it is acceptable to sidle up to you and comment on how you and others look. They even manage to slip in a tone of concern. If, God forbid, your brow gets furrowed, they will touch your forehead and click their tongues vexedly (which, thanks to Botox, is now the only means they have to show disapproval) and say, “why don’t you get rid of these lines darling, I know a fabulous guy.”

The pressure to look good constantly

The pressure to look good constantly

The extent of Commenting unfavourably on people’s appearances has now become de rigueur. It has reached the point that the social expectation is that even lay people have to always be well turned out and perfectly coiffured. Their nails have to be buffed till they shine and not an extra inch of fat should be on display. Botox and fillers should banish age and no cowardice should be exhibited at the idea of underarm surgery so the sweat ring daren’t appear on that couture dress.



The pressure to look good constantly has gotten so bad that many celebrities and socialites will just not step out of their homes without makeup, a blow dry and a designer outfit on, even if they are just running errands.



India is still a far cry from Hollywood where publications like

The National Enquirer

or

The Star

pay photographers $2 million to catch a celebrity wearing sweat pants, with a tyre of fat or a zit on display. In fact, international A-listers are so paranoid about being caught off-guard that Victoria Beckham apparently once said that she wakes up three hours before she takes her children to school to do her hair, makeup, clothes and accessories. Just so she can look the part for the paparazzi when she drops the kids off at the school gate.

But between Facebook, Twitter, blogging and even the mobile phone camera, the chance of catching an Indian celebrity unawares is high. It doesn’t help that Indian websites and blogs like High Heel Confidential and Miss Malini can be relentless in their criticism and fashion policing.

Delhi-based Kalyani Saha, vice president, marketing and communications, Christian Dior, says she feels the heat too. “I have been on best dressed and most stylish lists for so many years now that you begin to feel like you have to live up to it 24-7,” she says.

This new cult of perfection didn’t exist until five years ago. Medi-spas offering all kinds of nips and tucks, non-surgical facelifts and spot fat reduction have proliferated all over the country. Celebrity image consultants, stylists and personal trainers now make far more money than bankers, accountants and lawyers. It is a sign of our times that dieticians now drive the 7-series BMWs and are better known than many of our politicians.

Victoria Beckham
Victoria Beckham apparently said she wakes up three hours before she takes her children to school to do her hair, makeup, clothes and accessories.
Says Geeta Rao, beauty director of Vogue magazine, "The Indian concept of beauty and body image has undergone a complete change. We are buying into a thinner, taller, less buxom silhouette. Western images of models and actresses have influenced our perception of what is beautiful. Earlier, people were far more accepting of their natural flaws. Now, if someone has an issue with a particular feature or a body part, they are willing to fix it via cosmetic or surgical intervention. Everyone wants to look good."

But fashion photographer Colston Julian thinks it’s about time that celebrities understood how to dress well. “You cannot wear Zara and H&M to red carpet events. Those are high street brands. Even mid-level wannabe models and actresses have understood this and are dressing in Armani, Dior and D&G. I see a lot of fakes though and it’s so embarrassing because you can tell. Celebs will carry a fake LV bag or Omega watch. Fake shoes are also a big trend. The peer pressure to wear brands is ridiculous,” he says.

Consequently, many celebrities dress very carefully when they know photographers will be present. Saha is known for her immaculate dress sense, but even she has on occasion borne the brunt of blogger sarcasm. “I love High Heel Confidential. They know their job and their fashion but what is hilarious and very insightful are the comments from people who follow this site. I am criticised for some hat I am wearing or a clutch I am carrying. When I know I’m going to be photographed, I dress for these websites these days. And if I make a faux pas now I just make it into a trend,” she laughs.

What Saha calls innocent banter is actually ruthless commentary. Blogs like Miss Malini and fashion magazines have also been criticised for putting pressure on celebrities to not repeat clothes, handbags and shoes. “If some Page 3 type wears the same sandals to two events, the poor girl is made out to be a fashion catastrophe,” says fashion and advertising photographer Atul Kasbekar.

