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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Just say no

To the insane standards of ‘beauty’ that all women are expected to aspire to

By now, you've probably heard of the idiots at the Cannes Film Festival who refused to allow women who were not wearing heels on to the red carpet. And also, that the ladies who were turned away included a woman who had had part of her foot amputated. It beggars belief, doesn't it?

I would have thought that all those female actresses who take such pride in calling themselves 'actors' to strike a blow against sexism, would have been up in arms at this kind of sexist stupidity. But bar Emily Blunt, who said that the decision was 'very disappointing' (you don't say!) none of the women in attendance at the Festival seemed unduly perturbed. Of if they were, in fact, incensed, they did a marvellous job of hiding their outrage.

Instead, it was business as usual at the Festival, as the ladies, primped and polished to within an inch of their lives, paraded the red carpet in low necklines and high heels, teetering past the banks of cameras, precariously perched on five-inch stilettos.

How amazing would it have been if they had ditched the vertiginous shoes in solidarity with their flats-wearing sisters, and turned up instead in comfortable mules to do red carpet duty? I would have loved to see if the Heels Police at Cannes would dare turn away Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Julianne Moore, or for that matter, Emily Blunt herself, if they were the ones in flats.

But no, even that small act of rebellion was denied us. Instead, all the actresses at Cannes slipped into their sky-high heels quite ignoring the fact that they would have stood much taller if they had opted for flats instead.

Frankly, I am disappointed. Not just with the lack of protest at Cannes but by the fact that women are still expected to adhere to societally-imposed norms of how they should and should not look. They must be groomed. They must be well-dressed. They mustn't look their age. They must dye their hair. They must be thin. They must wax all that unsightly bodily hair off. And, of course, they must wear high heels.

Who made up these rules, anyway? And why, way into the 21st century, are we adhering to these antiquated notions of how women must present themselves to the world? Why do we not rail against the notion that it behoves the female of the species to dress in a way that appeals to the male gaze? Why do we accept that we must suffer in order to be beautiful? Why should pain and discomfort be the price we pay for being admired?

I wish more women would ask these questions. And that they would at least try to look for some answers. But rather than do that, we fall into the Beauty Trap.

We book monthly wax appointments. And the body parts which must never be allowed to stay hairy increases every year. It started off with underarms, arms and legs. Then, backs and stomachs were insidiously coopted into the no-hair area.  And now even our erogenous zones must be completely hairless so that we look like pre-pubescent girls rather than grown women.

Even beautiful women are not exempt from the no-hair regulation. Remember the media storm when megastar Julia Roberts turned up at a film premiere in a sleeveless dress, and raised her arm to wave at her fans, allowing them to feast their eyes on her long, luxuriant, underarm hair. You would have thought she had murdered a cat given the violent reactions to that fleeting glimpse of hair.

Waxing is just the beginning of our extreme-maintenance regimes, though. In addition, we are expected to never go above a certain weight. Cue, extreme diets that exclude major food groups and a punishing exercise regime to get that trim stomach and taut butt. If we fall short, well then, we get Spanxed as punishment. And it is punishment, as anyone who has ever attempted to squeeze into that instrument of torture will attest.

If you attain a certain age, then the anti-ageing industry targets you with a vengeance, with its arsenal of anti-ageing creams, potions, lotions, serums, and what have you. God forbid that you get a single line on your face, be it laugh lines around your eyes of frown lines on your forehead. No, no, no. They must be erased by all means known to medicine, from laser treatments and glycolic peels to Botox and Restylene.

That's not counting the Fashion Nazis. You know, the ones you insist that you remain on-trend no matter what. You must move from jeggings to boyfriend jeans and back again. Saris only work with trendy blouses (if you don't want to look like a behenji). No open-toed sandals unless you've had a pedicure. And palazzo pants are out this season (for God's sake, you in that crummy T-shirt, do keep up!). And then, of course, there is the Heels Police, to treat you like a criminal if you choose to wear a comfortable pair of shoes instead of something that wouldn't look out of place in an S&M fantasy film.

Word to the wise. Do not feed this beast. When even someone as gorgeous as Aishwarya Rai can fall foul of its standards (especially when she is carrying a little baby weight), what chance do you and I have? Back away quietly and no one gets hurt.

