Nothing is personal because everything is political. But at the same time, nothing is political because everything is personal. When personal becomes political, the political becomes personal.
I always felt that there was something wrong. I couldn’t understand what exactly was wrong, but I always felt it. I am a simple person: I wear simple clothes and I don’t wear make-up.I rarely go to the beauty parlor. That’s how I have always been. This was a nightmare for some relatives of mine because this is not exactly ‘feminine.’ They thought that shaming me was the only way to ‘help’ me. There was a time before coming to Mumbai where I was given a lecture about fitting in. Girl, you have to be stylish. If you don’t change yourself, you won’t survive. Girls MUST behave/think/dress/look like this. The problem was that it wasn’t just advice. It was a threat. It was not the content but the tone of the voice. Advice often has words like “you can also” or “maybe you can try” etc. Threats often have words like “must” “otherwise” etc. Of course, you can make a threat and say that you are giving advice. There is a colloquial word for it: GYAAN.
I have absolutely no problem with other women wearing make-up or dressing up. In fact, I compliment them and even admire their beauty. I don’t feel the need to compete with them. I feel that we all have our own strengths, so why does everybody have to win the beauty contest? But you know when I feel that something is wrong? When you are told that you are wrong for something that is not even objective. When you tell me that your idea of how a woman or a man or anyone else is some sort of objective truth. I always felt that people like these are like religious fanatics. This book actually gives you evidence that conventional ideas about beauty are exactly like religion.
Remember the religious age where people felt ashamed for pursuing pleasure? Naomi Wolf has a theory about our obsession with beauty: she says that during the religious age, the patriarchal system oppressed women through scriptures, ideas about purity, etc. That’s why, women were expected to be virgins and they had to manage household chores. But after the industrial revolution and the market opening up, things changed. Women started working and their sexuality was no longer a taboo. So, institutions came up with another idea to oppress women: the beauty myth. Now, women are made to feel ashamed of their bodies, their looks. Why? So that they can buy products and services to be perfect. No, we are not talking about cosmetics that women buy out of free-will. We are talking about obsession and shame. Women are made to feel so ashamed that they have to resort to plastic surgeries and inhumane dieting plans. Naomi’s brilliance lies in the way she draws parallels: Religion was all about ‘sacrificing’ your pleasure. When religion was popular, people (especially women) sacrificed sexual pleasure. Now, women are asked to sacrifice food. The way the society treats a fat or a ugly man and a fat or a ugly woman is NOT EQUAL. The oppressive surgeries that some women undergo to look beautiful can be compared to things people did to please God.
Here’s the worst part about all this: you might think that if you look beautiful (by society’s standards), problems will be solved. Here’s the news: No, they won’t. And THAT’S the game plan here. If you are pretty and achieve something amazing, people will say that you achieved because you are pretty. Either you slept to get to the top or people simply let you move up because you are a nice poster girl. And if you are ugly, people will say that your achievements won’t matter because…you are ugly! If you are pretty feminist, people will focus on your looks. If you are an ugly feminist, people will focus on your looks.
You might argue that things are changing. Even men are under tremendous pressure to look great these days and your point is valid. Naomi says that this is not feminism’s goal. Feminism is not about reversing the oppression or making the oppression equal. In fact, she states that there is no need for hierarchy. She passionately urges us to respect each other’s subjective worlds. Hierarchy is needed in an objective world and beauty and sexuality are all about perceptions.
Wolf admits that the people who sell products and services that promote low self esteem do so because of OUR demand. So, individually, we all need to change. What is the most revolutionary thing that you can do? According to Wolf, it is looking into the mirror and not feeling ashamed. Asking the world to respect you for exactly who you are. Don’t be apologetic. Respect other women’s subjective worlds as well. When women start co-operating instead of competing (that girl is more attractive than me!), things change.
I think I now understand why I felt that there was something ‘wrong’ with that advice that I got from some people. It was not the advice per se that affected me but their desire to convert me and make me accept their version of truth. It’s not about make-up or anything else. It’s about freedom. Since freedom makes people afraid, they try to discourage you by shaming you or mocking you. But Wolf asks you to not take the insults or the flattery personally. Because everything is political.
I have written so much and yet, there is so much in this book. I don’t think any human being can remain unaffected after reading it. There are times when you feel that the writer is becoming repetitive. There are times when you feel that the writer is going a little overboard. But there is a lot of truth. Let’s remember that truth never hurts. It’s illusions that always hurt. The beauty myth is one of the biggest illusions that we all chase.
P.S. Thanks to The Ladies Finger and my friend who introduced me to this feminist reading list (Click).