TV and media personality Pooja Bedi says, “A lot of people feel stressed about not wearing the same outfit to multiple events or lending clothes to siblings because the websites publish images saying, ‘look who wore her sister’s clothes’. It’s ridiculous to buy something for one-time utility. Letting these blogs get to you is a huge cost to your personal, financial and emotional well being.”

What is really ironic is that even the usually self-assured give in to attacks of self-doubt because of the pressure. Anaita Shroff Adajania is the fashion director of Vogue India, as well as a stylist to stars like Hrithik Roshan, Bipasha Basu, Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Yet, when she first accepted the job at Vogue, she found herself feeling the pressure to look a certain way. “Vogue is an institution and I struggled a bit to play and look the part, especially when I went to fashion shows abroad and everyone was carrying the right bag and was in labels from head to toe,” she says.

It took advice from an unexpected quarter for Adajania to realise that the important thing was to be true to herself. “Tarun Tahiliani told me, ‘Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Be who you are.’ And I find myself going back to that a lot.”

Adajania refuses to let the pressure to look beautiful get to her, but she admits to not being averse to liposuction. “I love natural beauty, love natural flaws and am genuinely bored by people looking alike because they are all so Botoxed. Botox can become like a disease. So much so, that people eventually don’t even look like the celebrity you fell in love with. No one admits it but many do some form of surgical or non-surgical intervention to fight age or improve their features. Personally, I wouldn’t touch my face, it’s too sacred, but if someone promised me washboard abs through lippo, I’d say, bring it on.”

Many socialites feel the same way and most have promised themselves a little surgery to fight the onslaught of gravity. One was fairly candid about her many sojourns to surgeons who have promised her perkier breasts, slimmer arms and a flat stomach. “But my friends say, just buy the best underwear and Spanx money can buy and sub kuch apne aap khada rahega,” she says optimistically.

With people willing to do whatever it takes to keep age firmly in check, even at the cost of losing the expression on their face, Botox has come in for severe criticism. Delhi-based celebrity cosmetic dermatologist Dr Chiranjiv Chhabra, however, defends the injectable protein, saying administering Botox and fillers is an art form. “Sometimes celebrities can be very stubborn about how much they want injected. I always ask them if they want their lines eradicated or softened. If we put about 25 units of Botox around the eyes, it looks very natural. The problem is, stars are so insecure about their lines showing that they want 40-50 units injected and so they end up looking expressionless.” She runs the Skin Alive clinics in Delhi and says most of the top Bollywood actress and many of the actors are on her patient list.

Anaita
Anaita Shroff Adajania is the fashion director of Vogue India, as well as a stylist to several A-listers.
"All of them come to me saying, ‘I have a red carpet event, party or a premiere to attend, make me look fabulous.’ It takes me a month to work on their complexions, skin colour and texture. We also have lasers that work on melting fat and can make them lose three inches on their waist and thighs in a month."

This need to have the perfect body really started when international fashion brands began coming to India, says Nisha Jhangiani, fashion director at Verve magazine. “These brands have clothes that are sized to western body types and if celebs want to wear a Dior or Louis Vuitton dress and aren’t super slim, it can be embarrassing, especially if they can’t get into the clothes at a shoot. The extra weight gets translated on camera and it registers instantly. If I’m putting Priyanka Chopra or Kareena Kapoor on the cover of Verve, I know they can fit into anything but I can’t put Vidya Balan into a Dior gown, so she has to wear Sabyasachi,” she adds.

It is well known that stars who have to showcase their bodies for shoots will stop eating rice and chapatis for months, go on lauki juice diets, maple syrup diets, grapefruit diets, watermelon and sesame seed diets and not put a bite of food into their mouth after 5.30 pm. They are even known to go so far as to not drink water for a few days prior to a shoot where they need to show muscle tone, says fitness expert Zarine Watson.