Take my advice. Just say no. To all of the above. All you have to lose are your special creams, your stilettos and that annual subscription to that fashion glossy. In their stead, you will rediscover your self-esteem and self-respect. Now, that's a trade-off worth its price in fluffy slippers.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Best friends forever

You may ignore the importance of female friendships – but you certainly can’t deny it

Over the last few days I have been immersed in Elena Ferrante’s novel, My Brilliant Friend. The book is best summed up as an ode to female friendship, with all its ups and downs, highs and lows, tantrums and tears, laughter and fear. The story revolves around two young girls, Lenu and Lina, growing up in a rough neighbourhood in Naples, who establish a wary friendship as children. But in telling their tale through the prism of the traumas and triumphs of their relationship, Ferrante delves deep into some of the universal truths of the nature of friendship (and its limits).

Reading it late into the night, I began to think about how much we neglect the importance of same-sex friendships because of our very modern obsession with romantic love (or even sexual desire). But however much we ignore it, we cannot deny the importance of friendship in our lives: the relationship of a child with an elderly neighbour; of a teacher with a favourite pupil; of the man who lives alone with his dog; and of course, that which springs up between two women.

Of all of these, female friendships are the most special, I think (yes, yes, I know, that makes me a sexist so-and-so). And never is their intensity more marked than in childhood and adolescence – that is, before romantic love rears its unruly head.

I still remember my first day at school, kitted out in a strange new uniform, knees knocking together with nerves, my heart pounding with fear of the unknown horrors lying in wait for me in the schoolroom. My only comfort was the presence of my ‘best friend’ who was starting school the same time as me. We clung together as if our lives depended on it, sitting at adjoining desks, sharing our tiffins at break time, and as the final bell sounded, making a break for freedom. We had survived the first day of school. Things could only get better from now on.

And they did. We got to know our classmates. We lost our mortal fear of our teacher. We played hide-and-seek in the lunch hour. Slowly but surely we made other friends. And by the time we finished school we were part of two very different groups. But the memories of that first day in school ensured that the bonds of our friendship never really loosened no matter how much they frayed.

It’s often said that your closest friends are the ones you make in school. And certainly, adolescent girls can get rather intense about their feelings for one another, especially in all-girl schools. Younger girls develop ‘crushes’ on their seniors; not in a creepy, hyper-sexualized way, but in the sense of idolizing them, hanging on their every word, even imitating the way they look and dress. As for the seniors, their emotional lives are in turmoil as well, as ‘best friends’ are made and unmade, quarrels take on epic proportions and end in teary make-up sessions. It’s almost like a love affair, with all of the love but minus the affair.

And then, come the actual love affairs. That’s when the real dramas start. There’s the jealousy that your best friend now has a boyfriend. There’s the judgement when you really can’t work out what she sees in that jerk. Or even worse, you can see all too well why she likes him; it’s just that you can’t figure out why he likes her when he should really be liking you. I know, it’s exhausting stuff! But the good part is that your friendship survives this tricky phase, you will probably be friends for life.

Until, of course, you put children in the mix. That really is the breaking point of most female friendships. When one of the two gets married and starts breeding and the other is too busy conquering the work world, that’s when the tensions kick in. It is not that anyone is judging the other for her life choices. It is just that as time goes on, the two erstwhile best friends realize that they have less and less in common with one another.

The harried mother can no longer party as she used to. The driven career woman has no real appetite for baby sick and dirty diapers. Slowly but surely, both women gravitate towards those they can better relate to. One makes friends with other new mothers in her baby group; the others gets closer to work colleagues. They still remain friends with one another but become more and more absent from each other’s lives. 

But perhaps the most enduring of female friendships are those that are made in mid-life. They could be made at work, at the local club, with the wives of your husband’s friends, or even at the gym; the context doesn’t really matter. What matters is that by now you are sure of what kind of person you are, and what you are looking for in a friend. You no longer have the patience – or, indeed the time – for hypocrisy and manipulation. You are not interested in playing games or even indulging in a bit of one-upmanship. All you are looking for is a friend who will look out for you. And once you find her, you will never ever let go.

