Titanic star Kate Winslet, 40, insisted on a ‘no-photoshop’ clause last month when she signed up to become the face of the cosmetic brand Lancome. This is not her first run in with the photoshop-happy beauty industry. The actress, whom the thinness-obsessed fashion industry politely describes as “curvey”, was 27 when she took on an unrepentant British GQ in 2003 after they trimmed her legs and stomach to fit their emaciated Barbie-esque ideal of beauty.
Now, a little older and a lot wiser, Winslet insisted on a no-airbrushing clause because, she said, she wanted the younger generation to see her for who she really was, a strong successful woman who was happy in her skin.
She’s in a minority. Globally, only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful, with anxiety about how they look beginning in adolescence, found Dove’s The Real Truth About Beauty: Revisited survey. Nine out of 10 want to change at least one aspect of how they look, and close to three four girls (72%) said they felt tremendous pressure to be beautiful. The study, which was part of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, also found that only 11% of girls around the world were comfortable using the word beautiful to describe their looks.
The session on ‘The Beauty Debate’ at Tina Brown’s Women in the World India Summit in New Delhi, unfortunately skimmed over the controversies around the unrealistic role models fed by the fashion, film and media industries with most participants mouthing platitudes about inner beauty and uniqueness defining beauty.
Thought the panel has a representative mix of Bollywood, fashion and advertising –actor Soha Ali Khan, model Lakshmi Menon, filmmaker R Balki and Vogue India fashion director Anaita Shroff Adajania -- the debate was disappointingly pedestrian. Balki made predictable cracks about belonging to the ugly (male) species so finding everything outside himself beautiful, fashion director Adajania said magazine covers were made to sell without mentioning the photoshopping and touching-up involved in producing them, and Menon whined about the Indian fashion industry being obsessed with Bollywood and the West being more accepting of diversity without touching on the anorexic chic peddled on ramps. Even after the issue of the fashion industry becoming a manufacturing unit for polished diamonds was succinctly put in a short film aired in the session, the debate failed to take off.
The only one who acknowledged that conforming to beauty’s impossible standards was getting tougher by the day was Khan, who said most actors need two hours and at least three stylists to get ready. “Women (in films) don’t wake up with perfect make-up and hairdos anymore, but getting the ‘just out of bed’ look takes more than an hour,” she said, tongue fairly in cheek.
The new focus on fitness is the only plus, but like most other things in the appearance-obsessed industry, it often goes to unrealistic extremes. “My mother appeared in a bikini but says she didn’t have to worry about having the perfect body for it,” said Khan, referring to her actor mother Sharmila Tagore, who was the first Indian actor to appear in a bikini in the Bollywood 1967 classic, An Evening in Paris.
While the preference for pale skin remains in many parts of Asia, it’s the global obsession with thinness that’s making it impossible for an average woman to be trendy and healthy at the same time. Dissatisfaction comes from the assumptions that a body can be shaped at will so the only thing separating you and perfection is effort, and that an imperfect body reflects a lazy person. Add to that unrealistic body ideals and you have many women in conflict with their bodies.
Instead of making them consider healthier lifestyles, this conflict triggers self-destructive eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (chronic starving), bulimia (overeating followed by purging or vomiting), using laxative-based weight-loss pills and/or obsession with serial cosmetic reconstruction and fat-loss procedures. While full-blown eating disorders are rare, most women are looking to lose weight and under-eat more often than not.
Like Winslet, women have to stand up to pressure and rejected fashion ideals that promote size-zero body sizes. Unlike popular perception, anorexia is not just a diet plan gone wrong. It’s a sign that you need to stop trying to change how you look and accept who you are. Beauty comes in all forms and all you need to focus on is looking after yourself and putting your best foot forward. Whether you’re size zero or 16 is irrelevant if you are healthy and happy about yourself.