Watson trains Lara Dutta, Malaika Arora, Sonam Kapoor and a host of other socialites who want to regain their pre-pregnancy bodies or drop several dress sizes. She often has to counsel people who tell her they want to be size zero. “You have to work out consistently and you cannot starve,” she says firmly. She also has clients asking her for advice on liposuction. “I tell them that if you have tried to eat correctly and exercise but you still have sagging skin on the mid-section that is stopping you from wearing a bikini or ghagra choli, get it done. Science has made those advances. I’m not against cosmetic surgery.”

Kasbekar, who shoots the Kingfisher Calendar girls, is clear that models who have to wear bikinis have to be amazingly fit. “We put them on relentless diets for several months and tie up with gyms where they have to train like maniacs. If your face and body are your fortune, there is no excuse to slack off,” he declares. He adds however, that he has never seen Indian models cut back on eating the way US models do. “I’ve heard American models say things like, ‘oh my gosh, I just ate a whole banana.’ I don’t ever see that happening here.”

However some dieticians here can be brutal. There are those like Dr Sarita Davare who ask clients to strip and lie on a bed where she sticks acupuncture needles into their stomach and thighs and then allows them to drink only lauki juice for days on end. Farah Khan and Sonu Nigam are said to swear by her, and there is a stampede of models, actors and socialites waiting to be treated by Dr Davare. (One socialite admitted ruefully to wanting to kill everyone around her after being on the diet for two days.)

The same socialite confesses she went to Davare because she had gained so much baby weight that she was relegated to wearing kurtis and pants at parties, instead of her usual bodycon dresses. “You can’t wear Indian clothes to social dos in Mumbai. It’s considered very unsophisticated. Be prepared to get no attention from men if you do,” she says. “Even husbands make it clear to wives that they expect them to gym and look ramp-ready.”

This often leads to serious competitiveness at soirees, with socialites trying to outdo each other’s clothes, accessories, even who looks best in photographs. Party photographer Richard Pereira who shoots society pictures for magazines like Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar says he has hell to deal with if a woman he has shot thinks she looks fat.

“They will pose in what they think is their best angle, suck in their stomachs, ask me to ensure their paunch and double chin are not showing and immediately want to check what the picture looks like. If they aren’t happy they ask me to delete it or complain that I made another woman look so much better. They ask me repeatedly to touch up their skin and Photoshop out double chins or folds of skin on their neck,” he says, grinning.

Kasbekar says requests like this are pretty routine. “Mercifully most of the women I shoot are in good shape and very beautiful,” he says, laughing. “I have no moral issues with evening out skin tone, removing wrinkles or doing the odd nip and tuck, which is a lot less painful than surgery.” Not everyone looks at the pressure to look good as necessarily negative. Some like Kalyani Saha believe it is disgraceful to show up sloppily dressed at a party as it’s disrespectful to your host. Pooja Bedi agrees. “It’s about being the best you possibly can be and it is wonderful to make that extra effort to look fabulous,” she says.

So whether you’re a celebrity who has to be camera ready at all times or just someone who wants to look her best, society’s new diktats force you to think through how far you would be willing to go in your quest for beauty and perfection.

The fat buster for an emergency
If you have a snobby party to attend and know that you will look like an MRF ad in your slinky dress, here’s a little secret that is part of the celebrity party uniform. Buy a top-notch corset from a brand that knows what it’s doing (Spanx, Body Wrap, Dr Reys, Flexees). This lycra wonder product lops off an easy 2-3 inches on the thighs, stomach and back. But do not settle for cheap body shapers or you will walk around like a robot.

Of course, buying it is the easy part. Getting into it is a whole different karmic test. Huffing and puffing as you squeeze your body into granny panties is unsightly, so firmly push the love interest out of the bedroom so he remains the love interest. Now proceed to wriggle in (do not use body lotion before you do this, that is a recipe for disaster). Once in, don’t worry if you feel chest pains, palpitations or turn slightly blue. That’s normal. Enjoy the party.

- From HT Brunch, May 1

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