And as the two of you grow old together, comparing pregnancy scars, discussing hot flushes, moaning about your husband or children, bitching about the boss, giggling over mojitos at your weekly girlie lunches, or just watching a movie at the neighbourhood multiplex, remember to give a thanks to female friendships. They really are the best.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Compliments of the season

There is an art to both doling out praise and receiving it

Last night I met some old friends for dinner. It had been a long day and I really couldn’t be bothered to dress up. And besides, with old friends you don’t need to, do you? So, I pulled out an old black Anokhi kurta (my go-to outfit for all I-can’t-really-be-bothered occasions), now almost grey through over-use, pulled on a pair of jeans and headed out.

So, imagine my surprise when the nice English lady at the next table leaned over and said, “I love what you’re wearing.”

“Oh, this old thing,” I replied, startled into candour. “I’ve had it so long, it’s practically falling apart.”

She started to laugh. I looked rather taken aback (as indeed, I was). At my enquiring gaze, she replied, still chuckling, “I just can’t get over how English that response is. That’s exactly what we’d say back home if someone praised an outfit. ‘Oh, this old thing’.”

I smiled weakly and turned back to my pasta primavera. It was too complicated to explain that this really was an ‘old thing’. That I had had it for years and worn it to near-death. And besides, explaining would look as if I was ‘protesting too much’ (also a very ‘English response’, no doubt). So, it was probably for the best to smile and move on.

But that little exchange got me thinking. What is the right way to receive a compliment? Getting all self-deprecatory and going “Oh, this old thing”? Or being gracious and responding with a heartfelt, “Thanks so much”?

I have to say that my instinctive responses fall into the first category. If someone tells me that I look as if I’ve lost weight, I protest wildly that I weighed myself just this morning and that is Simply Not True. If a dish I have made elicits some praise, I hasten to assure everyone that “Really, I’m not much of a cook”. If anyone says they enjoy reading my column, I smile weakly and mutter, “Oh, you are far too kind!”

And yes, if someone compliments me on what I’m wearing, I rarely ever respond with a simple ‘thank you’. Instead, I rush in with a veritable flurry of idiotic comebacks. “Oh, I got this from Marks and Spencer. Such good value!” “Oh yes, this works well in the summer.” “But I love what YOU are wearing!” Or the ever-reliable standby: “This old thing. I’ve had it for years.”

None of this, now that I think about it, is the right response to someone who is giving you a compliment. The graceful thing would be to acknowledge the praise, say ‘Thank you so much’ and move on. Instead, I end up either embarrassing the other person into thinking he/she has committed some sort of social solecism (‘How dare you say I am looking thinner? I know you are just making this stuff up because you think it will make me feel good”) or indicating that I don’t really value their judgement (“Can’t you recognize a tattered old kurta when you see one?”). Or worse, I act as if receiving a compliment implies a duty to reciprocate in kind (“Your earrings looks amazing”) which only makes me come off as an insincere sod.

In retrospect, as I re-examine those encounters, I probably ended up seeming prickly, defensive, insecure and yes, insincere, to all those who took the trouble to compliment me. And to them (you know who you are, all three of you!) I offer my sincere apologies and the promise to do better next time. In fact, I am going to practice my ‘thank yous’ in front of the mirror every night before going to bed.

There’s just one exception: those who seem to be paying you a compliment but manage to slip in an insult in the subtext. You know the kind I mean, don’t you? “Wow, you are looking so amazing. You really are good at make-up, aren’t you?” “Your daughter is so pretty. Good thing she takes after your mother-in-law.” “What great food at the dinner last night. You really must give me the number of your caterer.” Or even that old stand-by, “You look so much thinner! Have you been dieting?” guaranteed to make the other person wonder just how fat he/she looked before.

Of course, if you put these people – who specialize in putting a sting in the tail – to the test, they would protest that they were completely sincere in their praise. And that you really should not be so ‘sensitive’ or ‘quick to take offence’. But anyone who has been at the receiving end of their loaded ‘compliments’ knows better.

See, just as there is an art to receiving a compliment, there is also an art to giving one. And if you want a simple, heartfelt ‘thank you’ then you should desist from lacing your compliments with even the merest suspicion of malice.

So, how about you try this. Tell a woman she looks amazing, but desist from adding ‘for your age’. Compliment a man on his leather jacket; don’t add that he is ‘very brave’ to wear that. If you are praising the food someone served at dinner, don’t imply that it was anything other than the handiwork of the hostess/host. And don’t, for God’s sake, mention the mother-in-law!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Book your break

Here’s a list of cracking reads for when you finally take off on your summer vacation

So, we’re into the month of May, that time of year when our thoughts inexorably veer towards that most-longed-for vacation: the summer break. But banish that glazed look in your eyes for a moment. I am not going to lecture you about how to get the perfect beach body or hold forth on how best to pack those long dresses that take you effortlessly from day to night. Nor am I going to dazzle with all the names of the must-visit destinations that you simply must visit. And I certainly have no advice on how to get there, or what to do and where to eat once you do.

What I have for you instead is something that is simply vital for every holiday: a list of books to take along and dip into as you sit for hours on an airplane, sunbathe on the beach, relax by the pool, or laze in bed. And no, I am not going to mention the usual suspects. By now, I am sure anyone who has any interest in reading has gobbled up Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train, or whatever the bestseller du jour is. 

Instead I present, in no particular order of importance, a short list of all the authors that I love, and whose books you might enjoy reading during your break. (The fact that they are all women is just a happy accident.)

Nora Ephron: There is no way you can possibly go wrong with Nora Ephron. If you enjoy fiction, you can kick back with the classic that started it all, Heartburn, the witty and sometimes darkly humorous chronicle of the end of a marriage. If you prefer non-fiction, you can immerse yourself in Ephron’s sparkling essays like the one that explains why I Feel Bad About My Neck. No matter what book you choose, your can depend on Ephron to keep you suitably entertained (not to mention entranced). 

Harper Lee: Now that the reclusive author is about to publish her second novel, Go Set A Watchman, a sequel to her first that came out 55 (yes, that’s right, 55) years ago, it may be time to pick up your tattered old copy of To Kill A Mockingbird and refresh your memories of Atticus Finch and his daughter, Scout. You can then catch up with the adult Scout in the new book as she journeys back to visit her father in the new book (which was actually written before To Kill A Mockingbird but then put away and forgotten).

Elizabeth Jane Howard: She is probably the most underrated novelist of her time, her fame eclipsed by her one-time husband, Kingsley Amis. But don’t let that deter you. Howard is a masterly storyteller and her tetralogy of novels, five books making up the Cazalet Chronicles, tracing the life of an upper-class English family over three generations, is a fantastic read.

Kate Atkinson: She does family drama too, but so very differently. There is sometimes a gentle elegiac quality to her writing, which draws into you into the story, but it is always leavened with wit and humour. And sometimes there is a darkly brooding atmosphere that can be truly unsettling. If at all possible, try and read her trilogy of crime novels featuring ex-policeman Jackson Brodie, in order.

Jodi Picoult: As regular readers of this column will know, she is an old favourite of mine and a reliable standby when it comes to page-turners that don’t demand too much of you (my definition of a holiday read, when it comes to that). Her latest, Leaving Time, was a bit patchy but if you haven’t read some of her earlier books – Change Of Heart, Perfect Match, Keeping Faith – you are in for a treat.

Philippa Gregory: If historical fiction is your thing, then Gregory is your woman. And her novels set in the Tudor and Plantagenet period are quite unique for being written from the perspective of her principal women characters, who have been quite ignored by history. But whether it is Elizabeth Woodville or Elizabeth of York, they all come alive in her books, as fully-rounded, fleshed-out characters who influence the course of medieval English history from their vantage points behind the throne.

Hilary Mantel: We’re still in historical fiction territory with her two latest bestsellers, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. But Mantel’s is a far more literary take on the subject than Gregory’s, though she manages to write page-turners just the same. She is the first person to tell the turbulent story of Henry VIII and his ill-fated love affair with Anne Boleyn from the perspective of the much-reviled Thomas Cromwell. And it is entirely a tribute to her writing skills that you begin to have a sneaking admiration for a man who was, by all historical accounts, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

Liane Moriarty: I came to discover her late, after she had written four books, but it was her fifth, the international bestseller, The Husband’s Secret, that really got me hooked. It begins with a suburban Australian wife stumbling upon a letter written by her husband with the exhortation that it only be read after his death. He is very much alive, but can she possibly resist opening the envelope? Read it to find out. Meanwhile I will be busy, delving into Moriarty’s new book, Big Little Lies, which I have earmarked for my own vacation.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Who's sari now?

Well, just about every woman who’s joined the #100sareepact

Rare is the Indian woman who doesn’t remember the first time she ever wore a sari, or indeed, the first sari she ever wore. All of us grew up playing with our mothers’ saris and draping them around us when she wasn’t looking, parading in front of her dressing table and fantasizing about how it would feel when we were grown up enough to wear them for real. In my case, my grandmother, who tended to treat me as her own real-life doll, would drape her saris around me for her personal amusement, even though the folds quite drowned my childish frame. And I loved every moment of it.

But that was just playtime. The first time I ever wore a sari out in public was serious stuff. It was the school farewell and the entire graduating class made a pledge to wear a sari to the party. After much agonizing back and forth between chiffon and cotton, printed or plain, I finally decided to go with the traditional option: a plain off-white silk with a red border. Called the garad in Bengal, this is the sari that has since been immortalized in the Dola Re Dola song sequence in Devdas, in which both Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai don the style worn by all Bengali women on Bijoya Dashimi as they participate in a ritual called Sindur Khela.

I can’t quite describe the thrill I felt when it was finally on. Looking at myself in the mirror to put on the finishing touch of a red bindi, I realized that I had never felt so beautiful, or even elegant, in my entire life. My teenage body suddenly seemed to acquire a sinuous grace that had until then been quite unknown to it. I stood straighter, I felt taller, and best of all, I looked like a grown up. In that moment, as I stood staring at the reflection of the stranger in the mirror, I made the transition from girl to woman (even if it was just in my own mind).

My story is far from unique. Ask any Indian woman and she will have a similar experience to narrate. For all of us, wearing a sari for the first time ever is a rite of passage. Most often, it happens for a special occasion: a family function, a wedding in the neighbourhood, a school social, a religious festival. And the process itself is marked by a sense of occasion. Everyone has an opinion on what kind of sari would be best, what sort of blouse would suit the most, whether the pallav should be worn seedha or ulta. Mothers and elder sisters fuss around as the sari is finally draped, while grandmoms get a bit teary in the background. And these days, no doubt, many selfies are taken to mark the occasion.

The sad part, however, is that these days for urban women like myself and those younger than me, the sari then gets relegated to the category of ‘special occasionwear’. We only pull it out when we have a special event in our lives: a presentation to the Big Boss; the college graduation; a friend’s engagement party; a child’s first birthday; a ten-year anniversary; a wedding. It’s only when we want to feel special that we drape a sari, folding ourselves into its special embrace. Otherwise, it’s all jeans and shirts, churidar-kurtas, salwar-kameezes, skirts and tops, short dresses. Oh, they’re so much more convenient, we tell ourselves, as we relegate our saris to that steel cupboard that never gets opened more than once a year.

Well, you know what? It’s time to change all that. It is time we reclaimed the sari for our own, and for the everyday – not just the special – moments of our lives. Not just because the elegance of the sari, the sensual beauty of its drape, would elevate even the most mundane day of our lives. Not just because the sari deserves its moment in the sun after spending decades in the darkness of the back of our closets. But because we need to reinforce its image as a living, breathing garment before our daughters and granddaughters dismiss it as a dead relic of the past, treating it as ‘costume-wear’ rather than ‘everyday-wear’ (like the Chinese treat the cheongsam or the Japanese the kimono).

If you are up for the task, then you can’t do better than join the #100sareepact . This is an initiative started by two Bangalore women, Ahalya (Ally) Mathan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, who made a pact between themselves to wear a hundred saris in 2015. They started a social media hashtag – which has since gone viral – to encourage other women to join in.

Joining the #100sareepact is simplicity itself. All you have to do is pledge to wear a sari on 100 days out of 365 (no, you don’t have to wear a hundred different saris; that would be plain silly), take a picture of yourself in the sari of the day and upload it on social media (Twitter, Facebook, or on www.10sareepact.com) with a small note on the sari itself, or the memories and stories attached with it for other women to share and comment on.

It’s been a week since I joined, and I have already chalked up five saris out of a 100. Several of my friends have too, and we haven’t had so much fun in a long time, as we bond over our saris and the stories that revolve around them. Come join the club. You have nothing to lose but those boring blue jeans!